Russians cheer Crimea’s rush to break with Ukraine

Kiev fears deeper incursion as Moscow asserts right to “protect” people in Ukraine

 Pro-Ukrainian protesters hold a flag near an Ukrainian military base where troops have been locked into the base by the Russians. Photograph: Getty

Pro-Ukrainian protesters hold a flag near an Ukrainian military base where troops have been locked into the base by the Russians. Photograph: Getty


Crimea is poised to back unification with Russia tomorrow, in a referendum that many Ukrainians fear may only be the first stage in a Kremlin plan to carve up their country.

The Black Sea port of Sevastopol was already celebrating last night, as people gathered for a concert overlooking a bay patrolled by ships of the Russian navy, and waved Russian banners and placards thanking Moscow for “saving” them from Ukraine’s new pro-western government.

In the regional capital Simferopol, a huge Russian flag was flying outside parliament and Ukraine’s crest was removed from the assembly, which was seized by gunmen two weeks ago as Russian solders and their militia allies took control of two-million-strong Crimea.

Crimea’s ethnic-Russian majority is expected to support separation from Kiev, while many of the ethnic-Ukrainians and Tatars who comprise some 40 per cent of the peninsula’s population will boycott a vote that they see as illegitimate and likely to be rigged by local Moscow-backed officials.

In defiance of western pressure, Crimea’s leaders vow to join Moscow as soon as possible, expropriating Ukrainian state assets and swapping Ukrainian passports and currency for Russian; Moscow, meanwhile, is rushing through legislation to accept Crimea into its fold.

“We are returning to our homeland. Crimea was Russian for centuries and we still feel part of it,” said Sveta, an office worker in Sevastopol, which is the base for Russia’s Black Sea fleet. “Let the rest of Ukraine go its own way. The chaos in Kiev and the coup against Yanukovich were just the last straw. Russia will give us better wages, pensions and security,” she added.

Stopping Nazism
Many Crimeans share Moscow’s view, reinforced through relentless repetition on Russian state television, that the revolutionaries who ousted President Viktor Yanukovich are “fascists” from western Ukraine who are a danger to Russian-speakers in eastern and southern parts of the country; some referendum adverts in Crimea equate splitting from Ukraine with stopping the spread of Nazism – a resonant message in a region that saw fierce fighting during the second World War.

Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin says he will use military force to defend ethnic Russians in Ukraine, and thousands of his troops are now conducting exercises near Ukraine’s border.

Kiev says Russian nationalists are being bussed into Ukraine to foment unrest, and one protester was killed and dozens injured in fighting in the eastern city of Donetsk on Thursday night.

Most reports from Donetsk blamed pro-Russian protesters for the violence and the dead man was an activist from a Ukrainian nationalist party, but Moscow suggested pro-Kiev radicals were responsible and lambasted Ukraine’s government for failing to rein them in.

As Ukraine’s new government struggles to assert control over areas near its border with Russia, pro-Moscow activists there want their own referendums on whether to split with Kiev.

Analysts also note that Crimea does not have any land connection with Russia, and Ukraine could disrupt or sever the majority of the peninsula’s gas, electricity and water supplies if it broke with Kiev. Moscow could avert that danger by taking control of a swathe of eastern Ukraine.

“Russia is trying to pull Ukraine apart, piece by piece,” said Oleh, an ethnic-Ukrainian computer programmer in Simferopol.

“First Putin will eat up Crimea, then move on to other regions. We can’t stop him alone – we need help from Europe and America.”

Washington and the EU have pledged to impose financial sanctions and travel restrictions on Russian officials next week if Moscow refuses to change tack on Crimea.

Russian companies are pulling billions of dollars out of western banks, fearful that any US sanctions over the Crimean crisis could lead to a painful asset freeze, according to bankers in Moscow.

Nato surveillance planes are now monitoring Ukraine, US fighter jets are conducting exercises in neighbouring Poland and patrolling the Baltic states, and the US navy is taking part in war games in the Black Sea.

Energy needs
But Crimean opponents of union with Russia fear it cannot be stopped, and suspect the EU needs Moscow’s abundant energy more than it needs a whole and fully sovereign Ukraine.

Crimea’s native Tatar community has urged the West to send peacekeepers to the region, and several hundred Tatars rallied yesterday in the town of Bakhchisarai to denounce the referendum and Moscow with chants of “Crimea is Ukraine!” and “Russian soldiers go home!” The Tatars still fear Kremlin rule 70 years after being deported en masse to Siberia and central Asia by Josef Stalin, and their leader Mustafa Dzhemilev – who discussed Crimea with Putin this week – has called on Nato to intervene in the region to avert a possible “massacre”.

Resigned to separation
There was little tension in Crimea’s streets last night, however, as many Russians began celebrating and Tatars and Ukrainians resigned themselves to separation from Kiev.

How the next weeks will play out in Crimea, the rest of Ukraine and Russia is unclear, however. Nowhere is the future more murky than at Ukrainian military bases around Crimea that have been surrounded by Russian troops and local militia. Almost all the besieged Ukrainian servicemen have resisted great pressure to surrender and to join pro-Moscow Crimean forces, but they appear to have no idea what awaits after the referendum, when they are likely to become a “foreign” force trapped in largely hostile territory.

“We are not scared, but we are a bit confused. It’s hard to tell what will happen,” said Eskender Veisov (19) at Belbek airbase, where on March 4th Russian soldiers fired warning shots over Ukrainian officers who sought access to their hangars. “But I fully support Ukraine’s new government,” declared Veisov, a Tatar. “I won’t serve Crimea or Russia.”