As many as 50,000 people took part in Saturday’s “march for peace” in the Russian capital, Moscow, organizers said.
Demonstrators bearing both Russian and Ukrainian flags urged President Vladimir Putin to withdraw troops currently occupying Crimea, comparing the situation with the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland region ahead of World War II.
After the march, the protesters gathered on Prospekt Sakharova, the site of huge anti-Putin rallies in 2011-12.
Russian police, who regularly downplay the size of opposition demonstrations, earlier estimated the number of marchers at 3,000. A rival pro-Putin demonstration near the Kremlin attracted some 15,000 people, police said.
Many of the protesters at the Moscow peace rally used the same chants and slogans employed during recent Ukrainian anti-government protests that led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych last month.
Moscow land grab?
Just days after Yanukovych fled Kyiv, thousands of pro-Russian gunmen took control of Crimea, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet. A newly appointed pro-Kremlin government there then declared it would leave Ukraine, setting a referendum on the issue for Sunday.
Moscow says the referendum is a legitimate chance for the largely Russian-speaking peninsula to determine its own future, while Ukraine and its Western allies say the vote is a cover for an illegal annexation by the Kremlin.
The United States and the European Union have threatened sanctions against Moscow if the vote in Crimea goes ahead. Talks in London on Friday between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov failed to bridge differences on the issue.
Fears that Moscow’s military intervention in Crimea and Sunday’s referendum could cause upheaval in Ukraine’s Russia-leaning eastern regions were fuelled overnight when two people died in clashes between pro-Kyiv and pro-Moscow activists in the city of Kharkiv.
tj/se (AFP, AP)