News / Europe

East and West Face Off Over Ukraine's Crimea

People attend a rally organized mainly by ethnic Russians near the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol, Feb. 26, 2014.
People attend a rally organized mainly by ethnic Russians near the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol, Feb. 26, 2014.
Reuters
Waving the Russian flag and chanting “Russia! Russia!”, protesters in Crimea have become the last major bastion of resistance to Ukraine's new rulers.
 
President Viktor Yanukovych's overthrow on Saturday has been accepted across the vast country, even in his power base in the Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine.
 
Sevastopol and Simferopol, UkraineSevastopol and Simferopol, Ukraine
x
Sevastopol and Simferopol, Ukraine
Sevastopol and Simferopol, Ukraine
But Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula attached to the rest of Ukraine by just a narrow strip of land, is alone so far in challenging the new order.
 
As the only Ukrainian region with an ethnic Russian majority, and a home to Russia's Black Sea fleet, the strategically important territory is also now the focus of a battle between Russia and the West over the future of Ukraine.
 
Tensions are mounting in the regional capital Simferopol as separatists try to exploit the chaos after the changes in Kyiv to press demands for Russia to reclaim the territory which Communist leader Nikita Khrushchev gifted in 1954 to the Soviet Ukraine.
 
Washington has warned Moscow not to send in tanks, an action that could result in yet another war in a region that has been fought over - and changed hands - many times in history.
 
But President Vladimir Putin flexed his muscles on Wednesday, putting military forces in western Russia on alert and saying Russia was acting to ensure the security of its facilities in the Crimean port of Sevastopol.
 
The view from separatists in Crimea is that there has never been a better time to appeal to Moscow for help than now.
 
“I crossed two oceans and four seas with the Russian navy, and now I have fascists telling me what to do?” said Daniyel Romanenko, a 73-year-old retired officer, portraying the new Ukrainian leadership in the worst possible terms in a country that was overrun by Nazi Germany in World War II.
 
“We should be given the choice to unite at last with Russia,” he said at a rally in Sevastopol, wearing his uniform.
 
Mob rule
 
Crimea's balmy climate once made it a favored holiday destination for Russian tsars and Soviet leaders. Its vineyards, orchards and the “green riviera” along its southern coast make for some stunning scenery.
 
Facts About Crimea

*An autonomous republic in Ukraine
*Located on a peninsula between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov
*Annexed by Russia in 1783 and was transferred to Ukraine in 1954
*Simferopol is the capital
*Port of Sevastopol is home of Russia's Black Sea Fleet
*Ethnic Russians account for more than half the population
*Official language is Ukrainian but many inhabitants speak Russian
*Population is two million
*Area is 26,100 square kilometers
But even before the national parliament in Kyiv stripped Yanukovych of his powers on Saturday, after three months of protests by largely pro-Europe demonstrators, there were rallies in Crimea by worried ethnic Russians.
 
Although he was little loved in Moscow, Russia had backed Yanukovych and his departure reduces the Kremlin's ability to influence Ukraine.
 
For the more than one million ethnic Russians in Crimea, it increases uncertainty, and many want protection by Mother Russia, with whom cultural and religious ties are strong.
 
Some are especially enraged that the new leaders have rolled back laws to strengthen the importance of using the Ukrainian language, which is not the mother tongue for many in Crimea, and refuse to recognize them as Ukraine's leaders.
 
“We don't have a legitimate government so we have to look out for ourselves,” said Vladimir, a 37-year-old businessman.
 
Taking matters into their own hands, separatist-minded protesters at a rally on Sunday voted to appoint Alexei Chaly, a Russian businessman, as the de facto mayor of Sevastopol in a show of hands.
 
The next day the presence of a large crowd on the streets outside a meeting of the city administration ensured his appointment could not be blocked.
 
The chaotic events, followed by more protests on Tuesday and Wednesday, and more calls for secession, underline how difficult the transition of power may be in Ukraine, especially in Crimea.
 
"Banana Republic"
 
Rumors that protesters from Kyiv's barricades might be on their way from the capital to put down separatist moves have prompted some Crimeans to create informal self-defense units.
 
Around 3,000 men have signed up in Sevastopol alone, with military veterans and former members of the Berkut riot police training the younger recruits, the organizers say.
 
In other parts of Ukraine, particularly Kyiv, the Berkut is despised as the force which fired on protesters.
 
“We need to protect ourselves from the armed criminals coming to Crimea in masks to cause unrest. They've turned Ukraine into a banana republic,” said Gennady Basov, the leader of the Russian Bloc party that represents ethnic Russians.
 
Unification with Russia is not the party's main aim, but it believes that splitting Ukraine down the middle - between Russian-speaking areas in the east and regions where Ukrainian is predominant in the west - makes economic and cultural sense.
 
“Most of the economic strength of Ukraine is in the east - that's where people actually work. In the west they just go to Kyiv to protest,” Basov said, underlining ethnic Russians' contempt for the protesters in Kyiv, many of whom are from the west of the country.
 
Such remarks show how the protests in Kyiv, triggered by Yanukovych's decision in November to spurn trade and political deals with the European Union and rebuild ties with former Soviet overlord Moscow, have widened divisions in Ukraine.
 
For some ethnic Russians in Crimea, it was the last straw. Already connected to southern Ukraine by land that is only five kilometers (three miles) wide at some points, the region seems to them to have less in common with the rest of the country than ever.
 
