By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS, March 13 (Reuters) - The United States circulated a draft resolution to the U.N. Security Council on Thursday that would declare Sunday's planned referendum on independence for Ukraine's Crimea region illegal, but Russia has vowed to veto it, council diplomats said.
Diplomats said the one-page resolution would urge countries not to recognize the results of the vote in pro-Russian Crimea, whose parliament has already voted to join Russia.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power told reporters after a meeting of the 15-member Security Council that the resolution was aimed at changing Russian calculations "before innocent lives are lost."
Speaking in the council, she said the resolution would "endorse a peaceful solution to the Ukraine crisis based on international law and (the Security) Council's mandate to act, when necessary, to ensure global security and peace."
Power described the planned referendum, which is expected to overwhelmingly back Crimea's unification with Russia, as "hastily planned, unjustified and divisive" and a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty.
She said time was running out for a peaceful solution to the crisis, and she urged Russia to listen to the "remarkably unified" voices of 14 members of the Security Council and the Ukrainian people.
Western powers had originally hoped to vote on the resolution at Thursday's council session, which was attended by interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk. He appealed for the world body's help.
But Russia, one of the five permanent veto-wielding members of the Security Council, made clear that it opposed the draft, so a decision was made to postpone the vote until Saturday at the latest to allow time for further negotiations.
"Russia announced they will kill it," a senior Western diplomat told Reuters.
HOPES FOR CHINESE ABSTENTION
Several Western diplomats said their hope was that China, which has joined Russia in vetoing three council resolutions on Syria since 2011, would distance itself this time from Moscow and abstain.
"That will show Russia it's isolated, that the majority of the council, including China, do not stand with it on Ukraine," a diplomat said.
China has an aversion to separatism because of its own issues involving Tibet, Taiwan and other regions.
It has voiced support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity during Security Council sessions on the crisis, although diplomats said it was not entirely certain Beijing would break from Russia on Ukraine.
China's U.N. ambassador, Liu Jieyi, said Beijing was urging restraint by all sides and calling for a resolution through political and diplomatic means.
"China supports the constructive efforts and the good offices of the international community in order to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine," he told the council. "We are open to all proposals and plans that would contribute to mitigating the tension."
China abstained from a 2009 vote on the former Soviet republic of Georgia after Russia supported the declarations of independence by South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which announced their secession after Russia's brief war with Georgia in August 2008.
Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said Ukraine's previous legitimate government had been illegally overthrown by radical nationalists bent on antagonizing ethnic Russians.
"Kiev itself is splitting its country into two parts," he told the council.
Lithuanian Ambassador Raimonda Murmokaite, whose country was once part of the Soviet Union, said Moscow's actions were having a chilling effect.
"One can only imagine the shudders this is sending across the entire region whose memories of the recent Soviet occupations and invasions are still very much alive," she said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned on Thursday that Moscow faced serious repercussions from the United States and the European Union if the referendum resulted in Russian annexation of Crimea. Both Washington and Brussels have warned they would respond with sanctions.
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant appealed to Russia and Crimea's regional authorities to cancel the referendum.
"A free and fair referendum cannot possibly be held while Russian troops and Russian-backed militias dominate Crimea," Lyall Grant said, adding that press freedom was being curtailed across Crimea and "voters will be casting their ballots under the barrel of a gun."
"Such a referendum will not be recognized by the international community," he said.
Yatseniuk said Ukraine was facing Russian military aggression, which "has no reasons and no grounds."
"This is absolutely and entirely unacceptable in the 21st century to resolve any kind of conflict with tanks, artillery and boots on the ground," he said. (Reporting by Louis Charbonneau and Mirjam Donath at the United Nations, and David Brunnstrom and David Storey in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney, Toni Reinhold)