Less than 100 yards from my hotel, the Russian flag flies over the Crimean parliament. Inside sit Russian soldiers, their faces obscured by balaclavas as they fiddle with their weapons, while outside stand Cossack paramilitaries, who have freely told me they are serving soldiers. More troops sit slumped inside the Council of Ministers building, just down the road at Lenin Square, where a new leader who won four per cent of the vote at the last election and seized control in suspicious circumstances has installed his team.
Nearby are military bases, ringed by Russian forces and their local stooges despite being on the sovereign territory of another nation. Inside are frightened Ukrainian troops, some of whom have sent their children to stay with relatives after their wives received threatening phone calls and text messages. I have been turned back on roads by Russian soldiers and seen military vehicles with Moscow licence plates, while local television channels have suddenly switched to Russian programmes.
No-one should be under any illusions over what is happening in Crimea. Russia, under a president with a history of contemptuous disregard for human rights, is annexing a slab of another country. Yes, a slender majority of Crimeans may be ethnic Russians. But that does not mean they all want to join their supposed motherland, nor does it excuse an invasion based on lies. And, it should be added, a Muslim minority with historic cause to fear Russia is now muttering about fighting back.
This is potentially the biggest crisis on our continent since the bloodstained Balkan wars. After we saw a pro-Russian goon with a gun in his vest beat up a rival protester, one famous war reporter told me the mood was eerily similar to the early days of that horrific conflict. We must hope he is wrong and this crisis is contained. But once again Vladimir Putin has demonstrated his undeniable political genius, taking back Crimea almost without firing a shot, while weak Western leaders flounder in response.
Watching Russia ratchet up the pressure, it seems almost as if these events are being masterminded for the global media by some malevolent public relations genius: machine-gunners posing on plinths, marching Cossacks, besieged naval ships, snipers in bushes. With each unlikely twist and unexpected turn in this rapidly evolving saga, even seasoned analysts admit it is impossible to predict Putin’s long-term plan as he stirs up trouble in his linguistically and politically divided neighbour.
In pictures: Ukraine crisis
In pictures: Ukraine crisis
1/12 Ukraine crisis
People shout slogans during a pro Russian rally at a central square in Donetsk. Pro Russian activists continued to gather on Saturday in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, as Russia was reported to be reinforcing its military presence in Crimea.
2/12 Ukraine crisis
In the same pro Russian rally, demonstrators show their support. Ukraine's ambassador to Russia and a deputy Russian foreign minister held a "cordial" meeting on Saturday, Moscow said, without giving details of any discussion of Russian-occupied Crimea.
3/12 Ukraine crisis
Crimean ethnic tatars stand on the roadside as Russian troops move towards to Simferopol in the settlement of Kok-Asan, some 70 kilometres from Simferopol in Crimea.
4/12 Ukraine crisis
Russian troops stand on a roadside in the settlement of Opytnoye, some 70 kilometres from Simferopol.
5/12 Ukraine crisis
Armed members of the first unit of a pro-Russian armed force, dubbed the "military forces of the autonomous republic of Crimea" march before the swearing-in ceremony in Simferopol, Ukraine. Some 30 men armed with automatic weapons and another 20 or so unarmed, were sworn in at a park in front of an eternal flame to those killed in World War II.
6/12 Ukraine crisis
A group of Cossacks march past a statue of Soviet revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin in Simferopol as tensions in the area continue to rise.
7/12 Ukraine crisis
An armed member of the first unit of a pro-Russian armed force, dubbed the "military forces of the autonomous republic of Crimea" signs the oath during the swearing-in ceremony in Simferopol,
8/12 Ukraine crisis
9/12 Ukraine crisis
Ukrainian soldiers load their armed personnel carriers (APCs) into boxcars in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Pro-Kremlin militia fired warning shots as unarmed foreign observers tried to enter Crimea on the 8th.
10/12 Ukraine crisis
An abandoned naval ship sunk by the Russian navy to block the entrance is seen in the Crimean port of Yevpatorya on March 8th.
11/12 Ukraine crisis
Ukrainian sailors stand guard on top of the Ukrainian navy ship at the Crimean port of Yevpatorya.
12/12 Ukraine crisis
Crimea's pro-Moscow leader Sergei Aksyonov speaks to the media in Simferopol on the 8th March. He has defended a decision to hold a referendum on whether the region should join Russia, saying on Saturday that "no one" could cancel the voting.
Having been here nearly three weeks, first in Kiev as bodies piled up before me, and now in Crimea as the mood darkens, it is depressing to see how people can interpret events so differently despite strong cultural similarities. Many even have familial ties that straddle the border. But one side hails the protesters in Kiev as heroes; to the other, they are Nazis. One side sees the disbanded Berkut security forces that shot unarmed protesters as vile killers; the other side chants their name at rallies and drops food into their bases.
It is even more bizarre to watch the debate back home. Some who claim to be on the left seem so traumatised by the misdeeds of George Bush and Tony Blair that they somehow excuse Putin’s little putsch in Crimea; they view the world as a balance of bad behaviour rather than a fight for universal rights. Others talk the language of Munich, breezily implying that it is fine for Russia to take back Crimea like latter-day Chamberlains. It was alarming to see Nick Clegg’s desire to join this discredited club, then to hear William Hague’s tacit acceptance of the occupation.
Perhaps worst of all are those on all sides who seem to assume there is some kind of moral equivalence between Moscow and Kiev. There needs to be more clarity about what happened last month in Ukraine, rather than playing Putin’s game of pretending democracy was ditched and the country seized by fascists and street gangsters.
After the slaughter of scores of unarmed protesters, a deal was agreed with foreign diplomats for an elected president to give up some powers to parliament. Instead, as his supporters switched sides to save their own skins, the president fled – and within hours, allegations of his grotesque theft from state coffers became widespread. A temporary government was formed, with elections due in May. This was far from a coup and, as historian Timothy Snyder pointed out, reducing presidential powers and restoring democracy could not be further from fascism.
There is no doubt some unsavoury characters have prominent roles in Kiev; news that the head of the far-right militia Pravy Sektor was standing for president could not have been a bigger gift to Moscow even though he is a rank outsider to win. And the new government has made bad mistakes – not least managing to idiotically inflame fears over suppression of the Russian language – although this is hardly unexpected given the circumstances.
Many Ukrainians, both in Kiev and here in Crimea, want the West to respond militarily. They look dismayed and disbelieving when I tell them this will not happen. But we need to wake up and stand far more firmly behind a fledgling democracy under attack in Europe. Instead, we see Putin stealing a slice of another country – and our leaders cancel trips to Sochi and ditch plans to speed up visas for Russians. You can almost hear the laughter in the Kremlin.Reuse content