Tensions mount on eve of Crimea independence vote

Moscow vetoes UN resolution on referendum; Ukraine accuses Russia of military incursion

Russia has maintained a forces of thousands of its troops on Ukrainian territory under the pretext of protecting the interests of Ukraine's ethnic Russians.
Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images

Pro-Russian leaders in Crimea made final preparations Saturday for a referendum widely expected to return a verdict in favor of a transfer control of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine to Moscow, despite the threat of sanctions and condemnation from Western governments.

Sunday's vote, dismissed in advance by Kiev as illegal and subject to a United Nations Security Council vote Saturday that Russia vetoed, has triggered arguably the worst East-West crises since the end of the Cold War, and ratcheted up tensions not only in Crimea but also eastern Ukraine, where two people were killed in clashes late on Friday. Meanwhile in Russia, thousands of people joined protests in Moscow against the government's moves in Crimea.

In an additional indication of heightened tension, the Ukrainian government said Saturday that Russian forces advanced onto Ukrainian territory outside Crimea, in the Kherson region of southeast Ukraine. 

The Ukrainian military and foreign ministry both released statements alleging the Russian incursion on the country's territory, but they portrayed differing accounts on whether the Russian advance had concluded with the occupation of additional Ukrainian territory. One statement indicated that a small village had been occupied, while the other said an invasion had been rebuffed.

The New York Times reported late Saturday that Russian forces in helicopters had seized a natural gas terminal just inside Crimea's northeast border.

Meanwhile, the streets of the Crimean capital of Simferopol were calm on Saturday, despite a heavy military presence. Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov, whose recent election in a closed session of the regional parliament after Russian forces occupied the peninsula is not recognized by Kiev, said there were enough security personnel to ensure that Sunday's vote would be safe.

"I think we have enough people – more than 10,000 in the self-defense (forces), more than 5,000 in different units of the Interior Ministry and the security services of the Crimean Republic," he told reporters.

In Kiev, the Ukrainian parliament voted to dissolve the Crimean regional assembly, which has organized the referendum and backs union with Russia. One Ukrainian nationalist leader in the Kiev legislature said the Crimean assembly must be sanctioned to discourage separatist movements in the mainly Russian-speaking east of Ukraine.

Aksyonov and Moscow do not officially recognize that Russian troops have taken control of Crimea, and say that thousands of unidentified armed men visible across the region belong to "self-defense" groups created to ensure stability.

But the Russian military has done little to hide the arrival of thousands of soldiers, along with trucks, armored personnel carriers and artillery. Masked gunmen surrounding Ukrainian military installations in Crimea have identified themselves as Russian troops.

Moscow leases the Crimean port of Sevastopol from Kiev to station its Black Sea Fleet. Under the deal it can station up to 25,000 troops there but not on other Ukrainian territory.

The intervention follows the fall of Ukraine's pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich on Feb. 22 amid months of street protests.

Most of Crimea's electorate of 1.5 million is expected to choose joining Russia in the referendum, reflecting an ethnic Russian majority, the only region in Ukraine where that is true. 

Meanwhile, in the Security Council vote Saturday, Russia vetoed a move to make Sunday's Crimea referendum illegal. While supporters of the U.S.-sponsored resolution knew that Russia would use its veto, it was meant as a symbolic opposition to Moscow's intentions.

The final vote was 13 members in favor, with Russia as a permanent council member casting a veto. China abstained, marking a move away from recent precedent in which it has supported Moscow in the Security Council.

The resolution would have reaffirmed the council's commitment to Ukraine's "sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity." It would have declared that the referendum on whether Crimea should become part of Russia "can have no validity, and cannot form the basis for any alteration of the status of Crimea."

In Washington, President Barack Obama's national security team discussed the Ukraine crisis in a session at the White House. Secretary of State John Kerry, who just returned from talks with his Russian counterpart in London, was at the White House meeting along with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Obama did not attend the meeting, said Laura Lucas Magnuson, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, but was being briefed about it and other developments involving Crimea and Ukraine.

Spillover trouble

Eastern Ukraine will also be on high alert during the vote Sunday, where pro-Russian sentiment is also strong, though not to the extent it is in Crimea.

On Friday, two people were killed and several others wounded, including a policeman, in a shootout at the building of a far-right Ukrainian nationalist group, highlighting tensions in the eastern part of the country that have erupted in Ukraine's political turmoil.

Details of the Friday night shooting in the city of Kharkiv were murky, but local news reports said it broke out after a skirmish between pro-Russia demonstrators and their opponents.

Violence has escalated in Ukraine's Russia-leaning east in recent days, as pro-Russia demonstrators have seized government buildings and clashed with supporters of the new Kiev government. At least one person died and 17 were wounded in clashes in the city of Donetsk on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the ongoing unrest is not contained to Ukraine itself. Russian protesters descended to the center of Moscow Saturday, demonstrating against the government's invasion of Crimea.

Around 50,000 people rallied there, waving both Ukrainian and Russian flags and shouting slogans heard during the anti-government protests in Kiev. The demonstrators urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull troops back from their engagement on Ukrainian territory.

Marchers carried placards reading "Putin, get out of Ukraine" and others comparing Russia's move on Crimea with the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland as Europe rushed headlong into World War II.

Many of the protesters adopted the chants and slogans of Ukraine's popular uprising that ousted President Viktor Yanukovich last month.

University professor Yelena Orlova, 47, whose sign read "Ukraine is a sovereign state", said she did not expect the rally would change her government's position, but believed it was her duty to speak out.

"I don't agree with the policy of Putin," she told AFP. "I am against the annexation of Crimea. I think Russia should respect the borders of Ukraine."

Perils of annexation

Even in the likely case that the Crimea parliament decided to formally secede, a messy political picture is likely to emerge in the aftermath.

Pro-Kiev Ukrainians complain about the highly visible military presence and growing number of pro-Russian volunteers, many carrying batons, patrolling streets and conducting searches at Simferopol's main railway station.

While ethnic Tatars, Sunni Muslims of Turkic origin who make up 12 percent of Crimea's population, have said they will boycott the referendum, despite promises by the authorities to give them financial aid and proper land rights.

For his part, Aksyonov seems to brush aside any potential for unrest, saying that than 80 percent of Crimeans supported the break with Ukraine and union with Russia, and that the referendum would be free and fair.

Aksyonov was cautious on how long Crimea's annexation might take should the vote go as he expects, saying the process could last up to a year.

But the United States and Europe could impose sanctions on dozens of Russians linked to Crimea's takeover as soon as Monday, even before the final referendum results are published.

Despite the regional government's confidence in that outcome, it was taking no chances, distributing fliers around Simferopol recalling the patriotic fervor whipped up by the Soviets during World War Two.

"Your Motherland is calling!" said one. "Say Yes to Russia!"

Russia has justified taking control of Crimea by saying it was defending its people against "fascists" in Kiev, a reference to a number of far-right protesters who clashed with police in deadly clashes in the capital before Yanukovich’s fall.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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