A uniformed man, believed to be a Russian serviceman,
stands guard near a Ukrainian military base outside the
city of Sevastopol.
President Vladimir Putin has rebuffed a warning from U.S.
President Barack Obama over Moscow's military intervention in
Crimea, saying that Russia can not ignore calls for help from
Russian speakers in Ukraine.
After an hour-long telephone call, Putin said in a statement
that Moscow and Washington were still far apart on the
situation in the former Soviet republic, where he said the
new authorities had taken "absolutely illegitimate decisions
on the eastern, southeastern and Crimea regions.
"Russia cannot ignore calls for help and it acts accordingly,
in full compliance with international law," Putin said.
Ukraine's border guards said Moscow had poured troops into
the southern peninsula where Russian forces have seized
Serhiy Astakhov, an aide to the border guards' commander,
said there were now 30,000 Russian soldiers in Crimea,
compared to the 11,000 permanently based with the Russian
Black Sea fleet in the port of Sevastopol before the crisis.
Putin denies that the forces with no national insignia that
are surrounding Ukrainian troops in their bases are under
Moscow's command, although their vehicles have Russian
military plates. The West has ridiculed his assertion.
The most serious east-west confrontation since the end of the
Cold War - resulting from the overthrow last month of
President Viktor Yanukovich after violent protests in Kiev -
escalated on Thursday (local time) when Crimea's parliament,
dominated by ethnic Russians, voted to join Russia. The
region's government set a referendum for March 16 - in just
nine days' time.
European Union leaders and Obama denounced the referendum as
illegitimate, saying it would violate Ukraine's constitution.
The head of Russia's upper house of parliament said after
meeting visiting Crimean lawmakers on Friday that Crimea had
a right to self-determination, and ruled out any risk of war
between "the two brotherly nations".
Obama announced the first sanctions against Russia on
Thursday since the start of the crisis, ordering visa bans
and asset freezes against so far unidentified people deemed
responsible for threatening Ukraine's sovereignty.
Japan endorsed the Western position that the actions of
Russia, whose forces have seized control of the Crimean
peninsula, constitute "a threat to international peace and
security", after Obama spoke to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
China, often a Russian ally in blocking Western moves in the
U.N. Security Council, was more cautious, saying that
economic sanctions were not the best way to solve the crisis
and avoiding comment on the legality of a Crimean referendum
The EU, Russia's biggest economic partner and energy
customer, adopted a three-stage plan to try to force a
negotiated solution but stopped short of immediate sanctions.
The Russian Foreign Ministry responded angrily on Friday,
calling the EU decision to freeze talks on visa-free travel
and on a broad new pact governing Russia-EU ties "extremely
unconstructive". It warned that Moscow would retaliate
against any sanctions.
Senior Ukrainian opposition politician Yulia Tymoshenko,
freed from prison after Yanukovich's ouster, met German
Chancellor Angela Merkel in Dublin and appealed for immediate
EU sanctions against Russia, warning that Crimea might
otherwise slide into a guerrilla war.
Brussels and Washington rushed to strengthen the new
authorities in economically shattered Ukraine, announcing
both political and financial assistance. The regional
director of the International Monetary Fund said talks with
Kiev on a loan agreement were going well and praised the new
government's openness to economic reform and transparency.
The European Commission has said Ukraine could receive up to
€11 billion ($US15 billion) in the next couple of years
provided it reaches agreement with the IMF, which requires
painful economic reforms like ending gas subsidies.
Promises of billions of dollars in Western aid for the Kiev
government, and the perception that Russian troops are not
likely to go beyond Crimea into other parts of Ukraine, have
helped reverse a rout in the local hryvnia currency.
In the past two days it has traded above 9.0 to the dollar
for the first time since the Crimea crisis began last week.
Local dealers said emergency currency restrictions imposed
last week were also supporting the hryvnia.
Russian gas monopoly Gazprom said Ukraine had not paid its
$US440 million gas bill for February, bringing its arrears to
$US1.89 billion and hinted it could turn off the taps as it
did in 2009, when a halt in Russian deliveries to Ukraine
reduced supplies to Europe during a cold snap.
In Moscow, a huge crowd gathered near the Kremlin at a
government-sanctioned rally and concert billed as being "in
support of the Crimean people".
Pop stars took to the stage and demonstrators held signs with
slogans such as "Crimea is Russian land", "We don't trade our
people for money" and "We believe in Putin".
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said no one in the
civilised world would recognise the result of the "so-called
referendum" in Crimea.
He repeated Kiev's willingness to negotiate with Russia if
Moscow pulls its additional troops out of Crimea and said he
had requested a telephone call with Russian Prime Minister
But German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said
there was no clear signal that Russia was willing to join an
international "contact group" with Ukraine proposed by the
West to negotiate a solution to the crisis.
Despite Putin's tough words, demonstrators who have remained
encamped in Kiev's central Independence Square to defend the
revolution that ousted Yanukovich said they did not believe
Crimea would be allowed to secede.
"We are optimists. Crimea will stand with us and we will
fight for it," said Taras Yurkiv, 35, from the eastern city
of Lviv. "How we will fight depends on the decisions of our
leadership. If necessary, we will go with force. If you want
peace, you must prepare for war."
Alexander Zaporozhets, 40, from central Ukraine's Kirovograd
region, put his faith in international pressure.
"I don't think the Russians will be allowed to take Crimea
from us: you can't behave like that to an independent state.
We have the support of the whole world. But I think we are
losing time. While the Russians are preparing, we are just
Unarmed military observers from the pan-European Organisation
for Security and Cooperation in Europe were blocked from
entering Crimea for a second day in a row on Friday, the OSCE
said on Twitter.
A U.N. special envoy who travelled to the regional capital
Simferopol was surrounded by pro-Russian protesters and
forced to leave on Wednesday. The United Nations said it had
sent its assistant secretary-general for human rights, Ivan
Simonovic, to Kiev to conduct a preliminary humans rights
Ukrainian television was switched off in Crimea on Thursday
and replaced with Russian state channels. The streets largely
belong to people who support Moscow's rule, some of whom have
become increasingly aggressive in the past week, harassing
journalists and occasional pro-Kiev protesters.
Part of the Crimea's 2 million population opposes Moscow's
rule, including members of the region's ethnic Russian
majority. The last time Crimeans were asked, in 1991, they
voted narrowly for independence along with the rest of
"This announcement that we are already part of Russia
provokes nothing but tears," said Tatyana, 41, an ethnic
Russian. "With all these soldiers here, it is like we are
living in a zoo. Everyone fully understands this is an