Russians rally by the thousands in support of annexing Crimea

Russians rally by the thousands in support of annexing Crimea
People hold flags during a rally in central Moscow on Friday in a show of solidarity with pro-Russian authorities in the Ukrainian region of Crimea. (Vasily Maximov / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images)

MOSCOW — Russians by the thousands held rallies Friday in support of annexing the Ukrainian region of Crimea, with state and municipal enterprises letting employees off work to take part.

At least 5,000 people were brought by buses to Red Square in Moscow, where they waved Russian flags and held aloft similarly made posters praising President Vladimir Putin, some reading, “We are with Putin,” “We trust Putin” and “Crimea is Russian soil.”

The speaker of the Ukrainian region's parliament told the rally outside the Kremlin that Crimeans had faith Russia would not abandon them.

"We lost the battle of Kiev," said speaker Vladimir Konstantinov, referring to Ukraine's capital. "We understood that we must make a stand in Crimea to the last. We always knew that Russian would never leave us in the lurch and that the Russian people would always be with us!"

The Crimean peninsula, with a predominantly Russian-speaking population, has become the flash point for Russian displeasure over the overthrow last month of its ally, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, after three months of anti-government protests triggered in part by his close relations with Moscow.

Gunmen wearing unmarked Russian military uniforms and using Russian military equipment have taken up positions throughout the peninsula, which is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet, blockading Ukrainian military bases.

Putin has not conceded that those gunmen are Russian military, calling them "local self-defense forces" who must have bought Russian uniforms at a store.

Konstantinov headed a delegation of Crimean regional lawmakers who met Thursday with the leaders of both houses of Russia's parliament. The Russians assured their Crimean colleagues that they would vote to annex the region if Crimeans support the move in a referendum scheduled March 16 to decide the peninsula's future.

"No one has yet canceled a right to self-determination," Valentina Matviyenko, the Russian parliament's upper house speaker, said in televised remarks, dismissing those who oppose the referendum.

The continued presence of thousands of gunmen in Crimea apparently from the Russian military largely went unmentioned in Moscow on Friday by official media or politicians.

"The Russian Federation has nothing to do with what is happening … in Crimea," Putin's spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said in televised remarks. "These are not processes stemming from any actions by Russia."

Peskov cited instead what Russia views as the illegal overthrow of Yanukovich and his replacement by an interim government made up of former opposition figures.

"On the whole what we see in Ukraine and around it today is the triumph of lawlessness, the triumph of cynicism and the triumph of the collapse of international law, the triumph of double standards," Peskov said. "To our great regret, despite all the attempts of our president and in fact his readiness to explain the Russian position on a daily basis, we still are faced with a wall of lack of understanding."