As Ukrainians brace for a tumultuous week, Russia and the United States have increased the tension over Ukraine, with President Barack Obama inviting the country’s new prime minister for a high-profile visit.

A series of phone calls on Sunday involving several leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, did little to ease the tension in what is becoming a Cold War-like standoff.

Mr. Putin, once again throwing his support behind Ukrainian separatists, vowed to back the local Crimean government’s snap referendum on becoming part of Russia, arguing he was simply defending the Russian-speaking majority there. At the same time, the White House said Mr. Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden would meet Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in Washington on Wednesday. The visit is designed as a show of support for Ukraine’s new government, which has said the referendum is illegal.

The gulf between Western leaders and the Kremlin only hardened, as clashes broke out in Crimea where Russia-backed forces and troops seized more Ukrainian military outposts.

A statement put out by Mr. Putin’s office said he told German Chancellor Angela Merkel by telephone Sunday that Crimea’s “legitimate leadership” was acting in accordance with international law and that the Kiev authorities were failing to “limit the rampant behaviour of ultra-nationalists and radical forces.” Ms. Merkel, according to a German government statement, repeated what European and U.S. officials have been saying for days – that they view the Crimea referendum as illegitimate.

Western leaders and Ukraine’s interim government have said they will not recognize the referendum’s outcome. And they have called on Russia to de-escalate the situation or face possible sanctions.

The high-level contacts came as Ukraine accused Russia of sending more troops into Crimea over the weekend. According to the Ukrainian government, Russian soldiers have surrounded six military bases, blocked 11 border guard units and impeded Ukrainian access to the outer bay at Sevastopol, which is home to a Russian naval base.

“Let the Russian President know, we will defend every centimetre of Ukrainian land,” Mr. Yatsenyuk told a large crowd in central Kiev on Sunday. “This is our land.”

The crowd also heard supportive words from Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a fierce critic of Mr. Putin who was recently released from jail after serving more than 10 years. “Russian propaganda lies, as always. There are no fascists or Nazis here,” he told the crowd. ”I want you to know – there is a different Russia. There are people who despite the arrests, despite the long years they have spent in prison, go to anti-war demonstration in Moscow.”

Competing rallies were held in several cities on Sunday, as those in favour of keeping the country united faced off against people who want to Crimea and other regions to join Russia.

Thousands gathered in Kiev’s Independence Square to honour the 200th anniversary of the birth of Ukraine writer Taras Shevchenko and voice support for a united Ukraine. A bag piper led a long line of people on a march through the city centre, many waving flags of several countries including Canada. Some also held signs comparing Mr. Putin to Hitler.

Crimea “is a real big problem and it makes people very concerned about the future,” said Bogdan Dubas, a leader of the protest movement, known as Maidan, which was instrumental in the ouster of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych last month.

In Crimea, an equal number of people flooded into Lenin Square in the territory’s capital of Simferopol to show support for re-joining Russia (Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made Crimea part of the then Soviet republic of Ukraine in 1954). “Together with Russia we will build our future,” said the newly appointed Crimean Prime Minister, Sergey Aksyonov. The Crimean government also said on Sunday that Russia is ready to invest about $1-billion in Crimea once it becomes part of Russia. And it said it expects salaries and pensions to increase.

Voters, in any case, will not have much choice in the referendum. Crimean officials released a copy of the ballot over the weekend and it offers two options: joining Russia or reverting back to the 1992 Crimean constitution which gave the territory more powers as an autonomous region within Ukraine. Voting “no” is not an option. And even selecting the second choice puts the region on track to joining Russia because the government has already asked the Russian parliament to begin the annexation process.

KIEV — The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Mar. 09 2014, 9:12 PM EDT
Last updated Sunday, Mar. 09 2014, 10:52 PM EDT