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Fears That Crimea Could Be Next Flashpoint For Conflict With Russia

  • Askold Krushelnycky

Supporters of pro-Russian parties wave Russian flags as they welcome Russian ships back to Sevastopol from operations against Georgia.

SEVASTOPOL, Crimea -- Ukrainian fighter jets swooped low over the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled along the city's main Khreschatyk Boulevard on August 24 as part of the country's Independence Day celebrations.

But amidst anxiety that Ukraine could be the next country to feel the might of a resurgent Russia, many in the crowds marking their country's 17th year as a sovereign state likely wondered if the jets and tanks might soon be headed into a real conflict.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has been strident in his support of Georgia since the Russian incursion there. He has traveled to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, to demonstrate that support for his close friend, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. After Russian Black Sea Fleet vessels sailed from their home port of Sevastopol on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula to attack the Georgian harbor at Poti and land troops there, Yushchenko ordered tighter restrictions on Russian ship movements in Ukrainian territorial waters.

That, coupled with a Ukrainian offer to discuss the integration of its early-warning missile systems with the West, further enraged Moscow. Many Ukrainian and foreign politicians, diplomats, and analysts believe Crimea could provide the flashpoint for a future conflict. An opinion poll commissioned by the respected Ukrainian newspaper "Dzerkalo tyzhdnia" this weekend showed that 47 percent of Ukrainians believe a conflict between their country and Russia is possible.

Source Of Tension

The troubled peninsula is the only area of Ukraine where the ethnic-Russian population outnumbers Ukrainians and has long been a source of tension between the two. For centuries it was the homeland of a Muslim people called the Crimean Tatars, until the peninsula was conquered by the forces of Russian Empress Catherine the Great in the late 18th century.

It was handed to Soviet Ukraine by then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 when the disintegration of the USSR seemed impossible. But when that happened in 1991, Crimea became part of an independent Ukraine.

However, most ethnic Russians in Crimea and many prominent Russian politicians have never reconciled themselves to the notion of an independent Ukraine, let alone a Ukrainian Crimea. Russian nationalists in Crimea and Moscow have frequently called for Moscow to annex the peninsula.

Russia's Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol is leased from Ukraine until 2017. But Western-leaning Ukraine, which wants to join NATO and the European Unioni, says it will not renew the lease, while Moscow has made it clear it is determined to stay.

Local Crimean Russian politician Gennady Basov says, "The Black Sea Fleet will be in Sevastopol after 2017 and Sevastopol will not allow any provocation from the Ukrainian government. This will serve the interests of Ukraine and Russia."

The presence of the Russian fleet reinforces the ethnic-Russian population's feeling that Crimea is part of Russia. Thousands of Russian sailors and soldiers stroll around the city, and the white, blue, and red shoulder flashes on their uniforms mirror the colors of the huge Russian flags that fly above naval headquarters and other buildings. Crimean flags, which differ only slightly from the standard Russian one, flutter on the streets not only of Sevastopol but most other Crimean towns.

Loyal To Moscow

Around 1 million ethnic Russians live in Crimea, with some 600,000 Ukrainians and around 300,000 Crimean Tatars. That overwhelming majority is reflected in the election of local authorities, which in Sevastopol, as in much of the rest of the peninsula, are openly more loyal to Moscow than to Kyiv. In Sevastopol it is difficult to find a Ukrainian newspaper or book, and most people get their news -- and world view -- from Russian TV and radio.

Ukrainian activists in Sevastopol
This weekend saw the return of some of the ships that took part in the invasion of Georgia. The ships were welcomed back with gun salutes and fireworks. Several hundred Russians greeted the ships, and smaller groups with Ukrainian flags called out that the ships were aggressors. On August 22, Russians welcoming the cruiser "Mirage" traded insults with the Ukrainian group, as police separated the two sides.

Many of the Russians belonged to a political party called the Russian Bloc, whose leader in Crimea, Vladimir Tyunin, said: "We categorically say that Crimea should -- and I have no doubt will be -- a part of Russia. On this Russian territory the Ukrainian government is committing ethnocide by trying to force people to speak in Ukrainian, introducing Ukrainian schools, showing only films and TV programs dubbed in Ukrainian, and forcing Russians to assimilate their culture."

While Tyunin said that the Russian annexation of Crimea will be peaceful and asked, "Who is going to fight?" some of his supporters were more outspoken. One young woman proclaimed: "This is Russia. We want nothing to do with Ukraine. The Ukrainians oppress our people. They are totalitarians and fascists who take orders from America. There could be fighting, but I'm not worried if that's the way it has to be."

Her remarks were greeted with approval by other supporters, who vented a ferocious litany of charges and threats against Ukraine. A repeated complaint is that the Russian language is endangered and Ukrainian is being forced upon children, despite the fact that Ukrainians are angry that only some four of Crimea's 600 schools teach in Ukrainian.

'Act Of Aggression'

One of those in the Ukrainian demonstration, numbering less than 100, was Oleh Fomushkin, a former colonel in the Soviet Army and now a Ukrainian community activist.

"Moscow and its intelligence services have been active here for 17 years, while the Ukrainian authorities slept or were too timid to act," he says. "For me, the continued presence of the Russian fleet is an act of aggression. They have demonstrated that aggression in Georgia and they will not hesitate to use violence here to get possession of Crimea."

The battleship "Moskva" returns to Sevastopol on August 23.

Crimea has special significance in Russian hearts as the place where the tsarist empire fought against Britain in the Crimean War of 1854 and where the Red Army fought one of its bloodiest battles against Hitler's invading armies. Russians speak proudly about the heroic Russian defense of Sevastopol against British and French forces, which were eventually victorious. Hundreds daily visit a panoramic exposition of the epic siege in a magnificent building near the port.

During the Soviet era, Crimea grew as a naval base. The peninsula, with its magnificent scenery of mountains, sweeping bays, pretty beaches, and Mediterranean climate, also became a favored place of retirement for top communist politicians, officials, and high ranking-military. That has created a weird and vitriolic blend of Russian nationalism and Soviet nostalgia among much of the population. A statue of Catherine the Great was recently erected on one of the main thoroughfares still called Lenin Street. Here the war against "fascism" has never ended, with NATO and a U.S.-led West regarded as the enemy.

Crimea has been a popular vacation destination for more than a century. Since 1991, the holiday business has revived strongly with an explosion of hotels, restaurants, and other leisure-linked industries. Much of this is owned by Russian businesspeople and provides another purely mercenary motive for "annexation" disguised in passionate nationalist rhetoric.

'Effectively Occupied'

New Ukrainian regulations demand that Russia asks for permission up to 10 days before its vessels enter or leave Sevastopol. A Western military source said: "Ukraine should not make threats that it cannot keep. Its navy is tiny and could not stop the Russians. There are thousands of Russian troops already stationed in Sevastopol and effectively Crimea is already occupied."

The source said that some Russian vessels were hit by Georgian shore batteries during the conflict and at least eight Russian sailors were killed. He said some of the ships needed repairs before they could return to Sevastopol. Russian naval sources said the ships that had not returned were still performing duties off Georgia's Black Sea coast.

The overwhelming majority of people in Sevastopol would like to have Russian citizenship to be nearer to Russia and to be protected by the Russians.
A Western intelligence source says, "the Russians are just looking for an excuse to stir up the locals in Crimea -- and restrictions on their Sevastopol operations may just be the reason."

Reports that thousands of Russian passports have already been distributed on the peninsula have been greeted with alarm that a "South Ossetian scenario" is in the offing in Crimea. Russia in recent years amended its constitution to give itself the right to militarily intervene on behalf of ethnic Russians wherever they might be in the former Soviet empire. Although the people of Georgia's South Ossetia province are not ethnic Russians, Moscow handed out Russian passports to them and justified the invasion of Georgia by saying it had come to the aid of Russian citizens.

Ukrainian law forbids dual nationality and all of Crimea's population are Ukrainian citizens.

"The overwhelming majority of people in Sevastopol would like to have Russian citizenship to be nearer to Russia and to be protected by the Russians," says Mikhail Furashov, a local politician.

'Careful Propaganda'

Some Ukrainian legislators have said that when parliament begins work next month they will demand an investigation into the reports of Russian passports being issued.

