SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine – Dozens of pro-Russian protesters rallied Tuesday in this Crimean Peninsula city, bitterly denouncing politicians in Kiev who are trying to form a new government, with some even calling for secession from Ukraine. A Russian lawmaker stoked their passions by promising that Moscow will protect them.
"Russia, save us!" they chanted.
The outburst of pro-Russian sentiment in the strategic peninsula on the Black Sea, home to a Russian naval base, came amid fears of economic collapse for Ukraine as the fractious foes of President Viktor Yanukovych failed to reach agreement on forming a new national government and said the task of assigning posts could not be completed before Thursday.
While Ukraine's politicians struggled to reorganize themselves in Kiev, a Russian flag had replaced the Ukrainian flag in front of the city council building in Sevastopol, 500 miles to the south of the capital. An armored personnel carrier and two trucks full of Russian troops made a rare appearance on the streets, vividly demonstrating Russian power in this port city where the Kremlin's Black Sea Fleet is based.
Some called on Moscow to protect them from the movement that drove Yanukovych from the capital three days ago.
"Bandits have come to power," complained Vyacheslav Tokarev, a 39-year-old construction worker. "I'm ready to take arms to fight the fascists who have seized power in Kiev."
Yanukovych's whereabouts are unknown but he was reportedly last seen in the Crimea, the staunchly pro-Russian region the size of Massachusetts. Law enforcement agencies have issued an arrest warrant for him over the killing of 82 people, mainly protesters, last week in the bloodiest violence in Ukraine's post-Soviet history.
His former chief of staff, Andriy Klyuyev, was wounded by gunfire Monday and hospitalized, spokesman Artem Petrenko told The Associated Press. It wasn't clear where in Ukraine the shooting took place or what were the circumstances of the shooting.
The pro-Moscow protesters gathered for a third day in front of administrative buildings in Sevastopol and in other Crimean cities. Protests on Sunday numbered in the thousands.
"Only Russia will be able to protect the Crimea," said Anatoly Mareta, wearing the colors of the Russian flag on his arm.
"I hope for the Ossetian way," he added – a reference to the brief but fierce 2008 war in which Russian tanks and troops helped Georgia's separatist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to break free. Russia has recognized both as independence states, but few other nations have.
Russia, which has thousands of Black Sea Fleet seamen at its base, so far has refrained from any sharp moves in Ukraine's political turmoil, but could be drawn into the fray if there are confrontations between the population in Crimea and the supporters of the new authorities. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in Washington that their countries oppose any attempt to partition or divide the former Soviet republic into pro-Western and pro-Russian territories.
A senior Russian lawmaker promised protesters that his government will protect its Russian-speaking compatriots in the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine that tilt heavily toward Moscow. "If lives and health of our compatriots are in danger, we won't stay aside," Leonid Slutsky told activists in Simferopol, the regional capital of Crimea.
Slutsky's statements followed more cautious remarks by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said that Moscow has no intention of interfering in Ukraine's domestic affairs but also warned the West against trying to turn the situation there to its advantage.
Lavrov nevertheless criticized the new authorities who assumed control after Yanukovych fled, accusing them of failure to rein in radical groups.
Ukraine's interim leader, Oleksandr Turchinov, met with top security officials Tuesday to discuss the tensions in Crimea and elsewhere.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also summoned his top security officials Tuesday to discuss Ukraine, but no details were released.
Many in Russia have been dreaming about regaining the lush Crimean peninsula, which was conquered by Russia in the 18th century under Catherine the Great. Crimea only became part of Ukraine in 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred jurisdiction from Russia. The move was a formality until the 1991 Soviet collapse meant Crimea landed in an independent Ukraine.
Ethnic Russians make up the majority of Crimea's population, and some, including retired navy officers and their families, have Russian citizenship. The peninsula's nearly 2 million people includes 60 percent Russian speakers, as well as 12 percent who are Crimean Tatars, a minority group deported and persecuted in Soviet times, leaving them with little love for Russia. Refat Chubarov, the head of the Tatar community, says the Tatars want new elections to the regional parliament and to remove any monuments to Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin.
At the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev, lawmakers delayed the formation of a new government until Thursday, reflecting the political and economic challenges the country faces after Yanukovych went into hiding.
Turchinov, the parliament speaker, is now nominally in charge of this strategic country of 46 million whose ailing economy faces a possible default and whose loyalties are sharply torn between Europe and longtime ruler Russia.
The European Union's top foreign policy official, Catherine Ashton, urged Ukraine's new government to quickly work out an economic reform program so the West could consider financial aid to keep Ukraine from bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the Institute of International Finance, a Washington-based association of banks and financial companies, warned that Ukraine's finances "are on the verge of collapse." Ukraine is battling to keep its currency, the hryvnia, from collapsing. Its acting finance minister says the country needs $35 billion (25.5 billion euros) to finance government needs this year and next.
After meeting with interim authorities in Kiev, Ashton urged the new government not to exclude members of Yanukovych's Party of Regions.
"It needs to be inclusive," she told reporters.
Protests in Ukraine erupted after Yanukovych in November abruptly reject an agreement to strengthen ties with the European Union and instead sought a bailout loan from Moscow. But they grew into a massive movement demanding an end to corruption and greater human rights.
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.