TWO almost-simultaneous signatures on opposite sides of Europe deepened the divide between East and West, as Russia formally annexed Crimea and the European Union pulled Ukraine closer into its orbit.
At the Kremlin, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed parliamentary legislation yesterday incorporating Crimea into Russia, hailing it as a “remarkable event”.
At almost the same time in a ceremony in Brussels, EU leaders sought to pull the rest of cash-strapped Ukraine westward by signing a political association agreement with new prime minister Arseniy Yatseniuk.
The symbolic piece of paper is part of the same EU deal that set off Ukraine’s political crisis when then-president Viktor Yanukovich rejected it in November and chose a bailout from Russia instead. That ignited months of protests that eventually drove him from power.
Mr Putin and his allies appeared to laugh off the sanctions by the United States and the EU yesterday, but shares on the Moscow stock exchange – which have lost £43 billion from their value this month – fell sharply after president Barack Obama threatened to target major sectors of the economy if Russia moved on areas of Ukraine beyond the Black Sea peninsula.
Mr Obama’s national security adviser said Washington was sceptical of Russian assurances that troop movements on the Ukraine border were no more than military exercises.
The financial noose was already tightening with Visa and MasterCard stopping processing payments for a Russian bank owned by two brothers on the US blacklist.
EU leaders – who like Mr Obama insist Crimea is still part of Ukraine – imposed their own sanctions on 12 people, including Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin and two of Mr Putin’s aides.
Shaken by the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War, they also expressed their determination to reduce the EU’s reliance on Russian energy, and signed a political deal with the Kiev leadership that took power after Mr Yanukovich was overthrown last month.
European governments also took individual action against Russia. Germany suspended approval of all defence-related exports to Russia, ordering contractor Rheinmetall to halt delivery of combat simulation gear, while France called off military co-operation with Moscow.
In a Kremlin ceremony shown live on state television, Mr Putin signed a law on the ratification of a treaty making Crimea part of Russia as well as legislation creating two new Russian administrative districts: Crimea and the port city of Sevastopol, where Moscow keeps part of its Black Sea fleet.
Thousands of Russians marked the annexation with fireworks and celebrations in Simferopol, capital of Crimea where the population is around 58 per cent ethnic Russian.
“Many people wanted this, to go back, not to the USSR, but to that big country of ours,” said Anna Zevetseva, 32. “We are waiting for things to improve and for investment from Russia.”
European leaders also agreed to accelerate their quest for more secure energy supplies at talks yesterday.
The EU has made progress in diversifying since crises in 2006 and 2009, when rows over unpaid bills between Kiev and Moscow led to the disruption of gas exports to western Europe.
But Russia still provides around a third of the EU’s oil and gas and 40 per cent of the gas goes through Ukraine.