Russia has launched an all-out propaganda campaign to whip up support for possible military action in Ukraine, as state media and ruling party officials claimed armed marauders were terrorising the ex-Soviet nation.
Kremlin-controlled media aired footage aimed at discrediting the new Kiev authorities and rousing anger at alleged outrages perpetrated against the Russian-speaking population.
In a surprise move, Russian television even announced it was cancelling live footage of the Oscars show to concentrate on Ukraine coverage.
"Our propaganda on state channels is really running wild," commented former economy minister Andrei Nechayev on Twitter.
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.
The unspecific but threatening reports seemed principally aimed at stirring fears.
In an embarrassing blooper yesterday, Channel One illustrated a story on thousands of Ukrainians seeking shelter in Russia - as Russian officials have claimed - with footage of cars queuing to cross into Poland.
The Channel One news item clearly shows the name of the border post as Shehyni on Ukraine's western border with Poland, as the news reader says that "more and more Ukrainians are arriving in southern regions of Russia".
Top Russian lawmakers yesterday reassured the public, stressing a mood of national unity.
"The situation in Ukraine brings together all Russian civil society," said Leonid Slutsky of the ruling United Russia Party, 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 the Russian language and Russians to be pushed out of Ukraine," he said.
The crisis acted to "strengthen even further the authority of the Russian President, who is taking a courageous and timely decision".
United Russia organised a march backing military intervention in central Moscow, calling Ukraine's people a "brother" nation that "needs our protection and support".
Police said the march gathered around 20,000 people, who were shown on television waving Russian and nationalist flags. AFP