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 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 — 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.