Kiev: Ignoring the toughest sanctions against Moscow since the end of the Cold War, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognised Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula as an "independent and sovereign country", a bold challenge to Washington that escalates one of Europe's worst security crises in years.
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Pic: AFP
The brief decree posted on the Kremlin's website came just hours after the United States and the European Union announced asset freezes and other sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian officials involved in the Crimean crisis, yesterday.
President Barack Obama warned that more would come if Russia didn't stop interfering in Ukraine, and Putin's move clearly forces his hand.
The West has struggled to find leverage to force Moscow to back off in the Ukraine turmoil, of which Crimea is only a part, and analysts saw yesterday's sanctions as mostly ineffectual.
Moscow showed no signs of flinching in the dispute that has roiled Ukraine since Russian troops took effective control of the strategic Black Sea peninsula last month and supported the Sunday referendum that overwhelmingly called for annexation by Russia.
Recognising Crimea as independent would be an interim step in absorbing the region. Crimea had been part of Russia since the 18th century, until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954 and both Russians and Crimea's majority ethnic Russian population see annexation as correcting a historic insult.
Ukraine's turmoil "which began in November with a wave of protests against President Viktor Yanukovych and accelerated after he fled to Russia in late February" has become Europe's most severe security crisis in years.
Russia, like Yanukovych himself, characterises his ouster as a coup, and alleges the new authorities are fascist-minded and likely to crack down on Ukraine's ethnic Russian population.
Pro-Russia demonstrations have broken out in several cities in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border, where the Kremlin has been massing troops.
Fearing that Russia is prepared to risk violence to make a land-grab, the West has consistently spoken out against Russia's actions but has run into a wall of resistance from Moscow.