MOSCOW (AFP) - Russian state media and ruling party officials on Sunday warned of armed marauders in Ukraine and urged the public to stand firmly behind President Vladimir Putin on possible military action.
State media controlled by the Kremlin launched a full-scale propaganda operation with footage aimed at discrediting the new Kiev authorities and rousing anger at alleged outrages perpetrated against the Russian-speaking population.
Fanning suspicions of international involvement in the Kiev protests, news channel Russia 24 aired an apparent confession from a young Russian who claimed he was paid to serve as a sniper with opposition forces.
"There are mercenaries there... they come from very different countries: the United States and Germany, they come wearing identical military uniforms," he alleged.
He said he feared violent reprisals for his revelations, alleging that the protest leaders in Kiev would "just put people in a cellar and kill them".
Named only as Vladislav, he was filmed being grilled by investigators after being detained in the Bryansk region bordering Ukraine.
A Russia 24 anchor added a warning that "mercenaries are now going to Crimea. Their aims are clear enough: to provoke a new wave of the crisis and rob people on the sly".
The same channel interviewed the governor of the Belgorod region bordering Ukraine, Yevgeny Savchenko, who warned that "crowds of armed people" were on the move and on Saturday tried to block a highway to Crimea.
Meanwhile top lawmakers spoke out reassuringly on the situation, stressing a mood of national unity.
"The situation in Ukraine consolidates all Russian civil society," said United Russia lawmaker Leonid Slutsky, who heads the lower house's committee on links with ex-Soviet states.
"Everyone is unambiguously in support of protecting our people in Ukraine, so as not to allow Russian language and Russians to be pushed out of Ukraine," he said, cited by RIA Novosti news agency.
Ruling party United Russia invited Russians to march in central Moscow on Sunday, calling Ukraine's people a "brother" nation that "needs our protection and support".
The march, hastily organised and sanctioned by city authorities, was set to start at 1300 GMT at Pushkin Square and cover a route across central Moscow.
United Russia warned that ethnic Russians in Ukraine were "suffering persecution and violence because they speak Russian, remain friendly towards Russia and do not recognise the nationalist Bandera supporters who have seized power".
Stepan Bandera was a controversial guerilla leader of Ukrainian nationalist during and after World War II, whose forces fought against both the Nazis and the Soviets.