Never mind what the West thinks — the Kremlin says Ukraine’s Crimea region is now part of Russia.
A signing ceremony Tuesday between Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister of Crimea and the mayor of the city of Sevastopol made it official, the Kremlin said in a statement.
Crimea and Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea fleet is based, are now part of the Russian Federation, it said.
The step follows a contested referendum held in Crimea on Sunday with only 10 days’ notice.
Putin hailed the ballot in an address to a joint session of Parliament Tuesday, saying the nearly 97% of its residents who voted to join Russia was “an extremely convincing figure.”
In an hour-long speech, he argued that the vote had been entirely legitimate and stressed the historical and cultural ties between Russia and Crimea.
“In our hearts we know Crimea has always been an inalienable part of Russia,” he said.
Crimea is an autonomous region within Ukraine with a majority Russian-speaking population. It has its own parliament, but the Ukrainian government had veto power over its actions.
With political instability and demonstrations rocking Ukraine in the past several months, President Viktor Yanukovych was pushed out of office and observers charged that Russia saw its chance to annex the strategic territory. The hastily called referendum Sunday resulted in 96.7% of the region’s voters saying they wanted to become part of Russia, according to the Crimean Electoral Commission.
Putin denied that Russia had been militarily involved in Crimea, despite what has been stated by authorities in the Ukraine capital and international observers.
“We have not used our armed forces in Crimea,” Putin said.
He also said that Russia’s military forces did not enter Crimea in the current crisis, but “were already there” in accordance with previous international negotiations. He praised the 22,000 Russian troops in Crimea for avoiding bloodshed.
Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol but the movements of its forces within Crimea are supposed to be agreed upon with Kiev.
Putin, who was greeted by a standing ovation and whose remarks were punctuated by regular and enthusiastic applause, also accused the West of “double standards” and cynicism in its response to the crisis in Crimea, citing Kosovo, which split from Serbia, as an example of a precedent.
“It’s absolutely in favor of their own interests — black today, white tomorrow,” he said.
Crimea is a strategically important territory and must be kept strong — something only Russia can do, he added.