"Moscow has laid the foundations for occupation of Crimea with years of careful propaganda," says Vasyl Ovcharuk, a Ukrainian Crimean political activist. "It's like Hitler's excuse of helping the ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland as justification for the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938. I have no doubt that now that the Georgian conflict is over, Russia aims to take over Crimea.

"The level of hatred against anything Ukrainian here is astonishing. The names and addresses of people like myself have been listed on Russian Internet sites with an invitation to kill us," Ovcharuk continues. "Many people have been attacked in the street for merely speaking Ukrainian. You can talk French, German, or Chinese here without problems, but if you speak Ukrainian, people often come up and start insulting you. I'm made to feel like an unwelcome foreigner in my own country."

As if on cue, a middle-aged Russian woman came up to Ovcharuk and shouted, "Yes, get out Sevastopol and Crimea and good riddance to you."

The Ukrainian Navy, with its one serviceable battleship, is also headquartered in Sevastopol. Sailors in Ukrainian uniforms are often insulted or attacked. Last month, a crowd of people led by Russian political activists, including Tyunin, attacked Ukrainian sailors at a ceremony to unveil a plaque marking the date in 1918 when the Ukrainian flag was hoisted aboard ships of the old imperial navy. Police stood by without trying to restrain the attackers.

'Dangerous Situation'

One Ukrainian naval officer said: "The Ukrainian government has reacted passively for 17 years to what the Russians have been doing here. They are in control of Sevastopol, and it is a very dangerous situation. I love and I serve my country, but we are routinely humiliated here. Of course, the Russians want Crimea and we are outnumbered. But that doesn't mean we are not going to fight, does it?"

We must speed up our work to achieve membership of the European system of security and raise the defense capabilities of the country.
A Western diplomat in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, says the Ukrainian government has expressed concern to Western delegations that Russia will threaten or use force against Ukraine.

"I've felt sorry for the Ukrainian government in the last two weeks," the diplomat says. "Ukraine has seemed very vulnerable. They need to get membership of an organization that will give them some strong international security guarantees. The United Nations and the Council of Europe just don't cut it. Ukraine needs to get into the European Union and NATO, but the prospect of that still looks distant."

However, the diplomat says that the outcome of an emergency NATO session on August 19 called to formulate a response to the Georgian crisis was good news for Ukraine. NATO warned Russia that it could not draw a "new line" in Europe to prevent Georgia and other countries from joining the Western military alliance. NATO suspended regular top-level ties with Russia, saying business as usual could not continue while Russian troops remained in Georgia.

Speaking to a crowd of thousands in central Kyiv on August 24 as part of Independence Day festivities, President Yushchenko said: "We must speed up our work to achieve membership of the European system of security and raise the defense capabilities of the country. Only these steps will guarantee our security and the integrity of our borders."

An Emboldened Russia?

A NATO summit in April fudged the question of Ukrainian and Georgian membership, however, with Germany and France reluctant to give a clear signal that the two countries would be accepted. Some say that decision emboldened Russia to strike against Georgia.

In 2004, Ukraine humiliated the architect of a reinvigorated Russia, current Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, with the Orange Revolution, which overturned the results of presidential elections rigged in favor of a pro-Moscow candidate. Since then, Yushchenko and Ukraine have charted a pro-Western course and pressed for membership in the EU and NATO.

The presence on the peninsula of Crimean Tatars makes the situation even more volatile. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported all the Tatar people in 1944 to Central Asia, but they have been returning since Ukrainian independence, aided by the Kyiv government. However, local authorities in Crimea, dominated by ethnic Russians, are hostile to the returnees, many of whom are forced to live in shantytowns or slum conditions without electricity or running water. There have been bloody brawls between Russians and Tatars with some deaths but no widespread violence.

Tatar community leaders have reported that foreign Islamic groups, including Saudi Wahhabis and Al-Qaeda, have tried to radicalize disaffected Tatar youth. So far, moderate Islamic leaders have managed to prevent a slide toward extremism.

"The danger is that some frustrated Tatars might take up weapons from extremists Muslims or be duped into doing that by Russian intelligence," says Mykola Vladzimirsky, a Ukrainian Crimean journalist. "If they carried out an attack against ethnic Russians, Moscow would have its excuse to annex Crimea by contending that Ukraine is unable to defend Russian citizens."
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