Putin defends separatist drive in Crimea as legal

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Putin defends separatist drive in Crimea as legal
VORONEZH, RUSSIA - AUGUST 5: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a session of State Council August 5, 2014 in Voronezh, Russia. Putin is on a one-day visit to the region of Voronezh, 500 km. south of Moscow. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - AUGUST 1: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the opening of a monument to soldiers of the First World War in Victory Park on August 1, 2014 in Moscow, Russia. The ceremony is one of many events dedicated to the 100th anniversary of World War I in Russia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
Crimean Premier Sergei Aksyonov, right, attends the swearing in ceremony for the first unit of a pro-Russian armed force, dubbed the "military forces of the autonomous republic of Crimea" in Simferopol, Ukraine, Saturday, March 8, 2014. Some 30 men armed with automatic weapons and another 20 or so unarmed, were sworn in at a park in front of an eternal flame to those killed in World War II. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Armed members of the first unit of a pro-Russian armed force, dubbed the "military forces of the autonomous republic of Crimea" cheer during the swearing-in ceremony in Simferopol, Ukraine, Saturday, March 8, 2014. Some 30 men armed with automatic weapons and another 20 or so unarmed, were sworn in at a park in front of an eternal flame to those killed in World War II. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
SOCHI, RUSSIA - MARCH 08: Russian President Vladimir Putin watches a sledge hockey match between Russia and South Korea at the Winter Paralympics on March 8, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
Armed members of the first unit of a pro-Russian armed force, dubbed the "military forces of the autonomous republic of Crimea" cheer during the swearing-in ceremony in Simferopol, Ukraine, Saturday, March 8, 2014. Some 30 men armed with automatic weapons and another 20 or so unarmed, were sworn in at a park in front of an eternal flame to those killed in World War II. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Armed members of the first unit of a pro-Russian armed force, dubbed the "military forces of the autonomous republic of Crimea" march before the swearing-in ceremony in Simferopol, Ukraine, Saturday, March 8, 2014. Some 30 men armed with automatic weapons and another 20 or so unarmed, were sworn in at a park in front of an eternal flame to those killed in World War II. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Russian soldiers guard a pier where two Ukrainian naval vessels are moored, in Sevastopol, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. Ukraine's new prime minister said Wednesday that embattled Crimea must remain part of Ukraine, but may be granted more local powers. Since last weekend, Russian troops have taken control of much of the peninsula in the Black Sea, where Russian speakers are in the majority. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
A Russian soldier guards a pier where two Ukrainian naval vessels are moored, in Sevastopol, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. Ukraine's new prime minister said Wednesday that embattled Crimea must remain part of Ukraine, but may be granted more local powers. Since last weekend, Russian troops have taken control of much of the peninsula in the Black Sea, where Russian speakers are in the majority. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
Ukrainian flag flies on the Ukrainian naval vessel Slavutich as Russian soldiers guard a pier where the vessel is moored, in Sevastopol, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. Ukraine's new prime minister said Wednesday that embattled Crimea must remain part of Ukraine, but may be granted more local powers. Since last weekend, Russian troops have taken control of much of the peninsula in the Black Sea, where Russian speakers are in the majority. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
Russian soldiers guard a peer where two Ukrainian naval vessels are moored, in Sevastopol, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. Ukraine's new prime minister said Wednesday that embattled Crimea must remain part of Ukraine, but may be granted more local powers. Since last weekend, Russian troops have taken control of much of the peninsula in the Black Sea, where Russian speakers are in the majority. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
A Russian soldier patrols the small anti-submarine ship 'Muromets' in the port of Sevastopol on March 8, 2014. Ukraine's premier Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Thursday dubbed as illegitimate a request by the local parliament in Crimea to become part of Russia. AFP PHOTO/Filippo MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
A Russian Small ant-submarine ship is moored in the port of Sevastopol on March 8, 2014. Ukraine's premier Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Thursday dubbed as illegitimate a request by the local parliament in Crimea to become part of Russi. AFP PHOTO/Filippo MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
A Russian soldier stands on the Russian Black Sea Fleet Small Antisubmarine Warfare ship (ASW) 'Muromets' in the port of Sevastopol on March 8, 2014. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said its monitors would try again on March 8 to enter the Ukrainian region of Crimea, two days after being prevented from doing so. On March 6 the Vienna-based OSCE said that its team had been prevented from entering Ukraine's strategic Black Sea peninsula, with a Western diplomatic source telling AFP they were turned back by gunmen. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
SIMFEROPOL, UKRAINE - MARCH 7: Awaiting of Russian soldiers keeps going in Ukraine military base, Prevalence region of Simferopol, Ukraine on March 5, 2014. (Photo by Elena Samoylenko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SIMFEROPOL, UKRAINE - MARCH 7: Awaiting of Russian soldiers keeps going in Ukraine military base, Prevalence region of Simferopol, Ukraine on March 5, 2014. (Photo by Elena Samoylenko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Pro Russian soldiers guard Ukraine's infantry base in Perevalne, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow reserves the right to use all means to protect Russians in Ukraine as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was on his way to Kiev. Tensions remained high in the strategic Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea with troops loyal to Moscow firing warning shots to ward off protesting Ukrainian soldiers. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
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KIEV, Ukraine (AP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday defended the separatist drive in the disputed Crimean Peninsula as in keeping with international law, as Ukraine's prime minister vowed not to relinquish "a single centimeter" of his country's territory.

