Ukrainians are bracing for a tumultuous week as the country moves closer to the prospect of Crimea joining Russia and world leaders scramble to find a solution to the crisis.
A series of phone calls on Sunday involving several leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, did little to ease the tension in Ukraine. Mr. Putin insisted that his government has a legitimate interest in protecting the majority Russian-speaking population in Crimea and he endorsed a referendum the territory is holding this week on whether it should become part of Russia.
The “legitimate leadership in Crimea is taking actions based on international law and with the aim of guaranteeing the legitimate interests of the population of the peninsula,” Mr. Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron. He added that Russia was interested in finding a diplomatic solution.
Western leaders and Ukraine’s new government have insisted the referendum is illegal and they will not recognize the outcome. They have called on Russia to de-escalate the situation or face possible sanctions.
The high-level contacts came as Ukraine accused Russia of sending more troops into Crimea over the weekend. According to the Ukrainian government, Russian soldiers have surrounded six military bases, blocked 11 border guard units and impeded access to the outer bay at Sevastopol.
“Let the Russian president know, we will defend every centimetre of Ukrainian land,” Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a large crowd in central Kiev on Sunday. “This is our land.” Mr. Yatsenyuk later announced that he will travel to Washington this week for talks with the U.S.
Competing rallies were held in several cities on Sunday, as those in favour of keeping the country united faced off against people who want Crimea and other regions to join Russia.
Thousands gathered in Kiev’s Independence Square to honour the 200th anniversary of the birth of Ukraine writer Taras Shevchenko and voice support for a united Ukraine. A bag piper led a long line of people on a march through the city centre, many waving flags of several countries including Canada. Some also held signs comparing Russian President Vladimir Putin with Hitler.
Crimea “is a real big problem and it makes people very concerned about the future,” said Bogdan Dubas, a leader of the protest movement, known as Madian, which was instrumental in the ouster of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych last month.
The crowd also heard supportive words from Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a fierce critic of Mr. Putin who was recently released from jail after serving more than ten years. He criticized Mr. Putin for saying the Maidan was led by Nazis. “Russian propaganda lies, as always. There are no fascists or Nazis here,” he told the crowd. ”I want you to know – there is a different Russia. There are people who despite the arrests, despite the long years they have spent in prison, go to anti-war demonstration in Moscow.”
In Crimea an equal number of people flooded into Lenin Square in the capital of Simferopol, to show support for re-joining Russia (Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made Crimea part of Ukraine in 1954). “Together with Russia we will build our future,” said the newly appointed Prime Minister of the territory, Sergey Aksyonov.
The Crimean government also said on Sunday that Russia is ready to invest about $1-billion in Crimea once it becomes part of Russia. And it said it expects salaries and pensions to increase.
Voters don’t have much choice in the referendum. Crimean officials released a copy of the ballot over the weekend and it offers two options; joining Russia or reverting back to the 1992 Crimean constitution which gave the territory more powers as an autonomous region within Ukraine. Voting “No” to either is not an option. And even selecting the second choice puts the region on track to joining Russia because the government has already asked the Russian parliament to begin the annexation process.