Crimea’s Russians laud Vladimir Putin for taking them ‘home’

Celebrations mark year since annexation, amid criticism from Ukraine and West

 

One wall of Sergei Turchanyenko’s office is lined with flags belonging to his and other units of Crimea’s “people’s militia”, which a year ago helped Russian troops and local pro-Moscow politicians seize the region and deliver it to Kremlin control.

On another wall hangs a photograph of Russian president Vladimir Putin in military T-shirt and cap, above a picture of two heavily armed Russian soldiers and the slogan: “Politeness is a power that can open any door.”

Crimea yesterday marked the anniversary of Putin’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula, and many people there and in Russia hailed above all the expert soldiers without insignia who took over Ukrainian state buildings and bases with barely a shot fired – prompting admirers to nickname them “polite people”.

Putin always insisted he did not deploy troops specially to occupy Crimea, and claims the number of Russian soldiers in the region never exceeded the 20,000 stipulated in Moscow’s lease of a local naval site from Kiev; he has not said whether the deal foresaw their seizure of Ukraine’s civil and military facilities, however.

Punishment

But for Turchanyenko and probably a majority of Crimea’s 2.4 million people, Putin made a heroic decision last year that delivered them from crisis-ridden Ukraine to a Russia they regard as their spiritual and historical home.

“Ukrainians wanted to attack us and steal our land,” Turchanyenko (46) said, repeating unfounded Russian claims that Ukraine’s pro-western revolution last February brought to power “fascists” bent on killing Russian-speakers.

“Our hearts and souls demanded that we form a self-defence brigade. I saw danger coming and did as any man would.”

Turchanyenko, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan with a powerful build, neatly trimmed moustache and a scar curving down one cheek, soon became commander of a militia unit in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital.

“The state security services basically disappeared, waiting to see who would win. So it was up to the militia to maintain peace and order. Crime went down to zero and we took control of the whole of Crimea,” he said.

The militia patrolled towns, manned checkpoints and guarded buildings once they had been taken by the “polite people”.

“We had a lot of guys with military experience, so we didn’t need any training,” Turchanyenko said.

Extraordinary

Moscow said 83 per cent of Crimean voters backed unification with Russia, on turnout of 97 percent – figures Kiev, the west and leaders of Crimea’s large Tatar and ethnic-Ukrainian minorities reject as absurd.

The Kremlin’s narrative was also undermined by Igor Girkin, an alleged Russian intelligence agent who led Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and claims to have played a key role in military operations in Crimea.

Girkin, who goes by the nom-de-guerre Strelkov, said recently that Moscow’s takeover of Crimea would have failed without Russian troops and rebels who seized Simferopol’s parliament and “rounded up the deputies and made them vote” to leave Ukraine.

Now Crimea is led by Sergei Aksyonov, a Russian nationalist whose party took just 4 per cent of votes in the region at Ukraine’s 2010 parliamentary election.

Turchanyenko was born in central Ukraine, but calls Crimea his “only motherland” after living most of his life here; Ukrainian relatives now consider him “enemy number one”, he says.

“Ukraine claims it would not have attacked us, but you can’t believe them. Radical [Tatar] Muslims would have helped Kiev here too – it would have been worse than what’s happening now in Donetsk and Luhansk.”

Russia and the Nato are conducting war games on different sides of the Black Sea amid rising military tension, but Crimeans celebrating in the port city of Sevastopol insisted they now felt fully protected by Putin.

“This has been Russian land for centuries, and what Putin did last year was take us home,” said Olga Lukyanova, a retired teacher carrying a Russian flag.

“We feel proud, strong and safe to be back with Russia. Let Ukraine go towards Europe and the United States if it wants – we will always be with Russia.”

History

“We understood that with Crimea it was not about territory, even if it’s strategically important, but about millions of Russian people, our compatriots, who need our help and support… It’s about the historical sources of our spirituality and statehood, about what makes us a unified people and unified, solid nation.”

Putin’s address was broadcast on a big screen in Sevastopol, and brought huge cheers and cries of “We love you!” from women in the crowd.

On a bookshelf in Turchanyenko’s office is a photograph of him with Putin, who last year awarded him a medal for “peoples’ friendship”.

“On New Year’s night at the start of 2014, I watched Putin’s speech with my wife,” Turchanyenko recalled.

“I asked her: ‘When will he finally be our president?’ Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait much longer.”

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