Putin confirms Crimea annexation as Ukraine soldier becomes first casualty

Russian president denounces hypocrisy of west but Ukraine's PM accuses Moscow of war crime after soldier is shot dead

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Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of Crimea on Tuesday, denouncing western hypocrisy in a searing speech to political elites in Moscow that is likely to go down as one of the defining moments of his long rule over Russia.

In an hour-long speech in the Kremlin, shot through with angry rhetoric, the Russian president said western politicians "call something white today and black tomorrow" and aired a long list of foreign policy grievances going back to 2000, saying "we were cheated again and again, with decisions being taken behind our back".

Putin ridiculed the idea that events in Crimea amounted to Russian aggression and said there had been no shots fired and no casualties during recent weeks. Yet hours after he spoke, a Ukrainian soldier was shot dead at an army base in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, the first military fatality on the peninsula since the crisis began.

Ukrainian military sources said that one junior officer had been killed and another injured by a sniper, after an assault on the base by "unknown forces, fully equipped and their faces covered".

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Ukraine's prime minister, accused Moscow of committing a war crime and said the conflict with Russia was "moving from a political to a military one". After the incident Kiev issued a statement authorising its armed forces to use weapons to defend themselves.

The announcement came a day after the US and EU announced sanctions against several top Russian officials. Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European council, and José Manuel Barroso, head of the European commission, dismissed Putin's case for annexation and pledged a "unified European response" at the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, following the EU's decision to impose travel bans and asset freezes on 21 Russian and Crimean figures. Van Rompuy is due to meet Putin in Moscow on Wednesday.

In Britain the foreign secretary, William Hague, announced the suspension of joint naval exercises with Russia and of export licences for military items to Moscow, saying Putin had chosen the "route of isolation".

The US vice-president, Joe Biden, speaking a visit to Poland and the Baltic states aimed at assuring Russia's EU neighbours about US and Nato security guarantees, declared that Putin and Russia now stood alone and "naked before the world" guilty of international aggression.

"Russia has offered a variety of arguments to justify what is nothing more than a land-grab," he said. Biden revealed that the US was considering deploying ground troops to the Baltic states on new military exercises as it seeks to reassure Nato allies in eastern Europe of its commitment to preventing further territorial aggression by Russia.

The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, on Tuesday foreshadowed a fresh round of sanctions. "More is coming," he said amid criticism that existing measures are too weak.

Carney suggested powerful and wealthy oligarchs with ties to Putin would be targeted. "I think anyone who understands how the Russian system of governance works and who has influence in that system understands the kind of person that we're talking about here, and the fact that they have substantial assets, not just in Russia but abroad," he said.

In Moscow, Putin was defiant in the face of western criticism. The Russian president summoned the federal assembly, which includes both houses of parliament and all key political leaders, for an extraordinary session in the Kremlin's St George Hall.

Putin referenced the recognition of Kosovo by the west as an independent country following its secession from Serbia, and said it was ludicrous to claim that the move did not set a precedent.

"How would our colleagues claim its uniqueness? It turns out because during the Kosovo conflict there were many human casualties. What, is that supposed to be a valid legal argument?" he asked.

"We are being told that we are breaking the norms of international law. Well at least it's good that they've remembered that international law exists. Better late than never."

"In the hearts and minds of people, Crimea has always been and remains an inseparable part of Russia," the president said, adding that ethnic Russians had found themselves isolated from the motherland when the Soviet Union collapsed, both in Crimea and elsewhere.

"Millions of Russians went to sleep in one country and woke up living abroad, as a national minority in former republics of the union. The Russian people became one of the biggest, if not the biggest, split-up nation in the world."

He was frequently interrupted by applause and at the end of the speech signed documents together with the de facto leader of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov – who came to power after seizing the local parliament at gunpoint last month – to absorb the territory into Russia.

Putin recognised Crimea as an independent state on Monday night, making it easier to incorporate into the Russian Federation than if it were still Ukrainian territory. Kiev has said it will never give up its claim to Crimea, but is unable to respond to Russia militarily due to the huge disparity in their respective forces.

Ukrainian politician Vitali Klitschko, who will stand in presidential elections in May, called for Ukraine to sever diplomatic ties with Russia.

With the annexation of Crimea considered a fait accompli, Kiev and the west are now looking with anxiety to eastern Ukraine, where a number of protests by elements of the Russian-speaking population have ended in violence and led the Russian foreign ministry to speak about the possible necessity of "defending" Russian speakers there.

"Don't believe those who try to frighten you with Russia and who scream that other regions will follow after Crimea," said Putin, going some way to allaying those fears. "We do not want a partition of Ukraine. We do not need this."

However, he reiterated his belief that Moscow feels the Kiev government is illegitimate, and also referenced long-held Russian fears of encirclement by the west.

"I do not want to be welcomed in Sevastopol by Nato sailors," said Putin, speaking of the Crimean port where Russia's Black Sea fleet is based.

The city has special status within Crimea and Russia will officially welcome two new nations into its fold: Crimea, and the city of Sevastopol. Thousands gathered in the city to watch Putin's speech on a big screen in the main square and broke into the Russian national anthem when it was over. In Simferopol men on ladders removed the large gold Ukrainian-language lettering on the regional parliament.

It is expected that in the coming months Crimea will switch to the rouble and introduce Moscow time and the Russian visa system. Russia will begin ratification of the treaty to formalise Crimea's annexation within days.

Crimean authorities have said that all Ukrainian military installations on the peninsula, including several bases, are now illegal and the soldiers must leave. Many have done so, but some remain.

Ukrainian and Russian troops had agreed a ceasefire until Friday, and the circumstances of the shoot-out on Tuesday remain murky.

However, the death of a Ukrainian soldier was a reminder that there is potential for Russia's annexation to turn bloody. Russian soldiers have been active in Crimea in recent weeks, despite Kremlin claims to the contrary, and often act in consort with local informal militias. There were reports that a local militia member had also been shot dead in the clash and another injured.

The west was struggling to respond to Moscow's moves, with initial sanctions clearly having no real effect except to galvanise Moscow in its feeling of victimisation. Barack Obama is to spend most of next week in Europe for a couple of international summits that will now turn into emergency meetings about Russia and Ukraine.

The White House called for an emergency meeting of the G7 countries on Ukraine to be held on the fringes of a summit in The Hague devoted to nuclear security. Russia is also invited to the summit, raising the possibility of a first face-to-face confrontation between Putin and western leaders in the crisis.

The Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, warned of major and long-lasting consequences from Putin's actions, which had changed the "borders of states overnight".

"It changes the geopolitical situation in this part of the world," he said. "Before our eyes, the history of this region is changing."


Shaun Walker in Simferopol and Ian Traynor in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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