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Planned Joint NATO-Ukraine Exercises in Crimea Create Political Uproar

  • Bill Gasperini

Joint military exercises between NATO and Ukraine have been postponed after the landing of a U.S. naval ship in the Crimean peninsula touched off a firestorm of local protests. The political fallout soon spread to Ukraine's federal government and neighboring Russia, which has issued a stark warning to the United States and NATO.

June is the month when people from all across the former Soviet Union head for Ukraine's Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea to enjoy holidays on the beach.

But beachgoers this year are encountering more than sea and surf in Crimea, as crowds of protesters have taken to the streets of several towns to protest against a series of military exercises involving NATO troops.

Most of the people in Crimea are ethnic Russians who are wary of the NATO alliance and the United States.

The protests started in the port city of Feodosiya where a U.S naval vessel docked in late May to unload equipment intended to help upgrade a Ukrainian military base.

At one point protesters blocked U.S. military personnel from reaching the base.

Demonstrations soon spread to other towns, as many protesters camped out on the streets and vowed not to move until the NATO forces leave.

A lady says she is prepared to stay on the picket line as long it takes, because NATO troops do not belong in Ukraine.

The military maneuvers were due to last from mid-June until early August, and most of the troops taking part are from the United States and Great Britain.

But Ukrainian officials say the first stage of the maneuvers with British troops has been postponed.

The U.S. embassy in Ukraine issued a statement denying protester's claims that NATO has plans to establish a permanent base in Crimea.

But this did little to appease the regional parliament there, which passed a resolution demanding that the exercises be called off, something rejected by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

In Kiev, Mr. Yushchenko denounced the Crimean vote, saying that the foreign troops had been invited by his government.

The protests are led by pro-Russian parties in Crimea including the Communists, and reflect the historical divide in Ukraine as a whole.

President Yushchenko came to power in the so-called "Orange Revolution" late in 2004 and has set a goal for Ukraine to join both the NATO alliance and the European Union, something that may be years away.

But this matters little to people in the predominantly Russian eastern half of Ukraine, who strongly oppose Mr. Yushchenko's tilt toward the West.

The president has been further weakened by his party's poor showing in a March parliamentary election, when the main pro-Russian party came in first.

Talks aimed at forming a coalition between Mr. Yushchenko and two other pro-Western parties have stalled, leaving a power vacuum in the country.

This has had repercussions in the national parliament, where disagreement over the NATO issue led to scuffles between deputies from opposition parties and the speaker.

Russia has gotten into the act as well, amid signs the Kremlin is again angered by what it sees as Western attempts to meddle in its "backyard."

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took things one step further, telling the Russian parliament that expanding NATO into ex-Soviet republics such as Ukraine would have a "colossal" geopolitical impact.

He later accused the United States of planning to introduce new weapon systems into the region, violating arms control agreements by "removing disarmament from public view".

Russia is particularly sensitive about Crimea given that it has been home to the Black Sea naval fleet for more than two centuries.

Russia and Ukraine agreed to divide the fleet between them in the early 1990s after tense negotiations, and Moscow now pays rent to Ukraine to maintain its forces there.

The root of the problem is that many Russians feel Crimea really should be in Russia, as claimed in a strongly-worded speech by parliament deputy Sergei Baburin.

Crimea was part of Russia for centuries, but in 1954 Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev "gave" the strategic peninsula to Ukraine to mark 300 years of what he called "pan-Slavic brotherhood".

At the time no one thought the two nations would one day be separated. And most Russians have never accepted that their cherished land of sun and surf is part of a different country that now wants to take a new political course.

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