Ukrainians defy Russia; Crimean crowd attacked

Obama to host interim leader before secession vote

Pro-Russian supporters hold banners during a rally in Simferopol, Crimea. The protesters gathered in  Lenin Square on Sunday to urge a ‘Yes’ vote on the referendum next week on Crimea joining the Russian Federation.
Pro-Russian supporters hold banners during a rally in Simferopol, Crimea. The protesters gathered in Lenin Square on Sunday to urge a ‘Yes’ vote on the referendum next week on Crimea joining the Russian Federation.

KIEV, Ukraine — Rival rallies turned violent in Crimea on Sunday and the White House announced that President Obama will host the Ukrainian prime minister just days before a referendum on Crimean secession next week.

In the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, tens of thousands rallied in Independence Square to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Taras Shevchenko, a poet who is a symbol of Ukrainian nationhood.

The gathering was both a riposte to Russia and a memorial service for the more than 80 protesters who died there.

“Our fathers and grandfathers have spilled their blood for this land,” said interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who will visit the White House on Wednesday. “We won’t budge a single centimeter from Ukrainian land. Let Russia and its president know this.”

In Sevastopol, Crimea, a pro-Ukraine rally attended by several hundred people was attacked by pro-Russia supporters who had their own large rally.

In the Crimean capital of Simferopol, about 400 people, a mix of pro-Ukrainian Russians and Tatars, gathered around a statue of Mr. Shevchenko while listening to his works and speeches calling for Russian troops to withdraw.

Police there stopped a group of hooded men from approaching the rally.

In the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, thousands of pro-Russian activists took over the city’s main thoroughfare to call for greater autonomy from Kiev and a referendum on secession.

Vitali Klitschko, the former boxing champion and opposition politician who is now a presidential candidate, visited Donetsk to appeal for calm after days of violence between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian protesters.

“The current conflict and aggression must be resolved,” he said at a news conference. He also said he was worried that the events in Crimea may repeat themselves in the country’s east. “It must not be solved through bloodshed.”

He placed a wreath at a statue of Mr. Shevchenko but canceled an appearance at a rally at police request.

In nearby Luhansk, the regional capital of a coal-mining region bordering Russia, several thousand protesters occupied a regional administration building, where the region’s governor, a Kiev appointee, is based, and raised the Russian flag.

As Ukrainians rallied Sunday, leaders of several nations pursued diplomacy.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Cameron’s office relayed that Mr. Putin “said that Russia did want to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis” and “agreed that it is in all our interests to have a stable Ukraine.”

By the British account, Mr. Putin said he would discuss proposals for a contact group, which the West envisions involving direct talks between Moscow and Kiev.

The German government said Ms. Merkel made it clear that any Crimean referendum was illegal and that it would not be recognized internationally.

The chancellor said on Thursday that if a contact group was not formed soon and no progress was made in talks with Russia, the European Union could impose sanctions on Russia, including travel restrictions and the freezing of assets.

But according to the Kremlin, Mr. Putin in the call “underlined in particular that the steps taken by Crimea’s legitimate authorities are based on international law and aimed at guaranteeing the legitimate interests of the peninsula’s population” and that Kiev was not acting “to limit the rampant behavior of ultranationalists and radical forces in the capital and in many regions.”

The new Ukrainian government and its supporters, the United States and the European Union, reject the legitimacy of the Crimea referendum, set for Sunday, and deny that any ethnic Russians or Russian speakers have been threatened or harmed in Ukraine.

Vladimir Konstantinov, speaker of the Crimean Parliament, had said Friday that Ukrainian troops there should “quietly and peacefully” leave unless they renounced their loyalty to Kiev and serve the region’s new administration.

Late Sunday, Mr. Konstantinov said that the Ukrainian military installations “in large part have come under control — they are blocked, and their weapons are under joint control.”

However, Russian forces were still demanding that Ukrainian forces disarm and surrender.

He said the Ukrainian forces’ final status will be determined after the referendum.

“If they want to serve the people of Crimea, they need to inform us of that,” Mr. Konstantinov said. “Those who do not want to, we will secure their safe exit from the territory of Crimea, and they can leave the peninsula.”

In the United States, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Antony J. Blinken, rejected the notion that Crimea was effectively Russian.

“It’s not a done deal,” he said on CNN’s State of the Union. “I think the door is clearly open to resolving this diplomatically.”

He noted that Mr. Obama and European leaders continue to engage with Mr. Putin.

“Russia’s paying a price for this,” he said. “The question now is whether they will take the off-ramp that the President and our partners around Europe have proposed. There is a way out of this that can take into account Russia’s interests and concerns but restores Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

Robert Gates, a former defense secretary, was less optimistic. “I do not believe that Crimea will slip out of Russia’s hands,” he said on Fox News Sunday.

Although Mr. Obama has made it clear that the United States does not want to escalate the Crimean crisis, the Pentagon has increased training operations in Poland and sent fighter jets to patrol the skies over Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, ex-Soviet republics with sizable populations of ethnic Russians.