US-Russia relations ‘paramount,’ says Putin, but Crimea sees more troops

Russian parliament defies US by welcoming peninsula’s secession as Gazprom threatens to cut off gas supply to Ukraine

Demonstrators in front of the White House on Thursday.
Basri Sahin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Russia pressed ahead with its intervention in Crimea Friday, endorsing calls from the Russian-majority territory to secede from Ukraine and indicating that it could cut off gas exports to the energy-dependent nation.

On Thursday, Crimea's parliament voted unanimously in favor of joining the Russian Federation. A referendum, asking whether the peninsula should retain ties with Kiev or join the federation, is due to take place on March 16.

"There are many forces that would like the referendum not to happen, and considering the geopolitical situation, we decided the sooner we are done with this vote the quieter it will be and people will feel safer," the Crimean prime minister, Sergey Aksyonov, told Al Jazeera on Friday.

"We feel that only people who live in Crimea ... can make the decision about its territory, its taxes and economic situation."

Russia's parliament on Friday said it would welcome the addition of Crimea to the Russian Federation if residents vote in favor of the referendum. "If the people of Crimea make the decision in the referendum to join Russia, we, as the upper house, will of course support such a decision," said Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the upper house of Russia's parliament.

Subsequently on Friday, Gazprom, the Russian state-owned energy giant, issued a thinly veiled warning that it could stop shipping gas to Urakine over unpaid bills, increasing pressure on the new government in Kiev and its supporters in Europe, which gets half its Russian gas through Ukraine. Russian natural-gas exports account for about a quarter of total European gas usage.

"Either Ukraine makes good on its debt and pays for current supplies, or there is risk of returning to the situation of early 2009," Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller said.

Gazprom halted gas supplies to Ukraine over unpaid bills at the beginning of 2009, which led to reductions in supplies of Russian gas to Europe during a cold winter.

Meanwhile, even as Russia and the U.S. continued their stalemate over Ukraine, relations between the two countries should not be sacrificed because of their differences, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday after a phone call with U.S. President Barack Obama, the same day Ukrainian border guards said the number of Russian troops occupying Crimea had doubled, to 30,000.

During the Thursday-night telephone call, Obama urged Putin to engage in diplomatic efforts to defuse a crisis that began with anti-government protests in November and this week escalated with a threat of secession in the strategically important peninsula of Crimea after armed men seized government buildings and military installations.

"[Putin] stressed the paramount importance of Russian-American relations to ensure stability and security in the world," a statement from Putin issued by the Kremlin read. But "Russia cannot ignore calls for help in this matter, and it acts accordingly, in full compliance with the international law." 

Obama called Russia's involvement in Crimea "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States."

Click here for more on the Ukraine crisis

It was the leaders' second call in six days regarding the deteriorating political situation in Ukraine.

Pro-Russian troops have been in control of Crimea since Saturday and have blocked access to all Ukrainian military bases that have not yet surrendered, according to Crimean leader Aksyonov. Serhiy Astakhov, aide to the head of Ukraine's border guards, said on Friday that the number, previously estimated at about 16,000, had climbed to 30,000.

All or most of those troops are believed to be Russian, even though Moscow has repeatedly denied sending them, and some of those troops blocked military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from entering Crimea, the group said on Thursday.

Ukraine, along with its U.S. and EU allies, accuses Russia of invading and wants Moscow to withdraw its forces. The Russian government, however, says it needs to protect Russian-speaking people in Crimea.

Moscow says it does not recognize the interim government in Kiev, formed after President Viktor Yanukovich was toppled. Russia has so far refused to engage with the new administration, saying Yanukovich is still the legitimate leader of the country.

Ukraine's new leaders have indicated they would sit down with Kremlin officials but not with Yanukovich, whom they accuse of a brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators during the uprising.

On Friday, Interpol confirmed it was considering a Ukrainian request to place the deposed president on its wanted list on charges including abuse of power and murder.

Meanwhile, the diplomatic effort to reduce tensions is ongoing. During Thursday’s call with Putin, Obama outlined the terms of a compromise — what U.S. diplomats are calling an off-ramp settlement — that his officials are promoting. 

Under the terms of the deal, Russia would withdraw troops from bases in Crimea, allow international monitors in to ensure that the rights of ethnic Russians are respected and agree to direct talks with Ukrainian officials.

A spokesman for the Russian president ridiculed the idea of Western-mediated talks on Friday, saying Western countries' actions during the crisis in Ukraine had cost them their credibility. Russia also feared the persecution of ethnic Russians if "those who stood behind the coup in Kiev" reached Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, added.

Earlier on Thursday, Obama issued an executive order authorizing sanctions against "individuals and entities responsible for activities undermining democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine." He warned that further sanctions could be necessary if Russia continued to flout international law by occupying Crimea.

On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated his government's threat of retaliation against U.S. sanctions in a statement, saying it would "hit the United States like a boomerang."

Al Jazeera with wire services

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