A Crimean Tatar leader told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday that the secession of Crimea from Ukraine to join Russia would violate an international treaty in which Russia, Britain and the United States vowed to keep Ukraine intact.
Putin spoke by phone with Mustafa Dzhemilev, a senior figure in the Crimean Tatar community, in what may have been an effort to ease their concerns over a referendum on Sunday in which Crimeans will be asked whether they want to join Russia.
Many Crimean Tatars, who make up about 12 percent of the population of the Black Sea peninsula, are strongly opposed to falling under Russia's control. Exiled en masse by the Soviet authorities during World War Two, many Crimean Tatars are very wary of Russia.
Their leader has called for a boycott of the plebiscite.
The United States and European nations have said the Russian-backed vote would be illegitimate and are threatening to impose sanctions on Moscow if it goes ahead as planned.
"I told Putin that the issue of the territorial integrity of our country is very important," Dzhemilev said, according to the Ukrainian news agency Unian. Dzhemilev was in Moscow when he spoke to Putin, who was in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
He said he told Putin Crimean secession would violate a 1994 pact in which Russia, Britain and the United States committed to assuring Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity in return for its pledge to give up its ex-Soviet nuclear arsenal.
If this happens, "nobody will trust such agreements and there will be efforts to obtain nuclear weapons by every country with the financial wherewithal to do so - and Ukraine will be no exception," the Ukrainian news agency Unian quoted him as saying.