MOSCOW (USA TODAY ) - Rallies were held in the streets of Russia Friday to urge Crimea to become part of Russia as a leader of Russia's parliament pledged to support a referendum -deemed illegal by the West - to break from Ukraine.
In Crimea, a Russian military truck broke down the gates of a Ukrainian base in the port city of Sevastopol and the base was under siege by Russians, the Interfax news agency reported.
The roughly 100 Ukrainian servicemen, who have been surrounded by Russians and pro-Russain Crimeans for days, barricaded themselves inside a barracks, Interfax said.
The violence comes as Russia and Crimeans who have taken over the local Crimean government moved forward with plans to divide the strategic peninsula from Ukraine with a referendum vote described as a fraud by the West.
"If the decision is made, then (Crimea) will become an absolutely equal subject of the Russian Federation," Federation Council speaker Valentina Matvienko said following a meeting with the speaker of Crimea's local parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov, Interfax reported.
Demonstrations took place in several Russian cities Friday in support of Russia taking on Crimea, where the majority of people are ethnic Russians who speak Russian.
About 50,000 people attended a Kremlin-organized rally in Moscow. Streets were closed off to accommodate the demonstrators who waved Russian flags, chanting "Crimea is Russia!" according to Itar-Tass news agency.
"We always knew that Russia would not abandon us," Konstantinov shouted from a stage at the rally.
Konstantinov also called on Moscow to not stop with Crimea. He said other Russia-leaning regions in East Ukraine want to leave Ukraine too and Russia should help make that happen.
"We must not leave the Ukrainian people at the mercy of those Nazi bandits," he said, referring to an interim Ukrainian government.
The Ukraine-elected parliament replaced the government of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych after the killing of more than 80 protesters in Kiev. The appointed are to serve temporarily until new elections in May.
Crimea's local parliament, which largely supported Yanukovych, voted on Thursday to join Russia and scheduled a referendum for March 16 to do that or enact more autonomy from Kiev. The Russian parliament in Moscow said it will amend laws to make it easier for Crimea to join Russia.
But the Ukraine government and the United States and Europe say the referendum is illegal and not permitted under Ukraine's constitution. The Ukraine prime minster says Russian President Vladimir Putin engineered the vote by encouraging pro-Russian mobs to take over the parliament and other political offices by force.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the interim prime minister of Ukraine, said Friday that he had requested talks with the Russian prime minister Dmitri Medvedev, but that Moscow must withdraw its troops, and halt its support for "separatists and terrorists in Crimea."
"No one in the civilized world will recognize the results of a so-called referendum carried out by these so-called authorities," Yatsenyuk said.
Well armed and equipped soldiers in armored uniforms controlling border crossings, bases and a port area in Crimea are widely assumed to be Russian military forces. The Russian troops are preventing the Ukraine military from reinforcing its troops in Crimea, according to numerous reports from Western media.
Crimean militiamen who want Crimea to become part of Russia are also out in force, blocking entrances to military bases and the parliament building. They are protecting Russian-speaking Crimeans who have summarily replaced elected officials.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said some Russian forces were in Crimea but only to protect Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which has naval bases on the waterfront. But the Russian troops are mobile infantry units in armored personnel carriers well beyond the Russian base.
Putin has denied any role in the takeover other than to say he has taken certain steps to protect Russian lives and "interests" and will continue to do so if necessary.
But analysts in Russia say someone must have been behind the takeover.
"Things like this don't just happen, it's someone's political will," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Russia in Global Affairs journal and chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. "But who's will it is I don't know.
"If it was Moscow's decision, it's a result of the reaction coming from the West in the last couple of days, and threats of sanctions in particular. This could be Moscow's insistence that the post-Soviet era of allowing the West to set the rules of the game are over, and that now it's either playing as equal, or Moscow getting to set the rules of the game."
Putin's spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, denied Kremlin involvement.
"These are not managed processes, and especially not the result of Russian actions," Peskov said in reference to Crimea's vote, Interfax reported.
Putin has denied that Russia had any plans to annex the Crimean Peninsula, which was part of Russia until 1954 when it was made part of Ukraine by the then Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union dissolved, the republics it held captive declared independence, including Ukraine.
Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Institute of Commonwealth of Independent States, a Moscow group that advocates for Russian interests in the former Soviet republics, says Ukraine's central government in Kiev is largely to blame for the uprising.
"When that government demonstratively acts without taking into account the opinions of those in Ukraine's (Russian-speaking) East by appointing anti-Russian politicians to executive posts, then it couldn't have expected anything else," Zharikhin said.
The USA has imposed travel sanctions on unidentified persons in Russia and Crimea to try and end the crisis peacefully. But Ukraine says much more must be done to Russia to get it to back off.
Former boxer Vitali Klitschko and magnate Petro Poroshenko, both of whom are seen as likely candidates in Ukraine's May presidential election, sought European support Friday to confront Russia.
Poroshenko said reporters in Paris that Ukraine wants the EU and U.S. "to speak in one voice and be on the same wavelength." Klitschko, a leader of the protest movement that had demanded the ouster of Yanukovych, said "we need a joint position by all EU countries and the United States."
The European Union appears wary of antagonizing Russia, a major energy supplier and trade partner. Russia has threatened counter-sanctions if it is penalized. On Friday its state gas company warned Ukraine that it may see a cutoff of gas if Kiev interferes with the Crimea vote.
"Visa sanctions and frozen accounts are inevitable but not deadly," Lukyanov said. "The question is whether the United States and particularly the European Union are prepared to issue serious economic sanctions that will have major consequences for Russian companies and its economy as a whole."