Barack Obama delivers his statement on Ukraine. Photograph: REX
Russia has been the most prominent international supporter of Bashar al-Assad, and the Syrian president has returned the favour.
Assad has written a letter to Vladimir Putin calling the military takeover of Crimea a "wise policy” and wishing him the best in his efforts to restore "security and stability” in Ukraine after what Assad called a coup, AP reports.
A team of OSCE observers has been prevented for a second day from entering Crimea by unidentified armed men, AFP says. They were stopped at a checkpoint blocking a road. The OSCE tried twice yesterday to pass into Crimea but were turned away both times.
The US TV station CNBC has grabbed a chat with Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Ukraine’s interim prime minister, who has, again, reiterated his view on the planned referendum in Crimea:
There will be no referendum. It is absolutely and entirely illegitimate. No one will recognise this, possibly except North Korea, probably Syria or Venezuela and I want to be very clear. Crimea, was, is and will be an integral part of Ukraine. No concession. Full stop.
More tough talk: Russia’s foreign ministry has released a statement saying the EU’s decision to halt talks on visa-free travel between the EU and Russia is "extremely unconstructive”, Reuters reports.
The statement said Russia would not ”accept the language of sanctions and threats” and would retaliate if sanctions were imposed.
Updated at 1.12pm GMT
Ukraine’s border guard operation now believes Russia has 30,000 troops in the region, almost twice the estimate of 16,000 given by the Ukrainian government earlier this week.
Reuters quoted Serhiy Astakhov, an aide to the head of the border guards service, as giving the estimate. This includes members of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, permanently based in of Sevastopol, as well as newly-arrived forces.
Moscow has denied sending any new troops to Crimea. However, observers have noted the armed units in place across Crimea, while they have no insignia on their uniforms, are notably well organised and drive vehicles with Russian military plates.
The OSCE has posted some photos on its website of its observer team trying to enter Crimea at the northern town of Armyansk and being turned back by unidentified armed men. Here’s one of them.
OSCE team in Crimea An OSCE team is stopped by armed men from entering Crimea. Photograph: OSCE
My colleague in Paris, Kim Wilsher, sends this on France’s slightly ambiguous current relations with Russia:
France will not send a minister to the Sochi Paralympics...but will deliver two state-of-the-art warships to Russia, despite the Ukraine crisis, French president François Hollande has confirmed.
The controversial deal – and it was controversial even before the Crimea crisis – involves France handing over two Mistral vessels. These are 22,000-tonne warships capable of carrying 16 helicopters, four landing craft, 13 battle tanks and up to 450 soldiers, and giving the ageing Russian naval fleet the capacity for a quick sea response.
The deal, worth €1.2bn, was criticised by several of Paris’s NATO allies back in 2011 after Russia invaded Georgia in the Caucasus in 2008, leading to what became known as the Five-Day War.
This week the first of the two ships, named the Vladivostok, left the French Atlantic port of Saint Nazaire for sea trials. "We respect our signed contracts,” Hollande said. The other vessel will be called Sebastopol, which is of course in Crimea.
France’s reluctance to use the ships as a bargaining chip against Moscow, has cast doubt on Paris’s determination to back tough sanctions to force Russia to respect Ukrainian territorial integrity.
Updated at 11.33am GMT
Alec Luhn in Moscow sends this about a visit by a group of Crimean MPs:
A delegation of Crimean MPs made the rounds in Moscow today, receiving a warm welcome from top lawmakers and pro-Kremlin demonstrators and words of support for their attempt to join Russia.
The leader of the delegation, chairman of Crimean parliament Vladimir Konstantinov, said the country that Crimeans loved – Ukraine – "which was completely betrayed, has disappeared” and called the Kiev government illegitimate and "very aggressive.”
"But does Russia want to take us?” he asked.
Valentina Matvienko, speaker of Russia’s upper house, the federation council, said yes: "If the people of Crimea express their will and decide to join Russia, we as the upper house of parliament will support their decision.”
Crimean MPs announced yesterday that the Crimea region and the city of Sevastopol, where Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based, would hold a referendum on joining Russia on 16 March.
"If the decision is made, it will be an absolutely equal subject of the Russian Federation with full rights and responsibilities … the citizens of Crimea will be equal to Russian citizens, with the same salaries, pensions, social benefits and social protection,” Matvienko added.
The Russian newspaper Kommersant reported on Friday that Crimea integration would cost Russia $3bn a year.
Matvienko also called for an independent investigation of last month’s killings on Independence Square in Kiev, which President Vladimir Putin suggested could have been ordered by the former opposition.
"We see that the leaders, the authorities in Crimea are trying to match their actions to the wishes of all Crimea’s inhabitants through the most democratic procedure possible, a referendum”, said State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin. Expecting a favourable result, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the outspoken leader of the nationalist LDPR party who recently called for Russia’s North Caucasus regions to be fenced off with barbed wire, said the day of independence should be declared a national unity holiday.
About 300 people rallied for Russian-Crimean friendship outside the Duma during the delegation’s visit, organized by pro-Kremlin groups.
Back to the Paralympics, and Ukraine’s Paralympics chief has confirmed his athletes will be competing in Sochi – so long as there is no Russian invasion. He told a press conference:
I am very afraid that despite the world’s wishes and my call that the irreversible will happen during the Paralympics. I declare: we will pull out of the 11th Paralympic Games in Russia that very second if the thing we fear and which we are against happens.
My colleague Ian Traynor sends this curious incident connected to Yatseniuk following his appearance at yesterday’s EU summit:
Flying back to Kiev via Vienna from the Brussels summit last night, Yatseniuk’s plane was grounded in Vienna and boarded by anti-terrorist police units. Everyone was taken off the plane, according to the Vienna papers this morning.
