A defiant Viktor Yanukovych, ousted as Ukrainian president, has reiterated from exile that he is still the country's leader and remains commander of the country's armed forces.
In a short statement delivered from the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, Yanukovych said he is sure the armed forces would refuse to obey any "criminal orders" and that he intends to return to Kyiv as "circumstances permit," saying, "I am sure it won't be long."
He added: "I want to remind everyone that I remain not only the single legitimate president of Ukraine, but also the supreme commander in chief [of the armed forces]. I did not discontinue my duties before the end of my term. I am alive. I have not been removed from my post by means defined in the constitution of Ukraine."
He denounced the West as "protectors of the dark forces" currently in power, calling the current government "a band of ultranationalists and neo-fascists." He said a presidential election set for May is illegal.
"In the U.S. and some other countries, they insist that I have lost my legitimacy as the president because I have fled the country. I repeat: I have not fled anywhere," Yanukovych said. "At the moment when the government buildings and presidential administration were seized by radicals, indeed, when they were seizing power in an unconstitutional way, with arms in their hands, I was, as you all know, in Ukraine, in Kharkiv, then in Donetsk, and then in Crimea. Again, at the moment of the coup, I did not leave the territory of Ukraine."
He lamented that Crimea is going to secede from Ukraine, blaming the actions of the "extremists" in power. But he predicted the country "will rise up and unify."
It was Yanukovych's first appearance since February 28, when he also spoke from Rostov-on-Don and claimed to still be Ukraine's legitimate leader.
Meanwhile, pro-Russia lawmakers in Crimea, occupied by Russian forces, have approved
a declaration on the republic's independence.
The lawmakers announced that the March 11 adoption of the declaration is a technical step ahead of a March 16 referendum that will ask voters whether Crimea should join Russia. Seventy-eight out of 81 lawmakers present voted in favor.
Ukraine's parliament meanwhile warned the parliament in Crimea that it faces dissolution unless it cancels the referendum.
Western states and the post-Yanukovych government in Kyiv have said they will not recognize the vote.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius says European Union sanctions could be imposed on Russia as early as this week.
Speaking on French radio, Fabius said that if Russia responds positively, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Moscow and sanctions won’t be imposed immediately. But, he warned, if Moscow responds negatively, travel restrictions and sanctions targeting the assets of individual Russians could be implemented.
"The vote is illegal and the annexation of Crimea by Russia would also be illegal," Fabius said. "So we cannot accept something that is illegal and which will also have very serious consequences because it means the destabilization of Ukraine. Ukraine is between the European Union, and Russia and it is in the interests of Russia and the European Union for Ukraine to remain stable. But Russia's actions have upset everything."
Separately, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, on a visit to Estonia, has offered assurances that the Baltic states will be protected from the crisis by their membership in NATO.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that in a telephone conversation on March 8 that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had laid out a number of ideas to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
She said Kerry is prepared to take part in further talks only if Russia is ready to engage on these proposals.
Washington reportedly wants Moscow to cease its military advances in Ukraine, stop its drive to annex Crimea, and end "provocative steps." The State Department said Kerry has yet to receive any response.
Earlier, Lavrov said that Kerry had asked to postpone a visit to Moscow on March 10, after initially accepting the invitation. At a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Lavrov also said that the proposals made by Kerry "did not really suit" Russia.
The Security Council met again behind closed doors on March 10 to discuss the Ukraine crisis, its fifth meeting on the issue in 10 days.
Based on reporting by AP, Reuters, ITAR-TASS, dpa, Interfax, and RFE/RL