MOSCOW March 15, 2014— -- Dueling protests were held in Moscow today, in favor of and against Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and its potential annexation of Crimea.
The rallies came a day before Crimea is to hold a referendum on independence from Ukraine and amid reports of Russia escalating its military presence in the neighboring country.
At the pro-intervention rally near Red Square, many of the 15,000 reported participants marched in columns wearing red uniforms.
At the larger anti-war rally, tens of thousands marched carrying Russian and Ukrainian flags. They chanted “Crimea no!” and slogans against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I am against war - Russia against Ukraine - and I think Ukraine is independent country and we should solve all the problems with diplomatic methods,” protester Yuliana Badrova said.
“I am afraid that this will cause world war and that’s why I am here,” Yelena Sviridova, another protester, said. “I am afraid we will not stop him [Putin]. We are here but he doesn’t listen to us.”
On Saturday Russia vetoed a US-led resolution at the United Nations Security Council that would have declared the referendum illegal. The United States and Europe have warned of sanctions if the vote goes ahead and Russia does not back down.
Also on Saturday, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry claimed that Russian troops had moved beyond Crimea for the first time, taking control of a village just north of the region. A senior State Department official said they had no independent confirmation that Russian troops had entered areas of Ukraine outside Crimea.
"We remain concerned about any attempt by Russia to increase tensions or threaten the Ukrainian people and - as we have long said - if Russia continues to take escalatory steps, there will be consequences," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
After reports that two pro-Russia protesters were killed in eastern Ukraine on Friday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Saturday that it had received “many” requests for help from citizens in Ukraine and that “these applications will be considered.”
Together with another statement on Friday regarding another two deaths a day earlier - in which Russia said it “reserves the right” to protect its countrymen in Ukraine because the Kiev government is unable to do so - Russia appears to be preparing a justification for military incursion into Ukraine if that's what it decides to do. That justification appears to be one on humanitarian grounds in response to cries for help from across the border.
Outside of the two rallies in Moscow, most people who spoke to ABC News expressed support for Crimea’s referendum on independence and the possibility of the region joining Russia.
“I think that the referendum is legal and people will decide what should be done,” a young man named Alexey said.
He rejected threats of sanctions, saying he did not think they would be very effective.
“I do not think that there will be isolation. The world is very connected nowadays,” he said.
The United States and the European Union have accused Russia of taking control of the peninsula with its own troops and auxiliary pro-Russian forces. Thousands of troops have flooded the region, taking over military bases (while surrounding others), the airports and other strategic locations. Though they wear no insignia, it is evident that they are Russian.
Russia has also sent thousands more troops to its border with Ukraine and launched military drills.
There are also what appear to be freelance protesters from Russia – including some who have been described as intimidating thugs – who have swarmed into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine to protest loudly in favor of joining Russia and to menace those who oppose.
Russia also has launched a massive propaganda campaign. Russian media, controlled by the Kremlin, has flooded the airwaves with misleading reports of “fascists” taking over Ukraine and threats to ethnic Russians. Billboards erected ahead of the referendum offer the choice between Russia’s flag and a Nazi flag.
The region is of strategic importance as the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Most of the population is ethnic Russian.