Putin seeks fast track Crimea annexation to exploit turmoil
Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking to profit to the maximum from Ukraine's turmoil by implementing the de-facto annexation of Crimea at high speed to wrong foot an indecisive West, analysts said.
The ousting of the generally pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was a major defeat for Putin and means that the ex-Soviet state is now swiftly aligning itself with the European Union in a historic switch away from the Kremlin.
But with Ukraine in chaos under its new pro-Western authorities, Putin is moving to seize Crimea, a region that most Russians believe only ended up in post-USSR Ukraine because of a catastrophic mistake by Nikita Khrushchev to make it part of the Soviet republic of Ukraine.
The Crimean parliament said on Thursday it was asking Putin if Crimea could become part of Russia and would put the issue to the people in a hastily brought forward referendum on March 16.
Russia's parliament is meanwhile already preparing a bill to ease the process for incorporating part of a foreign state into Russia.
While the initial move has come from the Crimean parliament, few doubt this is a plan by Putin drawn up at breathtaking speed so that Russia can gain some historical profit from the Ukraine crisis.
It is move entirely in character for a strongman leader who famously declared the collapse of the Soviet Union to be the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century.
The swoop is unlikely to meet with much opposition in Russian society which remains a hotbed of patriotism and often nostalgic for the projection of Moscow power seen in the Soviet era.
Putin -- who has always sought to promote Russia's status as a great power in any situation like the Syria conflict -- wants to show the West that the Kremlin will not leave events like the Ukraine uprising without reaction.
"Putin has decided to show that he does not fear the West or sanctions. He has decided to put the West in front of a fait accompli to show his decisiveness," said leading Russian defence commentator Pavel Felgenhauer.
"Putin cannot and does not want to take a step backwards, especially as the propaganda campaign in Russia has been ratcheted up so much."
Alexei Makarkin of the Centre for Political Technology in Moscow said: "The situation is changing fast -- what yesterday seemed unthinkable now becomes reality."
A big question is whether Russia limits itself to just Crimea or also makes a move on eastern Ukraine, which also has Russian-speakers who consider themselves loyal to the Kremlin.
"He is saying that Crimea is ours. Russia is not going to enter the territory of the rest of Ukraine, in as much as Crimea is going to become Russian territory," Makarkin said.
"He is saying give us Crimea and we will not touch the rest. It's not going to work (annexing) the east, it would be too dangerous."
But Nikolai Petrov, professor at the Higher School of Economics, said the idea of moving into the east of Ukraine was still very much on the table.
"Putin wants to consolidate his success and set out the positions for negotiations -- guaranteed inclusion of Crimea into Russia and control over eastern Ukraine."
Russia faces unprecedented post-Cold War isolation, sanctions as well as risks to its already fragile economy, with the ruble slumping again on Thursday.
Traditional alliances may be endangered. China, worried about separatism in the Xinjiang region, may not be impressed by such radical moves. Kazakhstan will fret about being lumped with Russia in a Customs Union at such dangerous times.
"Russia is going to be in isolation at the UN. Ukraine will not acknowledge the annexation of Crimea and it is possible relations will be cut off," said Makarkin.
Meanwhile Felgenhauer said Russia's annexation of Crimea may not prove to be the walk in the park that Russia appears to expect, especially with Crimea's Tatar population traditionally loyal to Kiev and hostile to Russian domination.
"A partisan war could start in Crimea," he said.
France backs off on Russia sanctions ahead of EU Ukraine meeting
French President François Hollande took a step back from threats of sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis, declaring that he wanted to increase pressure but not raise tension before a European Union emergency meeting on Thursday. As he spoke, the Crimean parliament voted to join Russia and hold a referendum on staying in Ukraine.
"What do we want?" Hollande said to reporters as he arrived in Brussels. "Not to raise I don't known what sort of tension again but, on the controary, to open dialogue. That's what we did yesterday in Paris. That was a frist step, which I think was useful."
