Crisis in Ukraine: ‘Now people say they will fight. They want weapons. This is worrying talk’

In Crimea, the new regime in Kiev feels a long way away. Kim Sengupta, in Simferopol, looks back on a tumultuous week in Ukraine’s history

Crimea

There was despair and defiance after Friday prayers. Some had already sent their families out of Crimea and planned to join them. There were others who declared they were prepared to take up arms if necessary. They had one thing in common – a determination not to be ruled by the Kremlin.

The mosque in  Simferopol, where the impassioned debate took place, has a reputation for radical preaching and is under the scrutiny of the security agencies. But the Imam was on Friday painstaking in urging the congregation against violence; warning that their opponents were waiting for an excuse to crack down hard.

Questions are being asked by many in the Tatar community on how they find themselves in this predicament. Their representative council, the Mejlis, following a cautious path, had been blindsided by the decision of Crimea’s parliament to join Russia, bringing forward a referendum to next weekend which is only supposedly taking place to rubber-stamp the decision.

“It was an ambush, our leadership was caught totally unprepared” acknowledged Rustum Ibrahimovic, a businessman finalising plans to send his parents, wife and three children to Turkey. “Now there are people who say they will fight. They were saying that if they cannot live as Ukrainians, they will die Ukrainian, they want weapons. This is worrying talk, but people are very angry.”

The Tatar establishment were not the only ones caught by surprise at the vote to secede, ministers in Ukraine’s new government, in an emergency meeting with European heads of state over the Kremlin’s Crimea invasion, were left spluttering that the move was unconstitutional and asking Russia not to accept the stare coming into its fold.

On Friday Oleksandr Turchyanov, the interim president, signed an order “cancelling” the referendum. But Kiev’s writ has long ceased to have any effect here with Russian troops in control and Ukrainian forces besieged in the few remaining bases which have not been completely overrun.

Having failed to force President Putin to put his troops back in the barracks, allow in international monitors, and start negotiations with Kiev, in fact Barack Obama failing to get any compromise out of him at all during a one hour phone call, the US and the European Union announced sanctions, imposing visa restrictions on individuals with the threat that further measures would follow.

There will also, almost certainly, be further twists and turns in Ukraine before the referendum on 16th March, with the Kremlin pressing on with their attempts to take over remaining installations in the state and continuing confrontations in the easy, at cities like Donetsk and Kharkiv with their large population of Russian speakers.

It remains to be seen whether it will be at the breathtaking pace in which events have moved, especially in Crimea. Thirteen days ago it seemed that a curtain was descending, temporarily at least, on a drama which saw the protests in Kiev’s Independence Square, the Maidan, explode into lethal violence leaving more than 80 people dead. Within a space of 48 hours, the president, Viktor Yanukovych, had fled leaving behind his sprawling estate of luxuries for the public to gawp at, and a caretaker government formed.

The expectation was of  a wind-down with the  next event of significance  not until the elections set for 25th May. A small number from the international media  came down to Crimea following supposed sightings of the fugitive president and to gage the mood among Russian speakers who form a majority in the region with many hankering for rule by Moscow.

Sevastopol, an almost wholly Russian city, was relatively quiet.

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On 26th February around 10,000 members of the Tatar community, along with a smaller number of Ukrainians, held a demonstration in the Crimean capital, Simferpol, against separatism. There was a counter-march by Russian nationalists, clashes between the two groups, and a certain amount of violence. Two people were reported to have died, caught in the crush, the Russian nationalists would later raise the number to six, claiming they had all been murdered by the Tatars.

That night men in balaclavas and flak-jackets took over the state parliament in Simferopol. “We are Russia” declared on of them as they charged in. As the Russian flag flew over the complex, the government in Kiev claimed it was part of a plot aimed at justifying intervention by Vladimir Putin who had ordered a military exercise involving 150,000 troops across the border. Armoured personnel carriers of Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet, based in Sevastopol, were seen moving up the road.

Next morning Simferopol airport was taken over by masked, armed men in combat fatigues; barricades shut off road links to the region; military helicopters were seen flying in across the border.

President Putin had made his move. The troops on the ground, in Russian combat fatigues, refused to say who they were and Moscow insisted that it had not intervened, a pretence which would continue for a while longer. The reality was that Crimea was slipping away, almost hourly, from Ukraine.

Mr Yanukovych broke cover to appear at press conference in the Russian city of Rostov on the Don, stressing that he remained the legitimate ruler and intended to get back to power. But he had already become expendable to the Kremlin. President Putin wrote him off a few days later, saying he had no political future.

There was also an appearance by Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The right wing demagogue may be regarded as a somewhat comic figure internationally, but men like him thrive in the atmosphere currently created in Crimea. He was greeted warmly by members of the newly formed ‘Self-Defence Group’. He told them: “Be faithful to yourselves, be proud to be Russians; we were here long before there were any ‘Ukrainians’. These Ukrainians, they have their Maidan [the centre of Kiev protests], well we have our Magadan”. There were loud cheers, they knew he was referring to the gulag in eastern Siberia at the time of Stalin where thousands perished.

On Saturday, President Putin asked the Russian parliament to authorize the use of troops, formalizing the situation on the ground. He was supposedly responding to the new prime minister of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, asking for military aid. The catalyst, supposedly, was attempts by agents sent by Kiev to attack government buildings. Yet there were contradictory accounts of what had happened from Simferopol and Moscow. Mr Aksyonov had stated that the gunmen had carried out assaults on the Ministerial Council and the Supreme Court. According to reports coming from Moscow the target was the interior Ministry. None of the buildings, however showed signs of firefights.

Russian troops fanned out across the region, taking over strategic points. But they were not having it all their own way.

Some of the Ukrainian military bases refused to surrender. At Perevalne local people, including a priest, linked arms outside the main gate. Rear Admiral Denys Berezhovsky, who had defected 24 hours after being appointed the head of Ukraine’s Navy, assembled his captains in Sevastopol to persuade them to join him, reassuring them that they would keep their ranks and get their salary. They refused, questioning him about honour and duty, and then spontaneously breaking into the national anthem.

The most extraordinary example of courage against the odds came at Belbek military airport where Colonel Yuli Manchuk led his men up the hill to the Russian positions to demand back the area of the base which had taken over. What made the action all the more remarkable was that for the previous 24 hours they had been living under repeated threats of attack for refusing to surrender.

The Tatars, who feel they will be the most vulnerable if assimilation by Russia takes place, are due to hold a rally on Saturday in Simferpol. The community leaders insisted that it will be non-violent. But, even if there is no outbreak of violence in the next few days, there is genuine fear that the fragile peace will not survive the referendum wrenching Crimea away from Ukraine.

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