Thousands took to the streets for rival pro and anti-Kremlin rallies across Ukraine yesterday as the West and Moscow dug in their heels over a deepening crisis in Crimea.
The protests come after a new marathon round of telephone calls by US President Barack Obama seeking to defuse the Cold War-style standoff in the ex-Soviet state.
Tensions in Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which has come under the de facto control of Russian forces, have resulted in a new face-off between Russia and the West, with each side imposing sanctions or warning of further prohibitive measures to force the other to back down.
Foreign observers have failed to get into Crimea, a majority Russophone region of Ukraine, to get a first-hand look at the situation on the ground and were forced to turn back on Saturday after pro-Kremlin gunmen fired warning shots.
Ukrainian border guards on Saturday said that about 60 Russian military trucks had entered the rugged peninsula of 2 million in the past 24 hours by land and sea, a sign that Moscow is far from pulling back.
They also said “Russian extremists” had attacked a Crimean radar post, in the latest move by pro-Russian forces who have surrounded Ukrainian military bases and taken at least one missile defense unit.
“Armed attackers in military uniform and civil clothes broke the door and entered the building. Radio technic units and telecommunication cables were dissembled and destroyed,” the border guards said in a statement in English on their Web site.
Yesterday marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko and patriotic rallies were planned in Kiev and — in a show of defiance toward Russia — in Crimea’s key cities of Simferopol and Sevastopol.
The rallies are also significant ahead of controversial plans by Crimea’s regional pro-Moscow government to hold a referendum on joining Russia on Sunday, which could lead to a formal annexation of the territory.
In the eastern city of Donetsk, a former stronghold of ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and the site of regular protests in recent days, there were fears of clashes as pro-Kiev demonstrators planned to celebrate Shevchenko, while pro-Russian protesters were due to hold a counter-rally.
The 19th-century poet has been credited with creating the modern Ukrainian language and the idea of Ukraine as a nation, giving the new Western-backed government in Kiev a powerful opportunity yesterday to revive some nationalist fervor in the face of Russia’s incursion.
Late on Saturday, Obama made a fresh round of telephone calls to key European allies in the latest diplomatic attempts to resolve the Ukrainian crisis, which began with Yanukovych’s ouster last month after three months of protests that left about 100 dead.
In talks with French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, “the leaders reiterated grave concern over Russia’s clear violation of international law and reaffirmed their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the White House said.
Hollande’s office said the two leaders discussed “new measures” against Russia if it failed to act to defuse the crisis.
Obama also spoke to the leaders of former Soviet states Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Russia’s expansive moves have left the Baltic states jittery.