This post has been updated.
Tensions in Ukraine’s Crimean region boiled over on Tuesday following the decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin to annex the Black Sea peninsula in defiance of Kiev and much of the Western world.
The most intense flashpoint occurred at a Ukrainian military base in the Crimean capital of Simferopol shortly after Putin and the Crimean leaders formalized the annexation of the peninsula during a signing ceremony. At the base, masked gunmen stormed the facility, killing one soldier, injuring another, and placing the rest of the staff under arrest, according to a Ukrainian military spokesperson. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry then authorized its personnel to use force "to protect and preserve the life of Ukrainian soldiers" while Interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said "the conflict is shifting from a political to a military stage."
The tense atmosphere came amid U.S. efforts to thwart Moscow’s advance by threatening further sanctions — a tactic that has yet to moderate Russian behavior. In a visit to the Polish capital of Warsaw, Vice President Joe Biden condemned Moscow’s actions as a "blatant, blatant disregard of international law." He promised to help modernize Poland’s army and diminish its reliance on Russian natural gas.
The day’s events were kicked off by a defiant and swaggering speech by Putin in front of the Russian parliament in which the Russian strongman claimed the territory as his own and issued a wholesale rejection of American hegemony.
"Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia in the hearts and minds of people," Putin said. "Today we need to stop the hysterics, reject Cold War rhetoric and recognize that Russia has national interests that need to be taken into account and respected … There’s a limit to everything."
The annexation of Crimea came just a day after the United States and the European Union imposed asset freezes and visa bans on more than 20 Russian and Ukrainian officials, warning Moscow not to recognize the Black Sea peninsula as an independent state. Within 24 hours, Putin not only endorsed the results of Crimea’s referendum on joining Russia, but also signed an annexation agreement into law.
"Our Western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer to be guided by the principle that might is right in international politics," Putin said. "They have come to believe they are exceptional. They think that only they can be right … They’re trying to drive us into a corner because we’re not hypocritical and tell it like it is."
Responding to Putin’s address, Ukraine’s Acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called the Russian land grab "a robbery on an international scale." Appearing with Ukraine’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov at a press conference, he said Putin is "mimicking the fascists of the last century."
On Monday, the Obama administration warned of future sanctions against Russian officials and anyone aiding Russian officials, including "any individual or entity that operates in the Russian arms industry," in a new executive order targeting Russia specifically. "If Russia continues to interfere in Ukraine, we stand ready to impose further sanctions," said President Barack Obama.
At the time, Russia vowed to respond with retaliatory sanctions against U.S. officials. "Reciprocal steps from the Russian side will definitely follow," said a Russian Embassy spokesman in Washington. When asked on Tuesday which officials will be targeted, the official told Foreign Policy he would send along details as they arrive and followed that message with a smiley face emoticon.
The severity of new U.S. sanctions against Moscow remains unclear as well. One of the most powerful weapons the West could use against Russia would be to target the country’s energy powerhouses, especially Gazprom and Rosneft. The two companies dominate Russia’s energy production and exports, and are the key levers by which Putin wields energy as a geopolitical weapon.
Bringing the hurt to the energy firms would deal a blow to an economy that is increasingly in trouble — both now and in the future. Oil and gas exports make up about half of Russia’s federal budget now. And both Gazprom and Rosneft are at the heart of Russia’s efforts to increase production of oil and gas in cooperation with foreign partners including BP and Exxon. But taking such a step would be particularly damaging for Europe, which relies on Russia for about 30% of its natural-gas supplies.
You can watch Putin’s entire speech here.