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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held last-minute talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in London today, but there was no breakthrough. Kerry had been trying to head off the referendum on Crimean secession from Ukraine. That vote is set for Sunday. In a moment, we'll hear more about the situation in Crimea. But first, NPR's Eleanor Beardsley begins our coverage in Kiev, where many Ukrainians fear the confrontation with Russia could take their country to war.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Patriotic music plays in Kiev's Maidan Square, the site of three months of protests that toppled the regime of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Amidst the mounds of tires and walls of paving stones are shrines to the fallen - photos, candles, and flowers laid for the nearly 100 protesters killed in February. Ukrainians from all walks of life come out to visit and take pictures.
OKSANA PANKYEYEV: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Oksana and Andre Pankyeyev say they have driven from their home two hours away in southern Ukraine. Both native Russian speakers, Oksana Pankyeyev says Russian President Vladimir Putin's claims that Russia must protect ethnic Russians in Crimea is total propaganda.
OKSANA PANKYEYEV: We speak Russian all the time. Our kids speak Russian in our family, but in school, they speak Ukrainian because it's Ukrainian school. And there is no problem with speaking Russian in Ukraine.
BEARDSLEY: Like everyone in Ukraine these days, the Pankyeyev's have been glued to the news and are frightened to see that Russian troops are engaged in military maneuvers along the Russian border with Ukraine. A Ukrainian official estimated that if they were to invade, Russian soldiers could be in Kiev in two to three hours. Andre Pankyeyev thinks Putin is upping the ante so he can get away with taking Crimea.
ANDRE PANKYEYEV: Personally, I am thinking that they are scarifying country to take over Crimea, to say if you try to do something against us, you see that we are all around the country.
BEARDSLEY: Oksana thinks Putin won't stop at Crimea and will try to annex areas of eastern Ukraine. If Putin is looking for an excuse, the region is a tinderbox. Just today, a protester was killed in clashes between pro- and anti-Russian forces in the city of Donetsk.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Throughout the capital, tensions are high in front of the Ukrainian parliament, or Rada. A session is being broadcast onto the square.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: A group of elderly Ukrainians are worked up over events. They say Putin is crazy, the referendum is a fraud, and the whole scenario makes them think not of Soviet times but of when the Nazis invaded Ukraine in 1941. Ukrainians know militarily, they're no match for Russia. On Thursday, Ukraine's parliament voted to create a 60,000-member national guard to bolster the country's defenses. Igor Soboliev is a school teacher and civil activist. He was born in Russia, where his parents still live.
IGOR SOBOLIEV: It's very mentally difficult because Russians and Ukrainians have so many connections, ties. But if they invaded us, I will fight and many of my friends also will go to the army.
BEARDSLEY: Soboliev says he could accept losing Crimea only if it means the rest of Ukraine becomes a successful, uncorrupt Westward looking democracy. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Kiev. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.