Crimea crisis: Russian buildup continues, so do pre-referendum protests

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine -- As more troops and military hardware from Russia were reportedly deployed in Crimea on Friday, opponents of a weekend referendum on secession from Ukraine took to the streets of the peninsula to protest the upcoming vote.

More than 2,000 people hoisting Ukrainian national flags and posters lined up along a highway leading west from Crimea's capital city. Most were Crimean Tatars but there were also Ukrainians and some ethnic Russians too.

Crimea’s Russian-controlled regional government scheduled the referendum for Sunday after Russia sent troops into the predominantly ethnic-Russian province of Ukraine in late February, causing a tense international standoff.

The protesters sang Ukraine's national anthem and shouted “No to aggression!”, “No to war!” and “Down with [Russian President Vladimir] 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 pensioner. “If Russia just swallows Crimea and gets away with it, Japan may demand its [northern] islands back from Russia, Finland will feel it has now a legitimate right to demand its own part of Russian Karelia and Germany may claim [the Russian] Kaliningrad region back.”

Ovcharuk was talking of the territories Russia annexed after World War II. In Simferopol, meanwhile, motorists with Russian flags drove through the streets, yelling “scum” at the protesters.

The back-and-forth took place as the Russian military in Crimea moved convoys of about 100 armored personnel carriers, military trucks, artillery pieces and missile launchers closer to Ukraine's mainland Kherson region bordering on Crimea, Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Vladislav Seleznev wrote Friday on his Facebook account.

Ukrainian military analyst Dmitry Tymchuk expressed concern that Russia could be preparing to capture the Kherson region of Ukraine.

“The most recent moves by the Russian military in Crimea seem to prove my worst fears that soon they may attack mainland Ukraine,” Tymchuk, head of the Center for Military and Political Research, a Kiev-based think tank, said in an interview with The Times. “90% of Crimea's electric power supplies and 80% of Crimean fresh water supplies come from the Kherson region of Ukraine and to control the seized peninsula properly, Russia needs to also take control over its strategic supplies sources, a move which may mean an all-out war.”

In London on Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied that Russia plans to invade eastern Ukraine. Lavrov spoke at a news conference after talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Lavrov also expressed anger at a deadly clash on Thursday in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk between pro- and anti-Russian demonstrators.

Some 50 Ukrainians were injured, 10 hospitalized and at least one activist was killed in the fighting, according to media reports. The UNIAN news agency reported providing a video showing several hundred pro-Russian protesters hurling rocks at pro-Ukrainian demonstrators. Lavrov, however, blamed the fighting on Ukrainian militants.

In Simferopol on Friday, anti-Russian protesters complained that since troops from Russia moved in to Crimea, banks have limited access to private bank accounts, most ATM machines have run out of cash and purchases of real estate have been frozen.

“I am protesting against joining Russia because I don't want to serve in the army,” said Andrei Popov, a 20-year-old student and ethnic Russian. “Ukraine doesn't have a military draft anymore as its army consists not of conscripts but of contract servicemen, whereas Russia will draft me into the army and send me to serve in Chenchya or Dagestan, which is not exactly my life plan.”

Next to him hundreds of Crimean Tatars shouted: “Allah Akbar!” and “Crimea! Vetan! Millet!” which translates from Tatar as “Crimea! Motherland! People!”

 sergei.loiko@latimes.com

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