Ukraine lurched towards break-up yesterday as politicians in the Crimean parliament voted unanimously to join Russia.
Western powers and the interim Ukrainian government dismissed the attempt to secede as “illegal” – but the move received the support of politicians in Russia, who pushed for a bill to allow the handover of the peninsula.
The decision to leave Ukraine for Russia will be put to a referendum of Crimea’s population – 60 per cent of whom are ethnic Russian – a week on Sunday. Sergei Shuvainiko, a member of the Crimean parliament, said it was a chance for the people to “decide our future ourselves”.
But European Union leaders urged Russian president Vladimir Putin to enter direct talks with the Ukrainian government, warning of “far-reaching consequences” for relations with Moscow if there was any further escalation of the crisis.
At emergency talks in Brussels, leaders of the group of 28 states agreed on a limited package of sanctions to take immediate effect, with the threat of further measures – including asset freezes and travel bans – unless there was swift action to end the stand-off.
Earlier, in Washington, the White House said the United States was imposing visa restrictions targeting “a number of officials and individuals”, as well as threatening further economic measures of its own.
And Yulia Tymoshenko, the freed political prisoner who has become one of the symbols of the Ukrainian revolution, said Europe had to act to repel Russian aggression.
Russian troops have taken control of the Crimea and blockaded a number of military bases. Prime Minister David Cameron said it was essential Europe stood up to Russian aggression in the region, which he described as a “flagrant breach of international law”.
He went on: “Illegal actions committed by Russia cannot pass without a response. It cannot be business as usual with Russia. We know from our history that turning a blind eye when nations are trampled over and their independence trashed, that stores up far greater problems for the long run.
“So we must stand up to aggression, we must uphold international law, and we should support people who want a free European future.”
In Moscow, a prominent member of Russia’s parliament, Sergei Mironov, said he had introduced a bill to simplify the procedure for Crimea to join Russia and it could be passed as soon as next week. Another senior politician, Leonid Slutsky, said parliament could consider such a motion after the referendum.
On Tuesday, Mr Putin said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, while insisting its population had the right to determine the region’s status in a referendum. But gaining the popular vote in the predominantly Russian-speaking peninsula would give him a democratic fig-leaf for what would effectively be a formal takeover.
The mood of the assembled leaders in Brussels appeared to have hardened after the vote by the parliament in Crimea.
Eastern states, led by Polish premier Donald Tusk, demanded tougher action against Moscow, but German chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country is heavily reliant on Russian gas, called for a more cautious approach.
In the end, the summit agreed a three-phase plan, beginning with the suspension of negotiations on a more liberal visa regime for Russian visitors and the halting of preparations for the G8 summit in Sochi.
The second phase would be the imposition of asset freezes and travel bans unless there are early talks with Ukraine, with the final phase a move to sanctions in a “broad range of economic areas” if there is any further escalation.
While there is no deadline for talks to start, Mr Cameron said Russia – which refuses to recognise the interim government in Kiev – had to move quickly. “If the talks don’t get under way and the talks don’t make rapid progress, then we move to the second stage, which is asset freezes and travel bans and that again could happen relatively quickly if progress isn’t made,” he said.
He acknowledged that Britain, as well as other EU countries such as Germany, would also suffer if they moved to phase three, with full economic sanctions. He said: “Of course, there are consequences for Britain if you look at financial services, there are consequences for France if you look at defence, there are consequences for some European countries if you look at energy.”
But he said in order to stand up to aggression, “you have to consider all and every one of those areas”.
The EU has already agreed to freeze the assets of 18 individuals, including former president Viktor Yanukovich, and Mr Cameron promised help to the Kiev authorities to “go after ill-gotten funds and return them to the Ukrainian people”.
He said a team from the National Crime Agency, supported by the Metropolitan Police and Crown Prosecution Service, had been sent to Kiev to help local authorities tackle corruption.
Ukraine’s interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in Brussels for talks with the EU and Nato, denounced the breakaway vote by the Crimean parliament as “illegitimate” and vowed to defend the territorial integrity of the country.
“This so-called referendum has no legitimate grounds at all. Crimea was, is and will be an integral part of Ukraine,” he said.
“We still believe that we can solve it in a peaceful manner, but in case of further escalation and military intervention into the Ukrainian territory by the foreign forces, the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian military will act in accordance with the constitution and laws.
“We are ready to protect our country. We have less arms, no nuclear bombs, but we have the spirit. This is the spirit of Ukrainian revolution and this is the spirit of freedom and liberty.”
Later, however, after a meeting at Nato headquarters, he emphasised Kiev was seeking a purely peaceful resolution.
Meanwhile, Interpol said it was considering a request from the Ukrainian authorities to issue a Red Notice international wanted persons alert for the arrest of Mr Yanukovich on charges “including abuse of power and murder”. He fled to Russia but insists he is still president.