By Mike Eckel and Jim Heintz
SIMFEROPOL, UKRAINE: Russian forces backed by helicopter gunships and armored vehicles Saturday took control of a village near the border with Crimea on the eve of a referendum on whether the region should seek annexation by Moscow, Ukrainian officials said.
The action in Strilkove appeared to be the first move outside Crimea, where Russian forces have been in effective control since late last month. There were no reports of gunfire or injuries. The incident raises tensions already at a high level before today’s referendum.
The Foreign Ministry denounced the foray outside Crimea, and said Ukraine “reserves the right to use all necessary measures to stop the military invasion by Russia.”
The village is on a long spit reaching northward from the main part of the Black Sea peninsula, about six miles north of the border between Crimea and the Kherson region.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian border guard service, Oleg Slobodyan, said the Russians, about 120 in all, took control of a natural gas distribution station in the village. The Foreign Ministry said the force consisted of about 80 and didn’t mention the station, but said the village was seized.
As Crimea prepared for today’s referendum, dozens of billboards throughout the regional capital proclaimed “Together With Russia.” But a few have been hit by spray-painters who scrawled out “Russia” and replaced it with “Ukraine.”
The referendum is denounced by Kiev and the West as illegitimate; the West is threatening costly sanctions against Russia if it moves to incorporate Crimea. But the result is seen as a foregone conclusion — Crimea is almost certain to vote to split off, further aggravating Ukraine’s political crisis and one of the harshest East-West confrontations since the end of the Cold war.
Protests in Moscow
In Moscow, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters marched in central Moscow against the referendum. Protesters carried banners that read: “For your freedom and for ours!” One demonstrator held up a plate of salo — cured pork fat that is a staple of Ukrainian cuisine and adored by many Russians — along with a poster that read: “Make salo, not war!”
Nearby, a rally of several thousand people was held close to the Kremlin in support of Russian intervention in Crimea.
At the United Nations, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution declaring the referendum illegal, and close ally China abstained in a sign of Moscow’s isolation on the issue. Supporters of the U.S.-sponsored resolution knew that Russia would use its veto. But they put the resolution to a vote Saturday morning to show the strength of opposition in the 15-member Security Council to Moscow’s takeover of Crimea. The final vote was 13 members in favor, China’s abstention, and Russia as a permanent council member casting a veto.
Tensions are high
The question of whether Crimea, a strategically important Black Sea peninsula that is home to a key Russian naval base, should become part of Moscow’s orbit raises strong passions on both sides.
Supporters say the region rightfully belongs to Russia and that the government that replaced fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych is a coterie of fascist-minded nationalists who will abuse Crimea’s majority ethnic-Russian population. Opponents bristle at Russia’s heavy hand. Crimea effectively is already under Russian control after forces were sent in last month.
Tensions were also high elsewhere in Ukraine. On Friday night, two people were killed and several wounded in a shootout that erupted after a clash in the city of Kharkiv between pro-Russian demonstrators and their opponents.
On Saturday, thousands of pro-Russia demonstrators in the eastern city of Donetsk stormed the local offices of the national security service, smashing windows, taking down the building’s Ukrainian flag and raising a Russian one.
In downtown Simferopol, at least 1,000 people on Saturday jammed a square in front of a soundstage and two massive TV screens as a long succession of Russian musical acts lauding “friendship of nations” and Russia itself. Musical acts from distant regions of Russia sang folk songs and danced traditional dance. One ensemble dressed as fairy-tale characters sang Don’t Fall Out Of Love with Russia! No Ukrainian flags or colors were visible.
“We have our great mother, Russia, who has taken us in her arms,” said 40-year-old demonstrator Nikolai Antonov. “If Russia hadn’t protected us, we would have had to take up arms” against the new authorities in Kiev.
Posters pasted to walls throughout the city center made comparisons between Russia and Ukraine for gasoline prices, doctors’ salaries and student benefits. The comparisons all suggested Russia was a more prosperous country.