KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia's Foreign Ministry on Monday denounced alleged lawlessness by far-right activists in eastern Ukraine, a statement likely to trigger alarms in Ukraine about possible Russian intervention there.
Ukraine's foreign minister said Monday his country already feels like it's almost in a state of war after Russian forces took effective control of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. A referendum has been called there for Sunday on whether the region should split off and seek to become part of Russia.
Pro-Russia sentiment is also high in Ukraine's east and there are fears Russia could seek to incorporate that area as well.
The Kremlin statement also claimed Russian citizens trying to enter Ukraine have been turned back at the border by Ukrainian officials.
On Sunday, a pro-Russian crowd in the eastern city of Luhansk occupied the regional government headquarters, raised the Russian tricolor and demanded the right to hold a referendum on joining Russia, like in Crimea.
In its Monday statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said lawlessness "now rules in eastern regions of Ukraine as a result of the actions of fighters of the so-called 'Right Sector' with the full connivance" of Ukraine's new authorities.
Right Sector is a grouping of several far-right and nationalist factions. Its activists were among the most radical and confrontational of the demonstrators in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, and organized "self-defense" brigades for the protest camp
On Monday in Kiev, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsya received his counterparts from Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, who had come to show support for Ukraine in what has turned into Europe's greatest geopolitical crisis since the end of the Cold War.
"We have to admit that our life now is almost like ... a war," Deshchytsya said, speaking in English. "We have to cope with an aggression that we do not understand."
He said Ukraine is counting on help from abroad to deal with its giant neighbor to the east.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk will be received in Washington by President Obama, the White House has announced.
Obama has warned that the March 16 vote in Crimea would violate international law. But on Sunday, Russian President Vladimir 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.
In Kiev, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the businessman who was once Russia's most famous prisoner said on Monday his country is ruining its longstanding friendship with Ukraine by its aggressive and pro-separatist actions in Crimea.
"Ukraine must become a European state," the former tycoon told students at Kiev Polytechnic University. For that to happen, Khodorkovsky said there must be foreign investment, eradication of corruption and a modern-day Marshall Plan of international assistance
He also called for establishing a congress of Ukrainian and Russian intellectuals to boost ties.
Putin has refused to have any dealings with the new Ukrainian leaders who replaced fugitive pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych. But Khodorkovsky expressed support for them, saying they came to power thanks to "a revolution of justice."
Khodorkovsky, once Russia's wealthiest man, was pardoned last December by Putin. Many believe he was convicted of tax violations and other crimes and sent to prison on trumped-up charges.
On Sunday, Khodorkovsky almost wept as he assured a large crowd in Kiev's center not to believe that all Russians support their government's actions in Crimea.
Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said Monday that "from an American standpoint, the very strong view is that there is no military solution to this crisis. This is a crisis that needs to be solved diplomatically."
Speaking to Ukrainian and foreign journalists in Kiev, the ambassador reiterated the American commitment to the territorial integrity of Ukraine and said Washington does not accept the legitimacy of the referendum in Crimea.
Heintz reported from Moscow.