Over the weekend, the Kremlin beefed up its military presence in Crimea, a part of Ukraine since 1954, and pro-Russia forces keep pushing for a vote in favor of reunification with Moscow in a referendum the local parliament has scheduled for next Sunday.

President Barack Obama has warned that the March 16 vote would violate international law. But in Moscow, Putin made it clear that he supports the referendum in phone calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Minister David Cameron.

"The steps taken by the legitimate leadership of Crimea are based on the norms of international law and aim to ensure the legal interests of the population of the peninsula," said Putin, according to the Kremlin.

Following an extraordinary Sunday meeting of the Ukrainian government, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced that he will fly to the United States this week for high-level talks on "resolution of the situation in Ukraine," the Interfax news agency reported.

"Our country and our people are facing the biggest challenges in the history of modern independent Ukraine," the prime minister said earlier in the day. "Will we be able to deal with these challenges? There should only be one answer to this question and that is: yes."

In an emotional climate of crisis, Ukraine on Sunday solemnly commemorated the 200th anniversary of the birth of its greatest poet, Taras Shevchenko, a son of peasant serfs who is a national hero and is considered the father of modern Ukrainian literature.

"This is our land," Yatsenyuk told a crowd gathered at the Kiev statue to Shevchenko. "Our fathers and grandfathers have spilled their blood for this land. And we won't budge a single centimeter from Ukrainian land. Let Russia and its president know this."

"We're one country, one family and we're here together with our kobzar (bard) Taras," said acting President Oleksandr Turchynov.

Later, Ukrainians in the tens of thousands massed in the Kiev's center for a multi-faith prayer meeting to display unity and honor Shevchenko. One of the speakers, former imprisoned Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, almost burst into tears as he implored the crowd to believe that not all Russians support their country's recent actions in Ukraine.

"I want you to know there is a completely different Russia," Khodorkovsky said.

Crimea, a strategic peninsula in the Black Sea, has become the flashpoint in the battle for Ukraine, where three months of protests sparked by President Victor Yanukovych's decision to ditch a significant treaty with the 28-nation European Union after strong pressure from Russia led to his downfall. A majority of people in Crimea identify with Russia, and Moscow's Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol, as is Ukraine's.

In Simferopol, Crimea's capital, a crowd of more than 4,000 people turned out Sunday to endorse unification with Russia. On Lenin Square, a naval band played World War II songs as old women sang along, and dozens of tricolor Russian flags fluttered in the cold wind.

"Russians are our brothers," Crimean Parliament speaker Vladimir Konstantinov said. He asked the crowd how it would vote in the referendum a week hence.

"Russia! Russia!" came the loud answer.

"We are going back home to the motherland," said Konstantinov.

Across town, at a park where a large bust of Shevchenko stands, around 500 people, some wearing yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flags on their shoulders like capes, came out to oppose unification with Russia.

They chanted "No to the referendum!" and "Ukraine!" People handed out fliers, one of which listed the economic woes that joining Russia would supposedly cause.

"We will not allow a foreign boot that wants to stand on the heads of our children," said one of the speakers, Alla Petrova. "The people are not scared. We are not scared to come out here and speak."

Some pro-Russians drove by, shouting "Moscow, Moscow!" from their cars, but there was no trouble.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who appeared on the BBC Sunday morning, described Russia's entering Crimea as a "big miscalculation."

He also said the March 16 referendum was happening "ridiculously quickly." Hague added, "The world will not be able to regard that as free or fair."

During his conversations with Cameron and Merkel, Putin criticized the Western leaders for what he said was their failure to press the new government in Kiev to curb ultranationalist and radical forces.

But the Kremlin also said that despite their differences, the three leaders expressed an interest in reducing tensions and normalizing the situation in Ukraine as soon as possible.
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