On Wednesday morning French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius called for sanctionsagainst Russian interests if there was no "deescalation" in Crimea, the semi-autonomous region where Russian troops are reported to have taken up positions and pro-Russian forces are in control.
Crimea's parliament on Thursday voted to ask Russian President Vladimir Putin to consider a request for the region to join the Russian federation and its Deputy Prime Minister, Roustam Temirgaliev, said that a referendum on whether to stay part of Ukraine would be held on 16 March.
On Thursday, as German businesses went on record against economic sanctions, Hollande seemed to have softened the French government's tone, calling on Europe to apply "sufficiently strong pressure, diminish tension, open the way to dialogue and finally allow Ukraine to decide its own fate".
His advisors told the AFP news agency that he wanted a "serious warning" to Russia and judged an end to the current crisis more important than sanctions.
During a hyperactive day in Paris Wednesday, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov refused to meet his new Ukrainian counterpart Andrii Deshchytsia, who had been brought to the French capital by US Secretary of State John Kerry.
On the sidelines of a meeting to discuss helping Lebanon tackle the fallout from Syria's conflict there were a number of meetings between foreign ministers from France, Britian, Germany, Poland, Russia and the US before the action moved to Brussels.
The European Union meeting froze the assets of ousted Ukraine leader Viktor Yanukovych, former prime minister Mykola Azarov and 16 former ministers, businessmen and security chiefs, all on grounds of fraud.
Sarkozy, Carla Bruni sue over leaked tapes
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, are to sue over the leaking of tapes of their dealings with his one-time advisor, Partick Buisson, the architect of the shift to the right of his 2012 presidential campaign.
Sarkozy and Bruni-Sarkozy "cannot accept that private conversations have been recorded and published without their consent", the couple's lawyers Thierry Herzog and
Richard Malka said on Thursday when they announced that the couple would take legal action alleging breach of privacy.
The charges carry penalties of a year in prison and a fine of up to 45,000 euros.
His lawyer says he will take legal action over their alleged theft and against the press for receiving stolen objects.
His son, Georges, who is no longer on friendly terms with his father, has denied speculation that he is the source of the leaks.
Buisson, who began his career as a journalist on the far-right magazine Minute, is a long-time advocate of a rapprochement between the mainstream right and the Front National and other hardline groups.
He became an adviser to Sarkozy in 2005 and was appointed head of France's history TV channel, Histoire, in 2007.
Having succeeded in persuading Sarkozy to set up a ministry of national identity and immigration, during the 2012 election campaign he was the principal proponent of a shift to the right in a bid to stop a flight of voters to Marine Le Pen's Front National.
He is said to idolise Sarkozy, who is now reported to be furious with him, and to have made the tapes in order to write a book about his time with the president.
French unemployement dips for first time since 2011
France's unemployment rate fell in the fourth quarter of 2013, for the first time since April 2011, according to the national statistics institute, Insee, but part of the drop is due to a change in methods of calculation.
"Unemployement is going down," said Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault on RMC-BFMTV on Thursday.
"Youth unemployment went down 85,000 in one year," he added. "Unemployment is still much too high but it started to go down in the last quarter, as it did in the rest of Europe."
But another employment indicator appeared to contradict the latest figure.
Job claims, registered at the national employment agency Pôle Emploi, increased by 5,000 a month in the fourth quarter of 2013 and 8,900 in January 2014.
Insee revised its data with a new questionnaire and said that it reduced the rate by 0,5 point.
The labour ministry denies any involvement in the change of method.
Paris meeting pledges aid for Lebanon as Syria refugees flow in
A summit in Paris has promised to help Lebanon with money and military equipment as the conflict in Syria drives more than a million refugees over the border. The influx is an "existential" threat to the country's unity, President Michel Sleiman told a contact group of foreign ministers from 10 countries on Wednesday.
More than a million refugees have fled from wartorn Syria to Lebanon, whose population is four million, since the conflict began three years ago and continue arriving at a rate of 50,000 per month.
