KIEV, Ukraine -- Leaders of Ukraine vowed Sunday not to cede any part of their nation’s territory, even as Russia defended its virtual takeover of the disputed Crimean peninsula and signaled its willingness to act on the result of an upcoming secession vote there.
Pro-Russian forces tightened their grip on Crimea by laying siege to the last military airfield under Ukrainian control there and trying to seize control of other military installations in the strategically important region, a Ukrainian defense spokesman said. Residents proclaimed their loyalty to Ukraine or Russia in competing rallies, which produced some scuffles.
In Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, thousands of people clutching blue-and-yellow national flags poured onto the streets to mark the bicentennial of the birth of Taras Shevchenko, their country’s most famous poet and an ardent nationalist. Laying flowers at a statue of Shevchenko, acting Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk declared that he would not give up “one centimeter of Ukrainian land.”
“Our parents and grandparents shed their blood for this land,” he said, adding: “Let Russia and its president know this.”
That would be Vladimir Putin, who for his part expressed his support for the March 16 public referendum planned by Crimea’s regional assembly on splitting from Ukraine and joining Russia.
In telephone conversations Sunday with the leaders of Britain and Germany, Putin insisted that the political events unfolding in Crimea were in line with international law, even though virtually no other nation has seconded that opinion and many, including the United States, have scoffed at it.
“The steps taken by the legitimate leadership of Crimea are based on the norms of international law and designed to cater to the legitimate interests of the peninsula’s population,” Putin said, according to a statement issued by the Kremlin. A majority of the region’s residents are ethnic Russian or Russian-speakers.
The Kremlin’s statement added that there was a shared interest “in de-escalating the tension and in the soonest normalization of the situation,” which the U.S. and the European Union have demanded.
Yet aggressive moves by pro-Russian forces -- who Putin denies are Russian soldiers but who clearly use Russian uniforms and equipment -- continued rather than slacked off across the peninsula over the weekend.
On Sunday, Russian troops backed by local militias laid siege to the airport at Novofyodorovka, the last military airstrip in Crimea in the hands of Ukrainian forces, said Alexei Mazepa, the Kiev government’s defense spokesman in the region. The Russians demanded that Ukrainian personnel surrender their arms and leave the airport, which lies about 30 miles north of the regional capital of Simferopol.
Mazepa said in a telephone interview that Russian forces had also surrounded an antiaircraft unit in the resort city of Yevpatoria, ordering Ukrainian troops to surrender or face attack. Such ultimatums have repeatedly been issued to Ukrainian military installations in Crimea in recent days, though none has been carried out.
Mazepa also said Russian forces had crossed into mainland Ukraine in the Kherson region, capturing a hotel in the town of Chongar and “setting up minefields across the narrow strip of land that connects Ukraine with Crimea.”
In a further attempt to consolidate Russia’s hold on the peninsula, Vladimir Konstantinov, the speaker of the regional parliament, said Ukrainian troops in Crimea could either defect or leave after next weekend’s referendum, whose outcome Konstantinov and officials in Moscow speak of as practically a foregone conclusion.
“If you don’t want to swear allegiance to the new authorities, we will do our best to help you leave the territory without any problems,” Konstantinov said, according to the Interfax news agency.
Interfax also quoted Russian lawmaker Pavel Dorokhin as saying that Moscow stood ready to pour $1.1 billion into developing the Crimean economy and its industrial base.
With a peaceful, diplomatic solution seeming distant as the plebiscite looms, Yatsenyuk, the Ukrainian prime minister, announced a hastily scheduled visit to Washington this week for high-level talks. He is expected to meet with President Obama on Wednesday.
In Kiev’s Independence Square, where protesters who ousted former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich last month remain encamped, residents gathered Sunday to honor poet Shevchenko in an emotional outpouring of patriotism. Many also laid flowers and candles at the makeshift memorials to the dozens of people killed in the protests.
“Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes! Heroes never die!” they chanted under clear blue skies.
Religious leaders prayed that God would “save Ukraine.”
Hundreds of residents of Crimea in favor of sticking with Kiev held a rally in the port city of Sevastopol, where a larger pro-Russian contingent also demonstrated allegiance to Moscow. Violent scuffles between the two camps were caught on camera by the BBC.
In Washington, a senior U.S. official reiterated that the Obama administration did not consider the upcoming plebiscite legitimate.
“If there is a referendum and it votes to move Crimea out of Ukraine and to Russia, we won’t recognize it and most of the world won’t either,” deputy national security advisor Tony Blinken said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Were that to happen, the isolation of Russia, the cost that it would pay, would increase significantly from where they are now.”
The EU has warned Moscow that unless it enters into negotiations with Kiev, it would impose travel bans and asset freezes on some Russians, with tougher economic sanctions to follow if still no progress is made or the situation on the ground deteriorates.
The 28-nation bloc has not issued a specific deadline for talks to commence between Russia and Ukraine, but European diplomats have begun speaking of penalties being levied in days rather than weeks.
Chu reported from Kiev and Loiko from Moscow. Times staff writer Jim Puzzanghera in Washington contributed to this report.