Crimeans cheer as Russia flexes its military muscles

Gunmen seize Crimea’s airports as Russian military take to road, air and sea

Armed men patrol at the airport in Simferopol, Crimea, yesterday. Armed men took control of two airports in the Crimea region yesterday in what the new Ukrainian leadership described as an invasion by Moscow’s forces. Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili

Armed men patrol at the airport in Simferopol, Crimea, yesterday. Armed men took control of two airports in the Crimea region yesterday in what the new Ukrainian leadership described as an invasion by Moscow’s forces. Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili

Sat, Mar 1, 2014, 01:00

Planes were still taking off and landing, and taxi drivers were still trying their luck with new arrivals heading for the nearby city of Simferopol. But it was not quite business as usual yesterday at the main airport in Crimea, Ukraine’s most pro-Russian region.

Men in uniform, masks, helmets and flak jackets stood on guard outside the terminal, Kalashnikov machine guns resting against camouflaged sleeves that bore no insignia.

Dozens of such men took up positions around the airport late on Thursday. The big green Kamaz trucks that brought them were parked outside the terminal, but no registration plates were attached.

The men refused to answer questions, but airport workers said they spoke Russian. And they had been warmly welcomed as allies by unarmed but officious “self-defence” volunteers who formed a line between the silent men in uniform and curious civilians.

“We are protecting Crimea and our people,” said one volunteer who refused to give his name, but wore the orange-and-black St George Ribbon that has become a symbol of resistance to Ukraine’s revolution in pro-Russian regions.

“We won’t let those gangsters from Kiev land here to cause chaos,” he added.


Blocked road
Some 50km to the south, a similarly equipped group of gunmen blocked the road to Belbek airport, near the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, home of the Russian navy’s Black Sea fleet. They checked cars and turned most people away from the airfield.

Ukraine’s new government has no doubt the gunmen are members of the Russian military, perhaps supported by ethnic-Russian members of the Ukrainian security services who oppose the revolution that ousted president Viktor Yanukovich. Last night, Russia said it would give passports in Simferopol to members of a Ukrainian riot police unit disbanded by the country’s new leaders because of its perceived brutality.

In Sevastopol itself, marines from the Russian fleet have taken up positions outside the local base of the Ukrainian navy. Videos and photographs showing unannounced military movements around Crimea appeared online every few minutes yesterday.

One man posted footage of military helicopters flying low in formation over fields he said were close to Belbek. Ukraine’s border guards subsequently confirmed that 10 helicopters had entered their country’s airspace from Russia without clearance. By evening, images were mounting up of armoured personnel carriers and military trucks on the move across Crimea.

A BBC correspondent snapped a Russian frigate in the Bay of Balaclava, and a local reporter said “military men” had surrounded the state broadcasting building in Simferopol. In the city centre, Crimea’s parliament was still occupied by an armed group that stormed it in the early hours of Thursday.

Pro-Russian deputies, apparently untroubled by unidentified gunmen in their midst, insist they are simply “ensuring we can work as normal”.

On Thursday, the besieged assembly elected a Russian nationalist as the region’s new premier and backed a May referendum on greater autonomy for Crimea.

Revolutionaries powerless
Kiev’s revolutionaries appear to be powerless in Crimea, and no one thinks local politicians are controlling events. They see Russia flexing its muscles, and most people here seem to heartily approve.

“Our ancestors defended Crimea from fascists in the 1940s, and now they have seized Kiev,” said Yelena Roshupkina (60), repeating a common view here that Ukraine’s new leaders are Russian-hating ultra-nationalists.

It is a line relentlessly pushed by Russian state media and Ukraine’s pro-Moscow politicians, including the now exiled Yanukovich.

“We have been happy in Ukraine, we had our autonomy,” added her husband, Sergei (67). “But we look at that chaos in Kiev, and think now’s the time to join Russia.”