Russian President Vladimir Putin has admitted for the first time that the plan to annex Crimea was ordered weeks before the referendum on self-determination.
Crimea was formally absorbed into Russia on March 18, to international condemnation, after unidentified gunmen took over the peninsula.
Vladimir Putin said on TV he had ordered work on “returning Crimea” to begin at an all-night meeting on February 22.
The meeting was called after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted.
Speaking last year, Vladimir Putin had said only that he took his final decision about Crimea after secret, undated opinion polls showed 80% of Crimeans favored joining Russia.
The findings of these polls were borne out by the outcome of the referendum on March 16, he told Russian state TV last April.
Speaking in a forthcoming Russian TV documentary, Vladimir Putin said a meeting with officials had been held on February 22-23 to plan the rescue of Ukraine’s deposed president.
“I invited the leaders of our special services and the defense ministry to the Kremlin and set them the task of saving the life of the president of Ukraine, who would simply have been liquidated,” he said.
“We finished about seven in the morning. When we were parting, I told all my colleagues, <<We are forced to begin the work to bring Crimea back into Russia>>.”
The trailer for The Path To The Motherland was broadcast on March 8 with no release date announced.
On February 27, unidentified armed men seized the local parliament and local government buildings in Crimea, raising the Russian flag.
Among them appeared to be regular soldiers without military insignia, who were dubbed the “little green men”.
Vladimir Putin subsequently admitted deploying troops on the peninsula to “stand behind Crimea’s self-defense forces”.
The formal annexation of Crimea sparked unrest in eastern Ukraine on April 7, when pro-Russian protesters occupied government buildings in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv demanding independence.
A month later, pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence from Ukraine after unrecognized referendums.
Ukraine responded by launching an “anti-terrorist operation” against them and the region became engulfed in a conflict which has cost at least 6,000 lives and driven more than a million people from their homes, according to the UN.
The Ukrainian government, Western leaders and NATO say there is clear evidence that Russia is helping the separatists with heavy weapons and soldiers. Independent experts echo that accusation.
Moscow denies it, insisting that any Russians serving with the rebels are “volunteers”.
Full details of Viktor Yanukovych’s escape from Ukraine are unclear although Vladimir Putin spoke of preparations to evacuate him from Donetsk.
The documentary, which Russian TV says will be broadcast soon, was made by Andrei Kondrashov, a journalist with state-run channel Rossiya-1.
President Barack Obama has signed an executive order banning the export of goods, technology and services to Crimea.
The executive order also imposes new sanctions on certain Russian and Ukrainian individuals and companies.
The West has imposed various sanctions on Russia since it annexed Crimea after the removal of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych in February.
Barack Obama said his latest decision was to show that the US would not accept Russia’s annexation.
The annexation was followed in April by pro-Russian separatists taking control of parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine and declaring independence.
Some 4,700 people have died and another million have been displaced by fighting since then, the UN says.
On December 19, five Ukrainian soldiers were killed in fighting – the highest death toll since the latest attempt at a ceasefire began on 9 December.
Barack Obama said in a statement: “The executive order is intended to provide clarity to US corporations doing business in the region and reaffirm that the United States will not accept Russia’s occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea.”
In addition to the goods, technology and services ban, US individuals or companies cannot now buy any real estate or businesses in Crimea or fund Crimean firms.
The new measures also include sanctions on 24 Ukrainian and Russian individuals and on a number of companies deemed to be destabilizing Ukraine.
They include the Russian equity investment group, Marshall Capital Partners, and the Night Wolves biker group, over its involvement in Crimean military action.
Meanwhile, the EU imposed its own new sanctions against the Crimea region.
Like the EU, Barack Obama said he would not yet impose new sanctions on Russia, urging it again to de-escalate the tension in eastern Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that “threatening new sanctions against Russia could undermine the possibility of normal cooperation between our countries for a long time”.
Barack Obama said: “I again call on Russia to end its occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea, cease its support to separatists in eastern Ukraine, and fulfill its commitments under the Minsk agreement.”
The agreement signed by Ukraine and the rebels in Minsk, in Belarus, in September, put in place a ceasefire and set out the terms for a peace process.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law formalizing the takeover of Crimea from Ukraine, despite fresh sanctions from the EU and the US.
The EU’s latest measures target 12 people involved in Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Earlier, Ukraine and the EU signed an accord forging closer political ties.
Separately, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has agreed to send monitors to Ukraine, after Russia dropped objections.
The six-month mission will initially consist of 100 international civilian monitors, who will be employed in nine regions of Ukraine – including the south-eastern areas rocked by violence between pro-Ukraine and pro-Russian activists.
Vladimir Putin has signed a law formalizing the takeover of Crimea from Ukraine (photo Reuters)
The observers will not go to Crimea but German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the decision was “a step that helps to support our de-escalation efforts”.
Western diplomats had blamed Russia for several failed attempt to agree such a mission to help defuse the tense situation.
In Brussels, EU leaders also said they would step up efforts to reduce energy dependency on Russia.
The EU’s new sanctions add to an existing list of 21 officials affected by travel bans and asset freezes.
They include Deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin and two close aides of Vladimir Putin, Sergei Glazyev and Vladislav Surkov.
The speakers of Russia’s two houses of parliament, Valentina Matviyenko and Sergei Naryshkin – both at Vladimir Putin’s side as he signed the Crimea law – are also included.
While the list targets several figures close to the Russian president, it does not hit his inner circle as hard as the sanctions announced by the US on Thursday.
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