The U.N. Security Council will vote Saturday on a U.S.-drafted resolution urging countries not to recognize the results of an upcoming Crimean referendum.
The vote comes as Ukraine's Defense Ministry reported Saturday it had repelled Russian forces trying to move into an area of Ukraine that is parallel to the east of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.
“Units of Ukraine's armed forces today...repelled an attempt by servicemen of the armed forces of the Russian Federation to enter the territory of Kherson region on Arbatskaya Strelka,” a ministry statement said. “This was repelled immediately." The statement was reported by the Reuters news agency which reported that Ukraine used paratroops and and aircraft in the operation.
Sunday's referendum gives residents of Crimea only two choices: joining Russia or the significant strengthening of their autonomy within Ukraine. A vote in favor of joining Russia is widely seen as a forgone conclusion in the majority Russian-speaking region on the Black Sea, which has hosted czarist and Kremlin navies since the 18th century.
Diplomats say they expect Russia to veto Saturday's vote at the U.N., while supporters say 13 of the 15 Council members will approve the resolution. Meanwhile, China has not said how it will vote. If Moscow's close ally abstains, it would demonstrate Russia's extensive international isolation.
The U.N. resolution reaffirms Ukraine's territorial integrity, and declares Sunday's referendum "can have no validity."
On Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in central Moscow for rival rallies on Crimea.
Supporters of the Crimea referendum waved Russian and Soviet Union flags as they marched to Moscow's Revolution Square. Many of them wore identical red and black outfits.
Separately, chanting opponents waved Ukrainian and Russian flags. Some voiced concern that Russian intervention in Crimea could lead to war.
Ukraine accused "Kremlin agents'' on Saturday of fomenting deadly violence in Russian-speaking cities and urged people not to rise to provocations its new leaders fear Moscow may use to justify a further invasion after its takeover of Crimea.
From his speaker's chair in parliament, acting president
Oleksander Turchinov referred to three deaths in two days in Donetsk and Kharkiv and said there was ``a real danger'' of invasion by Russian troops across Ukraine's eastern border.
Addressing members of the party of the pro-Moscow president
who was ousted in last month's Kiev uprising, Turchinov said: "You know as well as we do who is organizing mass protests in eastern Ukraine - it is Kremlin agents who are organising and funding them, who are causing people to be murdered.''
Two men, described by police as pro-Russian demonstrators,
were shot dead in a fight in Kharkiv late on Friday. A Ukrainian nationalist was stabbed to death when pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine demonstrators clashed in Donetsk on Thursday.
Turchinov, quoted by local media, closed the parliamentary
session by saying: "The situation is very dangerous. I'm not exaggerating. There is a real danger from threats of invasion of Ukrainian territory and we will reconvene on Monday at 10.''
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Russia's FM Sergei Lavrov before their meeting at the residence of the U.S. ambassador in London, March 14, 2014.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday that Russian acceptance of a Crimean referendum to break off from Ukraine and join Russia would be an illegal "backdoor annexation."
Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for six hours in London Friday in an effort to defuse the tensions in Crimea.
If Sunday's vote passes and the Russian parliament ratifies it, Kerry said that would violate international law, and there will be consequences. He said this is not a threat against Russia but a matter of respecting international standards for annexation and independence.
Lavrov said in a separate news conference that the talks with Kerry were useful, but the two have "no common vision" on Crimea. He said Russia will "respect the will of the Crimean people," and he criticized the threat of U.S. and European Union sanctions on Russia as "counterproductive."
U.S. President Barack Obama said Friday he still hopes for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. But Kerry said it is clear Russian President Vladimir Putin will not make any moves until after Sunday's referendum.
The Kremlin says Mr. Putin told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a phone call that the referendum is "fully consistent with international law and the U.N. Charter." However, the U.S. and European Union say the referendum violates Ukraine's constitution and international law.
Moscow acknowledged Thursday that it is deploying thousands more troops and military hardware near the Ukrainian border for two weeks of military maneuvers.
The U.S. State Department said it was "very concerned" about the deployment. The U.S. estimates that Russia already may have 20,000 troops in Crimea.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is traveling to Poland and Lithuania next week to meet with regional partners to discuss events in Ukraine. A White House statement says Biden will consult on steps to support Ukraine's sovereignty, and affirm international "collective defense commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty."
Some information for this report provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.