KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s new pro-Western government voiced restraint Tuesday in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moves to officially annex Crimea, pledging that Ukraine would not join NATO and would take steps to improve ties with Moscow.
But leaders there also said they “will never recognize” Crimea’s status as a part of Russia.
The sequence of events Tuesday left the Ukrainian government in a tough diplomatic quandary, at once trying to defuse tension with its superpower neighbor while also disputing that the breakway southern province of Crimea may be lost.
Russia now says that its absorption of Crimea is an accomplished fact, following the signing of an accession treaty by Putin and visiting Crimean officials.
In a statement, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said that “Ukraine and the entire civilized world will never recognize the illegitimate declaration of independence of Crimea and its violent renunciation of the territory of our country.”
Speaking earlier in the day, however, a somber Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk — pointedly speaking in Russian — told a nationally televised audience in Ukraine that he wanted to ease the situation.
The fresh pledges appeared to be an attempt to calm pro-Russian protests in eastern Ukraine that are challenging the new government in Kiev, as well as to ease strains with Moscow that have raised fears of more incursions.
“Despite the armed aggression of Russia against Ukraine, I will do everything possible not only to keep the peace but also to build a genuine partnership with Russia and good neighbor relations,” Yatsenyuk said.
Yatsenyuk sought to reassure pro-Moscow activists in Ukraine, who have staged a series of protests in eastern and southern cities with large ethnic Russian populations. He stopped short of offering outright autonomy but called for new reforms to decentralize the country by vesting regions with more power and authority. He reiterated that Kiev would not seek to join NATO, a step that would be seen as highly provocative in Moscow.
“Association with NATO is not on the agenda,” he said.
He accused “external forces” of “trying to destabilize” the country by provoking instability in eastern Ukraine, the site of violent protests that have resulted in three deaths and numerous injuries in recent days. But he acknowledged that some activists had sincere doubts about the new government, and he sought to reassure them that the Russian language would retain a special status. He pledged that Kiev would respect religious and cultural differences and would constitutionally enshrine protections.
But Yatsenyuk also warned that the government would take new steps to try to maintain the peace. In addition to a partial mobilization of thousands of reservists, he said he has now authorized the Interior Ministry to seize all unregistered weapons.
“We have to stabilize the situation in the country as soon as possible,” he said.