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June 27, 2017

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Russia welcomes Crimea despite Western sanctions

KIEV/SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine -- Top Russian lawmakers on Friday welcomed the prospect of Crimea joining the country, despite stiffening sanctions on Moscow over the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.

The heads of Russia's two houses of parliament said they would respect a decision by lawmakers in Ukraine's majority-Russian peninsula to renounce ties with Kiev and stage a March 16 referendum on switching over to Kremlin rule.

"Should the people of Crimea decide to join Russia in a referendum, we ... will unquestionably back this choice," said speaker of the upper house Valentina Matviyenko.

"We will respect the historic choice of the people of Crimea," said her lower house counterpart Sergei Naryshkin.

The escalating threat of the ex-Soviet nation of 46 million splintering between its pro-European west and more Russified southeast prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to place an hourlong call to Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

It marked the leaders' second lengthy phone call in five days and both sides described it as tough.

The White House said Obama "emphasized that Russia's actions are in violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, which has led us to take several steps in response, in coordination with our European partners."

The Kremlin for its part said Putin tried to calm tensions by stressing that U.S.-Russian relations "should not be sacrificed due to disagreements over individual — albeit extremely significant — international problems."

The European Union earlier firmed its resolve to impose stiff sanctions on Russia while also vowing to sign an historic trade pact aimed at pulling Kiev out of Moscow's orbit before Ukraine holds snap presidential polls on May 25.

Yet with Russian forces in effective control of Crimea — a predominantly ethnic Russian peninsula roughly the size of Belgium and the base of the Kremlin's Black Sea Fleet — the threat of Ukraine's division seemed more real than at any point since Putin won parliamentary approval to use force against his western neighbor.

Western allies have been grappling with a response to Putin's seeming ambition to recreate vestiges of the Russian empire without regard to the damage this does to Moscow's foreign relations or instability it creates.

Moscow argues it needs to defend ethnic Russians from coming under attack from ultra-nationalists who have backing from the new pro-EU team in Kiev.

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