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

Turkey: No Ransom Paid for Release of Hostages Held by IS Militants

President Erdogan hails release of hostages as diplomatic success but declines to be drawn on whether their release freed Ankara's hand to take more active stance against insurgents More

Audio Sierra Leone Ends Ebola Lockdown

Health ministry says it has reached 75 percent of its target of visiting 1.5 million homes to locate infected, educate population about virus More

US Pivot to Asia Demands Delicate Balancing Act

As tumult in Middle East distracts Obama administration, efforts to shift American focus eastward appear threatened More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Towni
X
Deborah Block
September 21, 2014 2:12 PM
A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Alibaba Shares Soar in First Day of Trading

China's biggest online retailer hit the market Friday -- with its share price soaring on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares were priced at $68, but trading stalled at the opening, as sellers held onto their shares, waiting for buyers to bid up the price. More on the world's biggest initial public offering from VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York.
Video

Video Obama Goes to UN With Islamic State, Ebola on Agenda

President Obama goes to the United Nations General Assembly to rally nations to support a coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He also will look for nations to back his plan to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa. As VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, Obama’s efforts reflect new moves by the U.S. administration to take a leading role in addressing world crises.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid