SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Ukraine lurched toward breakup yesterday when lawmakers in Crimea unanimously declared they wanted to join Russia and would put the decision to voters in 10 days — and Russian lawmakers pushed a bill to facilitate a handover. President Barack Obama condemned the moves and the West answered with the first real sanctions against Russia.
Speaking from the White House, Obama said any decisions on the future of Crimea, a pro-Russian area of Ukraine, must include the country’s new government.
“The proposed referendum on the future of Crimea would violate the constitution and violate international law,” Obama said. “We are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hand was almost certainly behind yesterday’s dramatic developments, but it was not clear whether he is aiming for outright annexation, or simply strengthening his hand in talks with the West.
The White House moved to impose financial sanctions and travel restrictions on opponents of Ukraine’s new government and the EU also announced limited punitive measures against Putin’s government, including the suspension of trade and visa talks. Both Washington and the EU said they were discussing further sanctions.
“I am confident that we are moving forward together, united in our determination to oppose actions that violate international law and to support the government and people of Ukraine,” Obama said.
Crimea’s parliament rammed through what amounted to a declaration of independence from Ukraine, announcing it would let the Crimean people, 60 percent of whom are ethnic Russian, decide whether they want to become part of their gigantic neighbor to the east.
“This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev,” said Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of the legislature. “We will decide our future ourselves.”
Ukraine’s prime minister swiftly denounced the action. “This so-called referendum has no legal grounds at all,” said Arseniy Yatsenyuk. The country’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, later said Ukraine would move to dissolve Crimea’s parliament, but such an action would have virtually no practical effect.