Ukraine accused Russia today of invading a region bordering Crimea and vowed to use "all necessary measures" to ward off an attack that came on the eve of the peninsula's breakaway vote.
The dramatic escalation of the most serious East-West crisis since the Cold War set a tense stage for the referendum on Crimea's secession from Ukraine in favour of Kremlin rule -- a vote denounced by both the international community and Kiev.
The predominantly Russian-speaking Black Sea region of two million people was overrun by Kremlin-backed troops days after the February 22 fall in Kiev of a Moscow-backed regime and the rise of nationalist leaders who favour closer ties with the West.
President Vladimir Putin defended Moscow's decision to flex its military muscle by arguing that ethnic Russians in Ukraine needed "protection" from violent ultranationalists who had been given free reign by the new Kiev administration.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had told Secretary of State John Kerry in London on Friday that Moscow "has no, and cannot have, any plans to invade the southeast region of Ukraine."
The invasion reported by the Ukrainian foreign ministry was small in scale and concerned a region that lies just off the northeast coast of Crimea called the Arabat Spit.
The Ukrainian ministry said 80 Russian military personnel had seized a village on the spit called Strilkove with the support of four military helicopters and three armoured personnel carriers.
The Ukrainian "foreign ministry declares the military invasion by Russia and demands the Russian side immediately withdraw its military forces from the territory of Ukraine," it said in a statement,
"Ukraine reserves the right to use all necessary measures to stop the military invasion by Russia." There was no immediate response to Ukraine's announcement from Moscow but Washington's UN representative Samantha Power called any new Russian troop movement in south Ukraine an "outrageous escalation".
Ukraine's claim of the invasion came on the second successive day of bloodshed that has now killed three people in the heavily Russified southeast of the culturally-splintered nation of 46 million.
The latest deadly violence flared last evening in Kharkiv when a group of nationalists opened fire on pro-Russian supporters in the heart of the eastern industrial city of 1.4 million.