The European Union on March 17 condemned Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea territory, calling Moscow’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula a “direct challenge to international security.”
The statement by EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini came one day ahead of the third anniversary of Russia’s formal incorporation of Crimea that was dismissed as illegitimate by Ukraine, the United States, and more than 100 countries in the United Nations General Assembly.
“Three years on from the illegal annexation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol by the Russian Federation, the European Union remains firmly committed to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Mogherini said.
Both the EU and the United States hit Russia with several rounds of sanctions in response to the land grab and Moscow’s backing of separatists whose war against government forces has killed at least 9,940 people in eastern Ukraine.
That conflict continues to grind on despite a 2015 peace deal reached in Minsk, Belarus. The Ukrainian military said on March 17 that two of its soldiers were killed and eight others wounded a day earlier in attacks by the separatists in the swathe of eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas.
Separatist leader Igor Plotnitsky vowed on March 17 that a referendum would be staged on the incorporation of separatist-controlled areas into Russia.
Prior to annexing Crimea, Russia staged a referendum on the peninsula following the seizing of key government buildings there by unmarked Russian special forces after former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia amid mass street protests across the country.
Moscow used the poll, rejected by Kyiv and the West as illegal, as justification for taking control of Crimea, claiming it represented the will of the people there.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's drew international condemnation last month by signing a decree ordering Russian authorities to recognize identity documents issued by the separatists who hold parts of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The Kremlin however, is not considering integrating the separatist-controlled areas into Russia, spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on March 17.
"We do not see any eventual deliberations as possible in this context," he said.
He accused Ukraine of "deliberately rejecting" the region, criticism that came days after Ukrainian authorities announced the suspension of all cargo traffic with areas held by the separatists.
Addressing the anniversary of the Crimea annexation, Peskov told reporters that Russia hopes that "sooner or later Kyiv will start to treat the will expressed by the several million Crimean residents with respect and will accept the results" of the 2014 referendum staged by Moscow there.
Russia has portrayed its military operation in Crimea following Yanukovych’s ouster as necessary to protect ethnic Russians and other residents of the peninsula from oppression by pro-Western officials that eventually took power in Kyiv.
That narrative is rejected by Ukraine and Western governments, which accuse Russian-backed authorities in Crimea of rights abuses against Crimean Tatars and others opposed to Moscow’s rule there.
Referring to the annexation, Mogherini said in her March 17 statement that the EU “reiterates that it does not recognize and continues to condemn this violation of international law.”
“It remains a direct challenge to international security, with grave implications for the international legal order that protects the unity and sovereignty of all states,” she said.
While U.S. President Donald Trump has said he wants to improve ties with Russia and previously indicated he could consider lifting sanctions against Moscow related to Crimea, his young administration has repeatedly denounced Russia’s takeover of the peninsula.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a March 16 statement that Washington “again condemns the Russian occupation of Crimea and calls for its immediate end.”
With reporting by RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak, RIA-Novosti, TASS, Interfax, and Reuters