MOSCOW, Russia — Hours after the country’s top senator on Friday signaled Russia’s upper house of parliament would welcome Crimea into the Russian Federation, thousands rallied outside the Kremlin in support of the defiant Ukrainian region’s push to join Moscow.
The back-to-back developments reflect growing official pro-Crimea sentiments here that suggest Russia will almost certainly annex the peninsula, much to the international community’s dismay.
Valentina Matvienko, head of the Federation Council, told the speaker of Crimea’s pro-Russian parliament on Friday his region “will become an absolutely equal subject of the Russian Federation” if locals vote in favor in a March 16 referendum.
Matvienko’s comments provided the highest-profile support so far for Crimea’s controversial bid to join Russia, a move slammed by the West and Kyiv’s new authorities as illegitimate.
At the government-sponsored demonstration, Russians chanted slogans in support of Crimea — whose authorities have broken off ties with Kyiv — and hoisted placards expressing solidarity with what they said were their compatriots in Ukraine.
Onstage, Yevgeny Gerasimov, a noted actor and Moscow city parliament deputy from the ruling United Russia Party, theatrically appealed to the Kremlin to expedite a draft law that would bring Crimea into Russia.
“This is what the citizens of Russia and Crimea are waiting for,” he said.
The rally, which police claimed attracted around 65,000 people, was mirrored in recent days by smaller demonstrations in other major Russian cities. They have been heavily covered by state-controlled television, which has waged a fierce campaign against Kyiv’s pro-Western government.
While the Crimean parliament’s vote on Thursday may have taken some observers by surprise, that was not the case in Russia, where both officials and ordinary citizens have long considered Crimea an integral part of Russian history.
The increasing tension between pro-Russian separatists there and Kyiv’s new government is now serving as a prime justification for Moscow to pull the defiant region back into its grasp.
Members of Russia’s Public Chamber, a state advisory body of civic activists that monitors and debates legislation, on Thursday offered near-unanimous support to Crimea’s pro-Russian government.
Members who had just returned from a fact-finding mission to the peninsula claimed Russian-speaking locals there face threats of discrimination by the Kyiv government, a charge denied by the post-revolutionary authorities.
Even before news about the parliament’s vote broke, the working group had mulled ways of providing humanitarian and legal support to the breakaway region, which is home to an ethnic Russian majority population.
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It even discussed waging an information campaign aimed at countering what they say has been Western and Ukrainian disinformation about Crimea and Russia.
“All the Ukrainian television channels are controlled by the Kyiv junta,” Sergei Markov, a leading Kremlin-connected analyst who also visited Crimea, said at the hearing. There’s “practically no freedom of speech in Ukraine today.”
Elsewhere in Moscow, there are few outward signs of Russia’s intensifying geopolitical battle with the West over Crimea’s fate.
Muscovites shuffled about their daily routines, many appearing preoccupied with International Women’s Day — a major holiday in Russia celebrated on March 8.
Some had arms full with the bouquets of flowers traditionally given to women at home and in the workplace rather than the Russian flags seen hoisted on television by demonstrators in Russia and Crimea.
“We don’t really have much of a say in this,” said Alexander, a 26-year-old engineer, shrugging as he spoke on a quiet Moscow street, “but I’m not against it.”
“We’ve always been together,” he added, speaking about Crimea’s shared history with Russia. “The bigger our country gets, the stronger it will be.”