France said it would assist Lebanon in any way it needs.
President François Hollande said the international community has three priorities for Lebanon:
"First, the funds sent to help refugees must be complemented and increased, to relieve Lebanon's burdens as much as possible," he declared. "The second priority is to support the Lebanese economy - through the World Bank, infrastructure projects will be financed and the country's public funds will be safeguarded. The third priority is to ensure the security of Lebanon and to allow the Lebanese army to have the necssary equipment. France is contributing in this area, working along with Saudi Arabia."
As well as promising financial aid, the meeting's final statement called for the authors of "repeated terrorist attacks" should be brought to justice.
Donors at a conference in Kuwait in January pledged 1.7 billion euros in aid to the refugees and France has already committed 10.4 million euros in 2014 and is to unblock a further one million, sources told the AFP news agency.
France, Norway and Finland have made the first contributions to the World Bank fund for the Lebanese economy.
Saudi Arabia has promised over two million euros to the Lebanese army and France has delivered heat-seeking anti-tank missiles, according to sources.
Several projects are conditional on normal political life returning to Lebanon and the conference said it was "crucial" that the presidential election, due at the end of May, and parliamentary elections take place as planned.
Media coverage of the conference was overshadowed by meetings on its sidelines - notably between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov - related to the crisis in Ukraine.
French press review 06 March 2014
Patrick Buisson, former presidential advisor to Nicolas Sarkozy, dominates this morning's front pages.
Libération and Le Monde both give the front-page honours to Buisson. He is in the news because he made a habit of recording supposedly controversial conversations and meetings at the Elysée presidential palace.
Like a low-budget version of James Bond, Buisson would attend meetings of the Sarkozy inner circle with a dictaphone running in his jacket pocket.
Libé says the details in some of the recordings may well turn out to be a dangerous boomerang for Sarkozy but says this is just one further illustration of the nastiness that marked political high places under the Sarkozy regime. No one trusted anyone else, and you were well advised to have a record of what was really being said, and by who.
Libé says the recordings reveal an excercise of power at the summit of the French republic which is a sickening mixture of vulgarity, cynicism and distrust.
Buisson has been criticised across the political spectrum and his initiative may lead him to certain legal complications: depending on what is actually on the tapes (apart from Sarkozy sending his secretary out for five coffees and a sticky bun for Claude Guéant). Buisson could be done for breaching the regulations surrounding national defence or for infringing the privacy of third parties or for violating judicial secrecy.
Right-wing Le Figaro says that the European Commission in Brussels has once again warned the French government that the state of state finances is just not up to scratch.
The level of indebtedness, the gap between income and spending and the ever-diminishing capacity of French business to compete in the global market are among the commission's main worries. France is now in the "special supervision" category normally reserved for Greeks and Irishmen.
A national humiliation, whimpers Le Figaro.
On inside pages, Libération looks at the way the power structure of the Hosni Mubarak era is slowly retaking control of post-revolutionary Egypt. Current Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb and two of the 11 new ministers are former Mubarak stalwarts. Perhaps more significantly, the wise money is on the current defence minister and army chief, Abdel Fatha el-Sissi, for the upcoming presidential race.
One commentator interviewed by Libé says it's not surprising to see serious career politicians reemerging from the cracks after the dark days of the revolution. But this, says the same analyst, is an expression of individual ambition not a sign that the regime is about to stage a sudden comeback.
Libération also reports that the Japanese high-speed train Shinkasen is now equipped with footbaths so that travellers can profit from the journey by getting their hooves honed up while watching the countryside flash past. They already have the option of a beauty salon and the traditional food service.
You might be inclined to wonder if the authorities didn't have some special kind of health consideration in mind when they installed the special compartment with the two three-metre long baths on the service linking Shinjo and Fukushima.
Japanese high-speed trains are renowned for being clean, on-time and very expensive. And you won't meet anyone with radioactive or otherwise offensive feet on the line from Fukushima to Shinjo.