Ukraine said Friday that Moscow has already deployed up to 30,000 troops in the autonomous Ukrainian republic of Crimea, whose parliament has voted to hold a referendum on reunification with Russia.
That figure was provided by the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine, whose human resources director, Mikhail Koval, was unable to state the precise number of Ukrainian troops in the disputed peninsula.
He did say, however, that all the detachments of border guards and armed forces in Crimea remained at their posts.
The Crimean parliament voted Thursday to reunite with Russia, 60 years after the peninsula was transferred to the Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and hold a referendum on the issue on March 16.
After the vote, the deputy prime minister of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea told reporters that Russian armed forces deployed in the peninsula will be considered legitimate, while any other troops will be regarded as "occupying" forces.
In Kiev, Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, said the move to set up the plebiscite was "illegal and illegitimate" and said Ukraine's parliament would begin the process of dissolving the regional assembly in Crimea.
Meanwhile, the speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament, Sergei Naryshkin, said Friday that Russian lawmakers would support the option that Crimea's population "freely and democratically" decides.
The Crimean Peninsula, located on the northern coast of the Black Sea, is home to 2 million people; ethnic Russians make up 60 percent of the population, while 25 percent of residents are ethnic Ukrainians and 12 percent are Crimean Tatars, who favor keeping that region a part of Ukraine.
Kiev's new authorities consider the government of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea to be a puppet of Moscow, while the Crimean authorities regard Ukraine's new leaders as illegitimate and still recognize Viktor Yanukovych, ousted from power last month and currently in Russia, as Ukraine's president.
Moscow deployed its forces and took de facto control last week of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, a majority Russian-speaking region, claiming it was protecting ethnic Russians and Russia's interests in the area.
Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, which has been the naval force's home port since the 18th century.
The United States, meanwhile, said Thursday that the holding of a referendum on the future of the Crimean Peninsula would violate international law.
President Obama also said his government was imposing visa restrictions and personal sanctions on "individuals and entities" involved in the Russian military intervention in Crimea.
The crisis in Ukraine erupted at the end of November, when Yanukovych backed away from plans to ink an "association agreement" with the European Union and instead signed a $15 billion financial-aid package with Russia.
Protesters took to the streets of Kiev and began occupying administrative buildings, prompting Ukraine's parliament, then controlled by Yanukovych's allies, to pass a package of laws on Jan. 16 restricting freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and other basic rights.
Violent clashes pitting demonstrators and riot police broke out three days later and left six dead and hundreds wounded.
Ukrainian officials and opposition leaders began seeking a negotiated solution to the crisis in the wake of the bloodshed.
The talks led to the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov on Jan. 28 and the repeal of the controversial anti-protest laws.
But more street battles pitting pro-European Union protesters against the security forces left dozens dead in February, and led to Yanukovych agreeing to call early presidential elections and then fleeing Kiev.
After Yanukovych left the city, many of his former allies in parliament turned against him and helped oust him from power and release his arch-rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, from prison. EFE