MOSCOW — Russia rallied support Friday for a Crimean bid to secede from Ukraine, with a leader of Russia's parliament assuring her Crimean counterpart that the region would be welcomed as "an absolutely equal subject of the Russian Federation." Across Red Square, 65,000 people waved Russian flags, chanting "Crimea is Russia!"
The strategic peninsula in southern Ukraine has become the flashpoint in the battle for Ukraine, where three months of protests sent President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing to Russia. Russia calls the new Ukrainian government illegitimate, and has seized control of Crimea, where it has a major naval base on the Black Sea.
Crimea's parliament has called a March 16 referendum on whether the semi-autonomous region should join Russia outright, a move U.S. President Barack Obama has called a violation of international law.
Although Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Russia has no intention of annexing Crimea, he insisted that its residents have the right to determine the region's status in the referendum.
And Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, made clear Friday that the country would welcome Crimea if it votes in the referendum to join its giant neighbor. About 60 percent of Crimea's population identifies itself as Russian.
Read tomorrow's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.