Putin Escalates Tension, Declares Crimea Referendum Legitimate

"the steps undertaken by the legitimate authorities of Crimea are based on the norms of international law"

In a direct rebuke of President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Monday Vladimir Putin called the Crimean referendum vote to be annexed by Russia as a legitimate procedure that follows “the norms of international law.” This announcement followed an escalation of tension on the ground in Crimea Sunday, as pro-Kremlin separatists staged a series of aggressive moves, attacking a pro-Ukrainian rally in Sevastopol, taking control of Lugansk, and raising the Russian flag over the security forces’ headquarters in Donetsk.

From AFP:

Kiev (AFP) - Ukraine sought urgent Western backing on Monday after Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted that Crimea had the right to join his country even while hinting at a readiness for dialogue.

The pro-European team in Kiev that rode the wave of three months of deadly protests to topple a Kremlin-backed regime is running against the clock to preserve the territorial integrity of the culturally splintered nation of 46 million.

The Russian-backed leadership of the largely ethnic Russian Crimean peninsula has set a referendum vote for breaking away from Ukraine and folding Crimea under Kremlin rule for March 16th, a vote Obama, Merkel, David Cameron, and other western leaders have publicly decried as illegal.

Despite the west's protestations, Putin countered Monday, declaring the vote perfectly legitimate by the standards of international law:

The most explosive East-West crisis since the Cold War was stoked further when the Kremlin said Putin told both Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron that he fully recognised the actions of the Crimean leaders -- in power since an end of February seizure of the local parliament and government by pro-Kremlin gunmen.

The Kremlin said Putin stressed "the steps undertaken by the legitimate authorities of Crimea are based on the norms of international law" -- a comment hinting strongly that the Kremlin was ready to annex Crimea after handing the peninsula as a "gift" to Ukraine when it was a part of the Soviet empire in 1954.

The Kremlin places the blame for Crimea’s push for annexation on the hostile treatment of ethnic Russians by the new Ukrainians leaders. Most analysts expect the vote, which would be overseen by the current pro-Russian Crimean leaders who gained control when Russia invaded, to turn out in Russia’s favor.