SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Russian forces backed by helicopter gunships and armored vehicles Saturday took control of a village near the border with Crimea on the eve of a referendum on whether the region should seek annexation by Russia, Ukrainian officials said.
The action in Strilkove appeared to be the first move outside Crimea, where Russian forces have been in effective control since last month. There were no reports of gunfire or injuries. The incident raises tensions already at a high level before Sunday’s referendum.
The Foreign Ministry denounced the foray outside Crimea, and said Ukraine “reserves the right to use all necessary measures to stop the military invasion by Russia.”
The village is on a long spit reaching northward from the main part of the Black Sea peninsula, about six miles north of the border between Crimea and the Kherson region.
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A spokesman for the Ukrainian border-guard service, Oleg Slobodyan, said the Russians, about 120 in all, took control of a natural-gas distribution station in the village. The Foreign Ministry said the force consisted of about 80 and didn’t mention the station, but said the village was seized.
As Crimea prepares for Sunday’s referendum, dozens of billboards throughout the regional capital proclaim “Together With Russia.” But a few have been hit by spray-painters who scrawled out “Russia” and replaced it with “Ukraine.”
The referendum is denounced by the government in Kiev and the West as illegitimate; the West is threatening costly sanctions against Russia if it moves to incorporate Crimea. But Crimea is almost certain to vote to split from Ukraine, further aggravating Ukraine’s political crisis and one of the harshest East-West confrontations since the end of the Cold War.
In Moscow, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters marched in central Moscow against the referendum. Protesters carried banners that read: “For your freedom and for ours!” One demonstrator held up a plate of salo — cured pork fat that is a staple of Ukrainian cuisine and adored by many Russians — along with a poster that read: “Make salo, not war!”
Nearby, a rally of several thousand people was held close to the Kremlin in support of Russian intervention in Crimea.
At the United Nations, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution declaring the referendum illegal, and close ally China abstained in a sign of Moscow’s isolation on the issue. Supporters of the U.S.-sponsored resolution knew that Russia would use its veto. But they put the resolution to a vote Saturday to show the strength of opposition in the 15-member Security Council to Moscow’s takeover of Crimea. The final vote was 13 members in favor, China’s abstention, and Russia as a permanent council member casting the veto.
The question of whether Crimea, a strategically important Black Sea peninsula that is home to a key Russian naval base, should become part of Moscow’s orbit raises strong passions on both sides.
Supporters say the region rightfully belongs to Russia and that the government that replaced fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych is made up of fascist-minded nationalists who will abuse Crimea’s majority ethnic-Russian population. Opponents bristle at Russia’s heavy hand. Crimea effectively is already under Russian control after forces were sent in last month.
Tensions are high elsewhere in Ukraine. On Friday night, two people were killed and several wounded in a shootout that erupted after a clash in the city of Kharkiv between pro-Russian demonstrators and their opponents.
On Saturday, thousands of pro-Russia demonstrators in the eastern city of Donetsk stormed the local offices of the national-security service, smashing windows, taking down the building’s Ukrainian flag and raising a Russian one.
In downtown Simferopol, at least 1,000 people on Saturday jammed a square in front of a soundstage and two massive TV screens as a long succession of Russian musical acts lauding “friendship of nations” and Russia itself.
The violence in Kharkiv and Donetsk has raised concern that Russia, which has massed troops near eastern Ukraine’s border, could use bloodshed as a justification for sending in forces to protect the ethnic-Russian population.
Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, warned Saturday that “there’s a real danger of the threat of invasion of the territory of Ukraine.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday, after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, said Russia has no plans to send troops into eastern Ukraine.
But after Saturday’s movement, U.S. Sen. John McCain, part of an American delegation visiting Kiev, said at a news conference that “the United States and our European allies will be contemplating actions that we never have had before in our relations with Russia.”