Ukraine's acting president says he's concerned about "signs of separatism" and threats to Ukraine’s territorial integrity following the upheaval that has rocked the country in the past week.
The comments on February 25 by acting President Oleksandr Turchynov follow protests in Crimea, where many residents are pro-Russian, against Ukraine's new authorities following the ouster of Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych.
Both Russia, and Western countries, which backed the opposition movement, have warned of the threat of growing instability linked to a split between Ukraine's Western-leaning and Russian-speaking regions.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on February 25 that Moscow has no intention of interfering in Ukraine's internal affairs.
However, later on the same day, a top Russian lawmaker said Russia "will not stay aside" if the lives of its compatriots in Ukraine were in danger.
Leonid Slutsky, deputy chairman of the Russian Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, said the Russian parliament is considering a bill that would clear the way for residents of Crimea and other people in Ukraine to swiftly obtain Russian citizenship.
"This is a very sensitive issue," he said. "It has to be worked on by a number of federal departments. This has to be decided by the highest authorities in Russia. And, of course, we should understand that if such proposals are legally approved in Russia, the reaction of Kyiv will be very negative. We can't do anything which could provoke armed response and bloodshed, especially against our compatriots."
Speaking to activists in Simferopol, the capital of the Crimea region, Slutsky said the elected Yanukovych remains Ukraine's only legitimate leader.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the chairman of the formerly opposition Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) faction, urged Moscow not to meddle. He said the situation in Crimea is "very complicated."
Doubt Cast On Aid Package
In related news, a top Russian finance official says Moscow has no legal obligation to pay further tranches of a $15 billion bailout package for Ukraine that was agreed with ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.
Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak said on February 25 that Moscow believes there's a "slight" risk debt-burdened Ukraine will not repay the first installment.
Russia disbursed $3 billion in an initial tranche, but suspended the next $2 billion tranche after violence and political turmoil roiled Ukraine last week.
Moscow has declined to recognize the former opposition politicians who have taken over as Ukraine's authorities.
Russia agreed the bailout in November after Yanukovych rejected signing cooperation accords with the European Union.
Ukraine's new authorities have estimated the country will need $35 billion over the next two years to stave off financial ruin.
Vote On New Government Delayed
Meanwhile, in Kyiv, Ukraine's parliament, now controlled by the former opposition, is not expected to vote on a new government until February 27. A vote had originally been expected as early as February 25.
"The deadline is Thursday [February 27] and I urge all democratic parties and all democratic forces and individual MPs urgently to finalize the deal on the coalition," Yatsenyuk told reporters. "We need to urgently hammer out this deal and to form the new government."
In another development, a presidential aide to Yanukovych has reportedly been shot and wounded. Few details about the reported incident were available.
Andriy Klyuyev was Yanukovych's chief of staff. It is unclear whether he is currently with Yanukovych, whose whereabouts are unknown.
On February 25, the Ukrainian parliament overwhelmingly backed a resolution calling for Yanukovych and officials in his government to be brought to trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The resolution said Yanukovych, along with former Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko, former Prosecutor-General Viktor Pshonka, and others should be tried for "crimes against humanity" allegedly committed during the crackdown by security forces on antigoverment protests.
The resolution said more than 100 Ukrainians and people from other countries had been killed in the clashes between antigovernment protesters and security forces.
With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, and Bloomberg