LONDON — The top U.S. and Russian diplomats tried but failed Friday to avert escalation of the conflict over the Crimean peninsula, leaving Moscow and Washington badly divided over the legality and consequences of a Sunday referendum on whether Crimea should secede from Ukraine.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Western nations would not recognize the vote and that if the vote goes forward they would swiftly begin imposing sanctions on Moscow, whose proxies in Ukraine are driving the secession bid. He also warned that any move by the Russian government or lawmakers to ratify the outcome of the referendum, almost certain to endorse secession, would amount to an illegal "backdoor annexation" of Crimea.
"There will be consequences if Russia does not find a way to change course," Kerry told reporters after six hours of talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. "We don't say that as a threat. We say that as a direct consequence of the choices that Russia may or may not choose to make here."
The U.S. and the European Union are poised to impose travel bans and asset freezes on Russian officials deemed responsible for the military incursion into Crimea; Moscow has vowed to respond with unspecified "symmetrical" measures.
Lavrov made it clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not make any decisions before Sunday's plebiscite, which will ask Crimeans if they want to withdraw from Ukraine and become an independent entity. The referendum text makes no mention of being annexed to Russia, but Crimea's recently installed pro-Russia leadership has touted the vote as a prelude to rejoining Russia.
Lavrov said his talks with Kerry failed to reach a "common vision" on how to proceed. He repeated Russia's contention that the new Ukrainian government was illegitimate because it came to power after what the Kremlin calls an unconstitutional deposing of President Viktor Yanukovich, a Moscow ally. For that reason, Russia rejects U.S. and European demands that it open direct talks over the Crimea crisis with Ukrainian officials, Lavrov said.
Moscow continues to recognize this Sunday's referendum as a valid expression of self-determination among the people of Crimea, Lavrov said. A majority of Crimea's 2 million residents are ethnic Russians, and the peninsula is home to Russia's Black Sea fleet and popular vacation resorts.
"Everybody understands that Crimea, for Russia, is something really important," Lavrov said of the territory, which was part of Russia for centuries before being ceded to Soviet Ukraine in 1954.
Kerry said the U.S. acknowledged that Russia had legitimate interests in Crimea but said they should be pursued through diplomacy, not armed might.
At the White House, President Obama said his administration continued to hope that a diplomatic solution to the crisis was possible.
"The United States and Europe stand united not only in its message about Ukrainian sovereignty, but also that there will be consequences if, in fact, that sovereignty continues to be violated," Obama said.
The political maneuvers occurred as pro- and anti-secession demonstrators took to the streets of Crimea.
As more troops and military hardware from Russia arrived, opponents of secession lined up along a highway west of the Crimean capital, Simferopol. About 2,000 people sang the Ukrainian national anthem, hoisted the country's blue-and-yellow flags and brandished signs declaring "Crimea is not Russia," "No to war!" and "Down with Putin!"
"What Putin is doing with Ukraine by cutting off Crimea will open a Pandora's box for the entire Europe if not the entire world," said Vasily Ovcharuk, a 62-year-old retiree. "If Russia just swallows Crimea and gets away with it, Japan may demand its [northern Kuril] islands back from Russia, Finland will feel it now has a legitimate right to demand its own part of Russian Karelia and Germany may claim [the Russian] Kaliningrad region back."
As the defenders of Ukraine's sovereignty demonstrated on Simferopol's fringes, motorists with Russian flags drove by yelling "Scum!" at the protesters.
Meanwhile, the Russian military moved about 100 armored personnel carriers, military trucks, artillery pieces and missile launchers closer to Ukraine's mainland Kherson region north of Crimea, Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Vladislav Seleznev said.
In the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, Yanukovich's hometown, demonstrators from opposing sides clashed overnight, leaving one anti-secession activist dead and 26 people injured.
The rival groups had been separated by a police cordon until one side broke through and attacked the other, RIA Novosti reported, without saying which group started the fighting. Western news agency accounts said the pro-Russia side charged the other, and Donetsk regional Gov. Sergei Taruta said the fighting was provoked by "non-Ukrainian citizens." Taruta appealed to Moscow to end what he called interference in the region.
Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the Donetsk clash demonstrated that the new leaders in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, had "lost control of the country."
Putin has justified his armed intervention by claiming that ethnic Russians in Ukraine are at risk under the new government in Kiev.
The U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights, Ivan Simonovic, who was dispatched by the world body to assess the situation of minorities in Ukraine, told reporters in Kiev on Friday that he had found "no sign of human rights violations of such a proportion, of such widespread intensity that would require any military measures." Simonovic said he was barred by Russian gunmen from extending his fact-finding trip into Crimea.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance was following developments in Ukraine "with great concern."
"The so-called referendum in the Ukrainian Autonomous Republic of Crimea planned on 16 March would be a direct violation of the Ukrainian Constitution and international law," Rasmussen said. "If held, it would have no legal effect or political legitimacy."
In his statement, the Danish chief of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said Ukraine had been discussed at a meeting Friday of representatives from all 50 states engaged in the alliance's Partnership for Peace initiative and that "many partners associated themselves with NATO's concerns."
He called on Russia to "act responsibly" and uphold its obligations under international law to respect Ukraine's territorial integrity.