Russia has declared its support for Ukraine’s breakaway movement in Crimea, with its parliament welcoming a delegation from the autonomous republic to Moscow and backing its vote to secede from Ukraine.
The developments come even as the Russian government says that despite deep differences with the West on the crisis, it hopes common ground will be found to avoid a new Cold War.
Valentina Matvienko, speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, assured Vladimir Konstantinov, Crimean parliament’s speaker, on Friday that the region would be welcomed as “an absolutely equal subject of the Russian Federation if a referendum on March 16 was in favour of the move”.
The speaker of the Russian lower house, Sergei Naryshkin, echoed Matviyenko’s remarks. “We will respect the historic choice of the people of Crimea,” he said.
Konstantinov met top politicians in Moscow before joining a rally in Red Square, which was attended by an estimated 65,000 people, many of whom waved Russian flags and chanted “Crimea is Russia!”
Matvienko’s statement came after Arseny Yatsenyuk, Ukraine’s prime minister, said his country was ready for talks with Russia, but on the condition that the Kremlin withdraw troops from Crimea and agree to stop supporting ”separatists and terrorists”.
“We have declared our readiness to hold talks with the Russian government,” Yatseniuk said, listing a number of conditions, including withdrawing troops and “halting support for the separatists and terrorists in Crimea”.
But there seemed to be little hope of those conditions being met. Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Friday accused the EU, one of Yatsenyuk’s primary backers, of taking an “extremely unconstructive position” by threatening sanctions.
The Russian President Vladimir Putin also said that he had many differences of opinion on Crimea with Barack Obama after a phone call with his US counterpart.
Kiev faced further pressure after the Russian gas company, Gazprom, said it was considering cutting supplies to Ukraine after it failed to pay its January bill.
A Ukranian border guard official reported on Friday that there were an estimated 30,000 Russian troops in Crimea, trumping earlier figures of 11,000 given by the region’s leader, Sergei Aksyonov.
Under a 2010 Russia-Ukraine agreement, Russia can have a maximum of 25,000 troops in Crimea.