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Russia Votes To Annex Crimea, As The West Looks On


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin moved today to overturn recent history by reclaiming Crimea for Russia. Putin signed a treaty to annex Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and gave a rousing speech to parliament laying out his case. He is also blasted the West for trying to frighten him with sanctions.

The United States calls Putin's actions illegal. But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the U.S. seems to have little leverage when it comes to changing Putin's mind.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Addressing a joint session of parliament with visitors from Crimea, Putin made clear that the Crimean Peninsula is a sacred place for Russia and a symbol of Russian military glory. He won numerous standing ovations as he explained why he thinks Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev never should have given the region to Ukraine, and how Russians felt when the Soviet Union broke apart decades later.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Foreign language spoken)

KELEMEN: Millions of Russians went to sleep in one country and woke up as an ethnic minority in another, he says, describing Russians as the most divided people on Earth. He says, in the 1990s, Crimeans felt as if they were passed from hand-to-hand like a sack of potatoes.

As for the West, he says the U.S. and Europe have been driving Russia into a corner, ignoring its positions. And in the case of Ukraine, he said the West went too far supporting a coup which he believes brought to power nationalists and neo-Nazis.

PUTIN: (Foreign language spoken)

KELEMEN: Russia was on the brink and could not step back any more he says, adding if you push down hard on a spring it will release at some point and spring back with force.

On a visit to Poland meant to shore up NATO allies, Vice President Joe Biden described Russia as the aggressor, saying the people of Ukraine are seeking a country free of oligarchs and corruption and connected to markets in Europe.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: Unfortunately, Russia's leaders have responded with a brazen, brazen military incursion, with a purposeful ratcheting up of ethnic tensions inside Ukraine, with a rushed and illegal referendum in Crimea that was not surprisingly rejected by virtually the entire world.

KELEMEN: Biden says Putin's actions were nothing more than a land grab that will only lead to further political and economic isolation. Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague echoed that when speaking to his parliament.

WILLIAM HAGUE: No amount of sham and perverse democratic process, or skewed historical references, can make up for the fact that this is an incursion into a sovereign state and a land grab of part of its territory, with no respect for the law of that country or for international law.

KELEMEN: Hague says his country is suspending military cooperation with Russia and pushing ahead with targeted European Union sanctions.

Estonia's president says he thinks Europe's response should be more robust, and not about the price of gas. He met Vice President Biden in Poland and the two talked about ways to make the region less reliant on Russian gas exports.

The U.S. is also trying to freeze the assets of Russian officials who backed the annexation of Crimea. But those steps don't seem to have deterred Putin.

PUTIN: (Foreign language spoken)

KELEMEN: Some Western politicians are trying to frighten us, not only with sanctions but also with the prospect of internal problems, he says, suggesting the West might be planning some kind of fifth column. Russia, he goes on to say, sees this as irresponsible and aggressive and will respond appropriately.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.