Russia considering calls to intervene in eastern Ukraine, Ukraine says troops have been sent outside Crimea

Pro-Russian supporters rally in Lenin Square, Simferopol, Saturday.

Russia’s foreign ministry said on Saturday that Moscow had received numerous calls to “protect peaceful civilians” following clashes in eastern Ukraine and that it would consider the requests.

The statement comes a day before the region of Crimea is set to vote on whether to secede from Ukraine and join Russia and as thousands of Russian soldiers engage in readiness exercises just across the border, raising already heightened concern about Russian intentions in eastern Ukraine.

“There have been numerous calls on Russia to protect peaceful civilians These appeals will be considered,” the ministry said.

Meantime, Russia on Saturday vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that called on nations not to recognize the results of Sunday’s referendum in Crimea. The U.S.-drafted resolution was defeated 13-1, with an abstention by China. The only uncertainty going into Saturday’s Council vote was whether China would also cast a veto.

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Meanwhile, in Moscow, tens of thousands protested against Sunday’s referendum in Crimea.

A day earlier, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia hadn’t plans for military action in eastern Ukraine, but reserved the right to protect people there. He said Russia believes the new government in Kiev isn’t in control of the situation in the majority ethnic-Russian cities where recently ousted President Viktor Yanukovych drew much of his support and where support is strong for closer ties to Russia.

Russia similarly cited the need to protect ethnic-Russians in Crimea after thousands of well-armed soldiers—wearing unmarked uniforms but believed to be Russian—occupied the peninsula that is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and cut it off from Ukrainian control.

Pro-Russian activists shouted slogans and held Russian national flags during a rally in the center of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk Saturday.

Leaders in the U.S. and Western Europe have threatened economic sanctions against Russia if the soldiers don’t leave Crimea and have said they wouldn’t recognize the results of Sunday’s hastily-planned vote. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has signaled he has no intention of backing down and the referendum, which was called on March 6 by regional leaders installed after the soldiers appeared, is expected to go forward as planned.

On Saturday, Ukraine’s defense ministry said it had thwarted an attempt by Russian forces to enter Kherson, a region adjacent to Crimea. According to the ministry, Russian military forces tried to land along the coast of the region, but were turned back. The ministry didn’t provide further details.

Meanwhile, the Russian foreign ministry said on Saturday that it was concerned about what it termed “disturbing information” it was receiving from the eastern Ukrainian cities of Kharkov, Donetsk and Lugansk about the “excesses” of ultranationalists Russia has accused the new government in Kiev of empowering.

Pro-Russian supporters marched in Simferopol Saturday.

Late Friday, two people were killed in clashes between rival groups of protesters in Kharkov, which local governor Ihor Baluta said were the “result of a well-planned provocation.” Police said dozens of people had been arrested on Saturday, and the investigation was continuing. On Thursday night, at least one person was killed in the eastern city of Donetsk in a similar clash.

In Kharkov, police said violence broke out when a minibus with Ukrainian nationalists approached a rally of pro-Russian protesters at the city’s main square. According to eyewitness accounts, the verbal confrontation quickly escalated into violence. The bus moved to a side street, where the pro-Russian demonstrators surrounded the pro-Ukrainian activists occupying a cultural center they were using as an impromptu headquarters. The violence led to a gun battle.

Shooting continued when police arrived and one policeman was critically wounded. Police didn’t identify which side was responsible for the shooting and an eyewitness said it appeared that both the pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian groups used firearms.

Only after the arrival of the local authorities did the besieged pro-Ukraine activists agree to leave the building. Ukraine’s interior minister said protesters from both sides had been arrested Saturday.

Update: Ukraine accused Russia of sending troops outside the Crimean peninsula and onto the Ukrainian mainland for the first time Saturday, as Russia’s foreign ministry said Russia had received numerous calls to “protect peaceful civilians” following clashes in eastern Ukraine. Russia is considering the requests, it said.

Ukraine’s foreign ministry issued a protest against the troop landing in the Kherson region near Crimea, and demanded an immediate withdrawal. The ministry said about 80 troops had landed along with four helicopter gunships and three armored vehicles. It said Ukraine “reserves the right to use all necessary measures to stop the military invasion by Russia.”

Ukrainian news services reported that the Russian troops seized a natural gas distribution station.