- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Brushing aside President Obama’s threat of more sanctions, Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimean region of Ukraine on Tuesday with the stroke of a pen, while NATO members criticized Washington for getting caught off guard by Russia’s military buildup.

As the Russian national anthem played and cheering lawmakers wept, Mr. Putin and Crimean leaders signed a treaty in Moscow to make Crimea part of the Russian Federation, only two days after the region held a disputed referendum enforced by Russian troops.

“In the hearts and minds of people, Crimea has always been and remains an inseparable part of Russia,” Mr. Putin said in a passionate speech, adding that he had no further ambitions for Ukrainian territory.

The annexation prompted a howl of protest in Kiev, where Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called it “a robbery on an international scale” and warned that the crisis was careening toward war.

The shooting death of a Ukrainian soldier in Crimea by a masked gunman brought accusations that Russia was committing war crimes.

Mr. Obama kept a low profile a day after he imposed sanctions on 11 Russian and Ukrainian officials. Vice President Joseph R. Biden, in Poland on a mission to calm anxious European leaders, denounced Russia’s “land grab” and warned Mr. Putin that the U.S. would issue more sanctions and defend its NATO allies.

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“We join Poland and the international community condemning the continuing assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the blatant violation of international law by Mr. Putin and Russia,” the vice president said in Warsaw.

Mr. Biden called Russia’s takeover of Crimea “an almost unbelievable set of events.”

His host, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, told Mr. Biden directly that Russia’s actions should not have come as a surprise, given Moscow’s significant increase in military spending.

“We have to take these simple data about the gigantic increase of the level of funding of the Russian armed forces as a challenge as well as a lesson to be learned for the future of the whole NATO,” Mr. Komorowski said.

Estonian President Toomas Ilves told Mr. Biden that Russia’s action in Crimea should be a wake-up call.

“We and NATO must draw our conclusions from Russia’s behavior in the current crisis; we need and must conduct a review of the entire range of NATO-Russia relations,” Mr. Ilves said, adding that the defense alliance’s principles toward Russia “don’t apply anymore.”

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“There is no more respect for territorial integrity, for transparency,” said Mr. Ilves, whose country, like Ukraine, is a former Soviet republic and has a higher percentage of ethnic Russians — 25 percent of the population to Ukraine’s 17 percent. The protection of ethnic Russians was one of Mr. Putin’s principal justifications for invading Crimea.

Mr. Ilves said he hoped that at the NATO summit in September, “we will have drawn our own conclusions and refocus on collective defense.”

Mr. Biden tried to reject the suggestion that the U.S., in the midst of defense cutbacks, was allowing Russia to gain a strategic advantage.

“Russia has increased their budget,” said Mr. Biden, looking directly at the Polish president. “But I want to remind you that you have an ally whose budget is larger than the next 10 nations combined. So while others may not have stood up to their responsibilities, the United States has more than stood up to its responsibilities. So don’t worry about where we are.”

The vice president said the U.S. was exploring “additional steps to increase the pace and scope of our military cooperation,” including rotating U.S. forces to the Baltic region to conduct exercises and training missions.

“Our intent is that NATO emerges from this crisis stronger and more unified than ever,” Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Ilves also sounded a note of discontent about the U.S.-led response with sanctions, saying some European leaders were reluctant to punish Russia out of fear that the Kremlin would retaliate by withholding oil and gas supplies.

“The response must be more robust than it has been,” Mr. Ilves said. “The response should not be about the price of gas; it must be about common values and the price of not adhering to those common values.”

Mr. Obama did call German Chancellor Angela Merkel and scheduled an emergency meeting of Group of Eight leaders, minus Russia, on the margins of another summit in Europe next week.

While the White House warned of more sanctions against Russian leaders and sought to unite Europe, even Mr. Obama’s aides wouldn’t say that they expected economic punishment to reverse Mr. Putin’s moves. As Mr. Obama looked for other ways to get Mr. Putin’s attention, he ordered Russian ally Syria on Tuesday to close its embassy in Washington and send its personnel home.

White House aides said the timing was coincidental and not related to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Press secretary Jay Carney said the action followed an announcement that the Syrian Embassy suspended its provision of consular services and that it was “in consideration of the atrocities” perpetrated by the regime of President Bashar Assad. The Syrian civil war is going on its fourth year, and more than 150,000 people have been killed.

The White House said it was imposing ever-higher economic costs on Russian officials through the sanctions, while Mr. Putin’s inner circle continued to mock the effort as a slap on the wrist.

Top Putin aide Vladislav Surkov, one of the seven Russian officials sanctioned, told a Russian newspaper that being on the U.S. blacklist is a “big honor” for him.

“The only things that interest me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock,” he said. “I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing.”

In a 47-minute speech to the Russian parliament, Mr. Putin vowed that he would protect Russia’s national security from Western provocations. He spoke of Russian frustrations, including ally Serbia’s defeat in the NATO air war in Kosovo in 1999 and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“Millions of Russians went to bed in one country and woke up abroad,” Mr. Putin said. “Overnight, they were minorities in the former Soviet republics, and the Russian people became one of the biggest — if not the biggest — divided nation in the world.”

Mr. Putin dismissed the West and particularly the U.S. for having “double standards” in conflicts such as Kosovo, which split from Serbia, and in Libya.

“It’s absolutely in favor of their own interests — black today, white tomorrow,” he said.

Despite Mr. Putin’s claims that Russia has no designs on the eastern parts of Ukraine — which also have significant Russian-speaking enclaves — his speech was applauded in those areas.

“Ukraine is just a made-up, fake project that was created to destroy Russia,” businessman Aleksei Gavrilov told The Associated Press in Donetsk.

He said the Donbass region, like Crimea, historically belongs to Russia. “Everything Putin said is perfectly correct, and I support him completely.”

A spokesman for the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said at least one Ukrainian officer had been killed and another wounded in an assault on a military base by “armed people in masks” near the Crimean regional capital of Simferopol. Mr. Yatsenyuk said the crisis was shifting “from political to the military form, and the blame is on the Russian military.”

In Congress, Republicans increased their calls for the administration to consider sending military aid to Ukraine and to reassess the U.S. relationship with Russia.

“It is past time we reassess our entire strategy towards a nation that poses an increasing threat to international peace and security,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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