“The people don't understand this was a revolution against a criminal government, they think it's all Western influence. To them the people on the barricades are now greater enemies than the corrupt government they overthrew,” said Leonid Pylunskyy, a regional deputy for the conservative Kurultai Rukh party.
 
Pylunskyy is the fourth generation of his family to call Crimea home, but both his children participated in the Kiev protests - his son on the barricades, his daughter providing demonstrators with hot tea and sandwiches.
 
Rumors, rumors

 
Barely an hour goes by without a new rumor of troops massing or protesters on their way from Kyiv to “restore order”.
 
Putin himself stirred the pot by suddenly announcing a drill that involved putting forces in the west and center of Russia on the alert. He may be saber-rattling but is unpredictable and brooding after apparently losing a geopolitical tussle with the West over Ukraine which brought back memories of the Cold War.
 
Many Russians regard Ukraine as little more than a Russian vassal. Opinion polls suggest a majority of Russians still view Crimea, annexed by Russia in 1783, as a Russian territory.
 
But not all the peninsula's residents are pro-Russia or against the new political situation, as was witnessed by confrontations between rival protesters outside the regional parliament in Simferopol on Wednesday.
 
The region is a patchwork of different ethnic groups and the Tatars, now back in numbers after their ancestors were deported to Central Asia or Russia's Urals region by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, dread the idea of integration with Russian.
 
“In 1783 we fell under the power of the Russian empire and that's when all our sorrows began. The [Crimean ethnic] Russians can look to Putin. We're sticking with Ukraine,” Crimean Tatar leader Refat Chubarov said in an interview.
 
Chubarov outlined what he saw as deliberate moves by the ethnic Russians to fuel tension.

“This is their plan: they've stoked the fires in Sevastopol, now they want to light the fires in Simferopol, so all Crimea burns,” he said.
 
Civil war or a serious threat to ethnic Russians in Crimea might, the logic goes, might bring in the Russian cavalry.
 
“I hope I'm wrong but Russia could well decide to deploy its forces in Crimea,” Chubarov said.
 
Battle lines drawn
 
Rival groups of ethnic Tatars and ethnic Russians confronted each other outside the regional parliament on Wednesday but eventually dispersed after scuffles.
 
Conflict is hardly unusual for the people of Crimea.
 
It was inhabited or invaded by Scythians, Greeks, Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Kazhars, Kipchaks, Turks and Mongols, and was part of the Roman and Byzantine empires before it became part of the Russian empire.
 
There were fierce battles on Crimea during World War II, when it was occupied by the Nazis, and during the Crimean War which Russia lost to an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman empire and Sardinia.
 
“We're used to being fought over. We've had the Turks, British, Germans and now this,” said Igor, a 26-year-old businessman from Simferopol.

You May Like

Analyst: Joint-Arab Military Force Poses Perilous Challenge

Although international forces are desperately needed to counter the threat of the Islamic State group, analysts say conflicting alliances could escalate fighting More

Asia’s Middle Class Changes Demand for Wheat Grain Exporters

Changes in tastes and diets are boon for wheat exporters such as Australia and the United States More

S. African Comedian Taking Over Popular TV Show

Mixed-race comedian Trevor Noah, who is loved for his edgy jibes about race and language, is taking the helm from Jon Stewart at The Daily Show in US More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadistsi
X
Greg Flakus
March 30, 2015 6:48 PM
At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video With Coalition Airstrikes, Iraq Entering 'Last Page' of IS Battle

American warplanes joined Iraq's battle against the so-called 'Islamic State' in northern Iraq late Wednesday, as Iraqi ground troops launched a massive assault on Tikrit. Analysts say the offensive could take the coalition a step further towards Mosul, the largest city held by Islamic State forces. Others say it could also deepen already-dangerous sectarian tensions in the region. VOA's Heather Murdock has more from Cairo.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Islamic State Prisoners Talk of Curiosity, God, Regret

Islamic State fighter, a prisoner of Kurdish YPG forces, asked his family asking for forgiveness: "I destroyed myself and I destroyed them along with me." The Syrian youth was one of two detainees who spoke to VOA’s Kurdish Service about the path they chose; their names have been changed and identifying details obscured. VOA's Zana Omer reports.
Video

Video Germanwings Findings Raise Issue of Psychological Testing for Pilots

More is being discovered about the co-pilot in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps. Investigators say he was hiding a medical condition, raising questions about the mental qualifications of pilots. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.
Video

Video Hi-tech Motorbike Helmet's Goal: Improve Road Safety

In cities with heavily congested traffic, people can get around much faster on a motorcycle than in a car. But a rider who is not sure of his route may have to stop to look at the map or consult a GPS. A Russian start-up company is working to make navigation easier for motorcyclists. Designers at Moscow-based LiveMap are developing a smart helmet with a built-in navigation system, head-mounted display and voice recognition. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video DOJ: Illinois National Guard Soldier Tried to Join ISIS

U.S. federal law enforcement agents arrested two suburban Chicago men accused of trying to join ISIS overseas, while also plotting attacks in the United States. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports from the Midwest state of Illinois, one of those arrested is a soldier of the Illinois National Guard.
Video

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Traditional push-rim wheelchairs create a lot of stress for arm, shoulder and neck muscles and joints. A redesigned chair, based on readily available bicycle technology, radically increases mobility while reducing the physical effort. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More