MOSCOW — Invoking the suffering of the Russian people and a narrative of constant betrayals by the West, President Vladimir Putin declared Tuesday that Russia was within its rights to reclaim Crimea, then signed a treaty that did just that.
Putin, defiant in the face of U.S. and European pressure, dispensed with legal deliberation and announced a swift annexation of Crimea, as if to put Europe’s most serious crisis in decades beyond the point where the results could be turned back.
In a speech to a joint session of the Russian parliament, he compared the move to the independence declaration of Kosovo in 2008 and the reunification of Germany in 1990 — but, in reality, this is the first time that one European nation has seized territory from another since the end of World War II.
“Crimea is our common legacy,” Putin said. “It can only be Russian today.”
In Kiev, Ukrainian officials said they would never recognize or accept the loss of Crimea. Western leaders, including Vice President Biden during a visit to Poland and Lithuania, talked about further sanctions against Russia on top of those announced in the past two days. Russia is also facing expulsion from the Group of Eight leading industrial nations as relations between Moscow and the West reach their lowest level since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
In Crimea, where celebrations were held to mark the Russian annexation, a Ukrainian lieutenant was fatally shot in an incident that immediately set nerves on edge.
Putin declared that Russia has no interest in expanding its hold within Ukraine. “Don’t believe those who say Russia will take other regions after Crimea. We don’t need that,” he said.
But Putin also said that Russia would always be ready to stand up for the rights of fellow Russians living in other countries. He mentioned, seemingly in passing, that Russians in eastern Ukraine, in the cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk, had been subject to the same sort of abuse at the hands of Ukrainian nationalists that he said had led him to act on Crimea.
Putin’s speech, nearly 50 minutes long, catalogued 20 years of Russian complaints about the West. He touched on the Soviet Union’s downfall, Kosovo, NATO expansion, missile defense, Libya, Iraq and Syria. He said the West has been backing Ukrainians responsible for “terror, murder and riots,” including neo-
Nazis, anti-Semites and Russophobes.
“Our Western partners have crossed a line,” Putin said. “We have every reason to think that the notorious policy of confining Russia, pursued in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today.”
He said the challenge presented to Russia by the Ukrainian crisis couldn’t be ducked.
“We have to admit one thing — Russia is an active participant in international affairs,” he said. “At these critical times, we see the maturity of nations, the strength of nations.”
One factor that forced Russia to act, he said, was the threat that Ukraine, under its new leaders, might join NATO — which would have left Russia’s Black Sea naval base in Sevastopol, Crimea, in an untenable position.
Putin insisted that Russia is acting within international law. He complained that leaders in the West, led by the Americans, “believe they’ve been entrusted by God to decide the fate of other people.”
The sanctions already announced by the United States, the European Union and Canada were treated with derision by the members of the Russian parliament Tuesday. They passed a unanimous resolution calling on the West to include every member of the Russian legislature on the sanctions list.
The speaker of the upper house of parliament, Valentina Matviyenko, who is on the U.S. sanctions list, was defiant.
“These days we are feeling a huge amount of pressure — pressure from the so-called authorities in Kiev and pressure from the West,” she said as she met with Crimean leaders. “Threats, announcement of sanctions, banned entry — all this comes from the helplessness when there is no legal argument.”
Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the Russian armaments industry, said Moscow needs to take up the cause of ethnic Russians in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria, which has been outside Moldova’s control since the early 1990s. Now that Moldova is moving to sign an agreement with the E.U., Rogozin said, it is time for Russia to act. Rogozin is one of 11 Russians and Ukrainians named on the U.S. sanctions list announced Monday.
Putin traced Russian roots in Crimea to the baptism there of Vladimir, who converted the Russian people to Christianity just over 1,000 years ago. Putin mentioned that the bones of Russian soldiers who fought the British and French in the 19th century, and of Soviet soldiers who fought the Germans in World War II, are buried all across the Crimean Peninsula.
“All these places are sacred to us,” he said. After noting that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev assigned Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, Putin argued that Russia by rights should have gotten back the peninsula in 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved.
Russia was not “simply robbed, it was plundered,” he said.
He also touched on Russians’ roots in the Ukrainian heartland, in a way that many Ukrainians may not have found reassuring. “We sympathize with the people of Ukraine,” he said. “We’re one nation. Kiev is the mother of all Russian cities.”
He described today’s Kiev as a city where a legitimate protest was overtaken by those plotting a coup, backed by “foreign sponsors,” and where government ministers cannot act without getting permission “from the gunmen on the Maidan” — a reference to Independence Square, the heart of the protest movement that ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. “We have no one to negotiate with,” Putin said.
Ecstatic Russian lawmakers watched as Putin and Crimean leaders signed a treaty of accession as soon as the Russian leader was done speaking, and the Kremlin said afterward that it considers the treaty to be in force though it awaits ratification by parliament.
The city of Sevastopol also entered the Russian Federation, as a separate entity — a status it traditionally enjoyed as an important military center.
In the early evening, Putin addressed a large celebratory rally on Moscow’s Red Square. “After a difficult, long and exhausting journey, Crimea and Sevastopol have returned to Russia — to their home harbor, their home shores, their home port,” he said.
In Kiev, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk gave a nationally televised address Tuesday — pointedly using the Russian language — in which he seemed to recognize the limits of the situation. He pledged that Ukraine would not join NATO and sought to reassure ethnic Russians and the government in Moscow.
Putin’s words were freighted with a sense of betrayal, said Samuel Charap, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington. Putin portrayed the United States and the West as using Ukraine and other countries as a battlefield on which they could prevail over Russia — and he got two standing ovations for doing so.
“I think it’s a trap we’ve gotten ourselves into about whether the sense of betrayal is rational or not,” Charap said. “The question is: Do they believe it or not? I think we underestimate the power of the grievance narrative by narrowly attributing it to a propaganda campaign or paranoid fantasies of a ruthless dictator. If this is what influences the decision-making climate, we have to deal with it.”
Kathy Lally and Anthony Faiola in Kiev, Scott Wilson in Warsaw and Carol Morello in Sevastopol contributed to this report.