MOSCOW Russia's lower house of parliament on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a treaty to annex Crimea from Ukraine, leaving just one legal obstacle for the Black Sea peninsula to cross before it is formally absorbed by Moscow.
Only one deputy in the State Duma voted against the treaty, and the Federation Council upper house is expected to complete ratification on Friday, signed by President Vladimir Putin and Crimean leaders on Tuesday.
The State Duma chamber stood for the national anthem after the vote, approved by 443 deputies in an almost full chamber .
"From now on, and forever, the Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol will be in the Russian Federation," pro-Kremlin lawmaker Leonid Slutsky said in an address before the vote.
The Crimean port city of Sevastopol is home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Russian forces are now in control of the peninsula, which has an ethnic Russian majority and voted for union with Russia on Sunday.
Approval of the treaty in the rubber-stamp parliament had never been in doubt once it was signed by Putin.
"I am certain the passage of these documents will be a turning point in the fate of the multi-ethnic peoples of Crimea and Russia, who are linked by the close ties of historical solidarity," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Duma after presenting the treaty to the chamber.
Describing annexation of Crimea as needed to protect ethnic Russians there, he said: "To this day, lawlessness continues, and there are daily actions by nationalists, anti-Semites and other extremists on whom the new (Ukrainian) authorities depend."
He added: "The unification of these peoples in one state will promote the well-being and prosperity and serve the interests of Russia."
Russia's moves to annex Crimea have turned a confrontation with Europe and the United States into the biggest crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War.
Earlier on Thursday, Lavrov blamed the crisis on the West, without specifically mentioning the United States.
He said Western nations were trying to "preserve their global leadership and display their exceptionalism rather than striving to be guided by international law".
"The events in Ukraine are a reflection of these approaches," Lavrov said, adding that Moscow would continue to use "political, diplomatic and legal methods" to protect Russians abroad.
"We will insist that countries in which our compatriots have found themselves fully respect their rights and freedoms," he said. Russia accuses the new pro-Western authorities in Kiev of endangering Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine.
SWIFT MOVES ON INTEGRATION
The annexation treaty goes into force once ratified and stipulates that Crimea will be fully integrated into Russia after a transition period ending on January 1.
Russia has begun issuing Russian passports to Crimeans, Interfax quoted Russia's immigration agency chief, Konstantin Romodanovsky, as saying.
Crimean voters overwhelmingly backed joining Russia in a referendum on Sunday but the West says the vote was illegal.
The United States and Europe have imposed sanctions on officials and lawmakers accused of involvement in the annexation, partially suspended military and trade ties, and threatened more punitive measures.
Russian officials are moving swiftly to integrate the region and bolster an economy that has been dependent on Kiev for 85 percent of its electricity, 90 percent of its drinking water and some of its food supplies.
Finance Minister Anton Siluanov has said Russia will cover Crimea's estimated 55 billion ruble ($1.53 billion) budget deficit with funds from the federal budget.
Energy Minister Alexander Novak said Russia would also ensure Crimea has a constant power supply by providing back-up sources and controlling fuel reserves.
(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper and Denis Pinchuk, Editing by Timothy Heritage)