German air traffic control had received a warning there was a ‘terrorist’ on board. The Germans passed the warning on to the Austrians. When the plane was searched, after being parked in a distant corner of the airport, there was no sign of anything suspicious.
It did emerge, however, that the Ukrainian prime minister was on board. He caught his connecting flight Kiev an hour later, said Vienna’s Kurier newspaper. "Russian secret service circles are assumed to have been pulling the strings behind this terrorism false alarm,” said the paper, quoting Vienna police sources. All passengers were questioned. None of them noticed anything suspicious, the paper said.
Ukraine’s interim prime minister, Arseny Yatseniuk, has reiterated his country’s willingness to talk to Russia, while insisting again that the planned referendum in Crimea will not be recognised.
Yatseniuk said he had requested another telephone call with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, after their conversation on Saturday. "We have declared our readiness to hold talks with the Russian government,” he said, while listing conditions, including the withdrawal of Russian troops and "halting support for the separatists and terrorists in Crimea”.
On the planned 16 March referendum for Crimea to join the Russian Federation Yatseniuk said:
No one in the civilised world will recognise the results of a so-called referendum carried out by these so-called authorities.
Further to the update earlier about the Sochi Paralympics (9.21am GMT) the one nation considering withdrawing its athletes was Ukraine. Now, it seems, they will compete.
Updated at 10.14am GMT
Russia’s foreign ministry has belatedly responded to Nato’s announcement on Wednesday that it would review cooperation with Russia and suspend planning over Syria’s chemical weapons, calling it "biased and prejudiced”. It added in a statement:
We see as extremely dangerous attempts to bring in the ‘NATO factor’ to Ukraine, where the situation is complex and delicate as it is, as it creates additional tension and undermines the prospects for settling the situation.
A reminder that the Sochi Paralympics, just under 300 miles from Simferopol, begin later today with the opening ceremony. This starts at 8pm local time (4pm GMT).
While several counties, including Britain, have decided to not send ministers or other dignitaries to Russia to attend the Games there has been no serious call for boycotts. So, around 700 athletes from 44 countries should be competing as planned.
Here’s some more quotes from Valentina Matviyenko, who chairs the federation council, Russia’s upper house of parliament (see also her comments at 8.22 GMT):
Yesterday we learned about the historic decision taken by the Crimean parliament to hold a referendum on accession, on entry into the Russian Federation. Without a doubt, the Crimean parliament, as a legitimate authority, has that right ... [It is} the sovereign right of the people to determine their future.
The cameraman from the CNN crew heading out with the OSCE monitoring team as they try again to enter Crimea has posted this photo of them setting off. The mission plans to be "assertive” is seeking access, an OSCE spokesman has told CNN.
Updated at 8.48am GMT
Reuters is quoting the chair of Russia’s upper house of parliament, the federation council, via the RIA Novosti news agency, as saying the upper house will support Crimean residents if they vote in favour of joining the Russian Federation. That wasn’t the desired reaction from yesterday’s tough talk in Brussels and Washington.
Valentina Matviyenko (incidentally also Russia’s most powerful female politician) said:
If the people of Crimea take the decision in the referendum to join Russia, we, as the upper house, will of course support such a decision.
Updated at 8.26am GMT
Interpol has said it is considering a request from Ukraine’s new government to issue an arrest warrant for the recently-removed president, Viktor Yanukovych, AFP reports.
The Lyon-based international police organisation said it had received a request from Ukraine to issue an international alert for Yanukovych on charges including abuse of power and murder, and it is being assessed.
You might recall that yesterday the monitoring team from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OCSE) tried twice to enter Crimea but were turned away by armed men. They’re about to try again, accompanied by the media.
Updated at 7.54am GMT
The EU has threatened more sanctions if Russia does not act on the first set, which targeted 18 named Ukrainians, including Viktor Yanukovych, the prime minister removed last month, and his son Oleksandr, for asset freezes (read the full EU sanctions document here).
This morning France’s foreign minister has reiterated this threat, saying new measures could target Russian businesses and those close to Putin. Laurent Fabius told France Info radio, according to Reuters:
If there are not very swift results, there will be new measures aimed at those responsible and Russian businesses.
For some quick background reading, our main story on yesterday’s dramatic developments with the sanctions is here. Also, Shaun Walker in Simferopol reports here on the decision of Crimea’s regional parliament to declare union with Russia – something it said took immediate effect - and hold an imminent referendum.
Firstly to Putin’s comments, delivered via a statement from the Kremlin after his call with Obama, which the Russia leader said had resolved little. The reason for Russia’s actions was, Putin said, "absolutely illegitimate decisions on the eastern, southeastern and Crimea regions” imposed by the new government in Kiev. He added:
Russia cannot ignore calls for help in this matter and it acts accordingly, in full compliance with the international law.
Welcome to another day of live updates on the situation in Ukraine and the global reaction to it. Here’s a very brief precis of where we are this morning:
• Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has vigorously defended his country’s actions in Ukraine, saying they are completely within international law.
• His comments follow the imposition of sanctions – mainly targeting a small number of individuals with visa band and asset freezes – by the EU and US. In later comments, Barack Obama said the US and EU were ”standing up for the principle of state sovereignty”.
• Obama and Putin later held an hour-long phone conversation, which appeared to solve little.
• The sanctions follow a vote by Crimea’s regional parliament yesterday to agree to union with the Russian Federation and organise a referendum on the issue – billed as a mere rubber stamp – for 16 March.
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