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Putin recognises Crimea as soveriegn state

US and EU imposed personal sanctions on Russian and Crimean officials involved in the seizure of Crimea.

FILE: Two women hold a Russian flag next to a set of Crimean flags at Lenin Square in Simferopol on 16 March 2014. Crimeans voted on March 16 in a unique referendum on breaking away from Ukraine to join Russia. Picture: AFP.

BRUSSELS - The United States and European Union imposed personal sanctions on Monday on Russian and Crimean officials involved in the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine as Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree recognising the region as a sovereign state.

The moves heightened the most serious East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War, following a disputed referendum in the Black Sea peninsula on Sunday in which Crimea's leaders declared a Soviet-style, 97-percent vote to secede from Ukraine.

Within hours, the Crimean parliament formally asked that Russia "admit the Republic of Crimea as a new subject with the status of a republic". Putin will on Tuesday address a special joint session of Russia's State Duma, or parliament, which could take a decision on annexation of the majority ethnic-Russian region.

That would dismember Ukraine, a former Soviet republic once under Moscow's thumb, against its will. Kiev and the West said the referendum, held under armed Russian occupation, violated Ukraine's constitution and international law.

Russian forces took control of Crimea in late February following the toppling of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich after deadly clashes between riot police and protesters trying to overturn his decision to spurn a trade and cooperation deal with the EU in favour of cultivating closer ties with Russia.

US President Barack Obama slapped sanctions on 11 Russians and Ukrainians blamed for the seizure, including Yanukovich, and Vladislav Surkov and Sergei Glazyev, two aides to Putin.

Putin himself, suspected in the West of trying to resurrect as much as possible of the former Soviet Union under Russian leadership, was not on the blacklist. A White House spokesman declined to rule out adding him at a later stage.

Amid fears that Russia may move into eastern Ukraine where there is a significant Russian-speaking community, Obama warned that further provocations would only increase Moscow's isolation and exact a greater toll on its economy.

"If Russia continues to interfere in Ukraine, we stand ready to impose further sanctions," he said.

A senior US official said Obama's order cleared the way to impose sanctions on people associated with the arms industry and targets "the personal wealth of cronies" of the Russian leadership.

In Brussels, the EU's 28 foreign ministers agreed to subject 21 Russian and Ukrainian officials to visa restrictions and asset freezes for their roles in the events. They included three Russian military commanders in Crimea and districts bordering on Ukraine.

The US list appeared to target higher-profile Russian officials close to Putin, including a deputy Russian prime minister, while the EU went for mid-ranking officials who may have been more directly involved on the ground.

Obama said he would travel to Europe next week and that Vice President Joe Biden was headed on Monday to Poland and Lithuania to reassure US allies in the region.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who was named on the White House sanctions list, suggested that the measures would not affect those without assets abroad.

DISMEMBERING UKRAINE

Obama said Russian forces must end "incursions" into its ex-Soviet neighbour, while Putin renewed his accusation that the new leadership in Kiev, brought to power by the uprising that toppled his elected Ukrainian ally last month, was failing to protect Russian-speakers from violent Ukrainian nationalists.

Moscow responded to Western pressure for an international contact group to mediate in the crisis by proposing a support group of states. That would push for recognition of the Crimean referendum and urge a new constitution for a rump Ukraine that would require it to uphold political and military neutrality.

A complete preliminary count of Sunday's vote showed that 96.77 percent of voters opted to join Russia, the chairman of the regional government commission overseeing the referendum, Mikhail Malyshev, announced on television.

Officials said the turnout was 83 percent. Crimea is home to 2 million people. Members of the ethnic Ukrainian and Muslim Tatar minorities had said they would boycott the poll, held just weeks after Russian forces took control of the peninsula.

Putin's popularity at home has been boosted by his action on Crimea despite serious risks for a stagnant economy.

Germany, the EU's biggest economy, gets 40 percent of its gas from Moscow and could become more dependent as it switches from nuclear power.

MOBILISATION

Moscow defended the takeover of Crimea by citing a right to protect "peaceful citizens". Ukraine's interim government has mobilised troops to defend against an invasion of its eastern mainland, where pro-Russian protesters have been involved in deadly clashes in recent days.

The Ukrainian parliament on Monday endorsed a presidential decree for a partial military mobilisation to call up 40,000 reservists to counter Russia' military actions. Ukraine recalled its ambassador from Moscow for consultations.

US and European officials say military action is unlikely over Crimea, which Soviet rulers handed to Ukraine 60 years ago.

A pressing concern for the governments in Kiev and Moscow is the transfer of control of Ukrainian military bases. Many are surrounded by and under control of Russian forces, even though Moscow denies it has troops in the territory beyond facilities it leases for its important Black Sea Fleet.