Putin defies West's sanctions and recognises Crimean vote
Russia last night brushed off the toughest sanctions issued by the US and EU against Moscow since the end of the Cold War, by acknowledging the sovereignty of Crimea, opening the legal door for Moscow to annex the territory.
Washington began to take aim at Vladimir Putin's inner circle yesterday, in response to Sunday's vote in Crimea in favour of secession from Ukraine. Two of President Putin's top aides were among 11 officials hit by an assets freeze and travel ban, with US President Barack Obama warning that more could follow.
But Mr Putin appeared unmoved by the measures, signing a decree only hours later recognising Crimea's sovereignty. He is expected to use a scheduled appearance before the Russian parliament today to recommend moving forward with incorporating Crimea into the Russian Federation. The joint US-EU measures target Russian and Ukrainian officials they blame for helping stir the Crimea crisis.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond earlier told MPs that Royal Air Force Typhoons had been offered to Nato "air policing" efforts in the east of Europe following Russian action in Crimea.
Mr Hammond said the fighter jets would, from late April, be available to bolster the Polish contribution to the routine Nato defensive operations over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Mr Obama authorised the US Treasury Department to freeze the dollar assets of seven Russian individuals, including Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, identified as prime movers in the effort to extract Crimea from Ukraine.
EU foreign ministers targeted 21 individuals, among them Sergey Aksyonov, the prime minister of Crimea.
Other US targets included Yelena Mizulina, a state deputy in the Duma seen as the architect behind recent moves against Russia's gay community, and presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, credited with concentrating power in Mr Putin's hands in his first term in office.
However, Russia has appeared immune to any diplomatic retribution, which has included cancelling preparations for the G8 in Sochi and suspending talks on visa liberalisation. Instead, Russian troops are reported to be massing along their western borders with Ukraine, sparking fears Moscow's intentions toward the former Soviet nation stretch beyond Crimea.
Scepticism the sanctions would inflict little financial pain on Russia, particularly if those targeted have no assets in the US or have already moved them beyond America's reach, was quickly fuelled by Russian reaction to the move. Mr Rogozin tweeted: "Comrade Obama... what will you do with those who have neither accounts nor property abroad?"
It is now likely the US and EU will look to fulfil threats made yesterday by President Obama.
Mr Obama said he was dispatching Vice-President Joe Biden today to Europe to meet with the leaders of four Nato allies – Poland and the three Baltic states, which have all expressed alarm about the possible future scope of Russian aggression.
All property in Crimea owned by the Ukrainian state will be seized and nationalised, MPs said. A central bank will be set up with Russian funding, and a request has been made for the UN to recognise Crimea as an independent state. The next step is for the Crimean parliament to make a formal request to join Russia, and a delegation of MPs has travelled to Moscow for negotiations on how to proceed. Russian MPs have suggested annexation could happen within days, but the practicalities of changing the currency and transferring public companies and state institutions to Russia will be costly and time consuming.