International

In Crimea, citizens stand for self-defense and Mother Russia

In port city of Sevastopol, people wave Russian flags and staff checkpoints to keep out those from Kiev and the West

Troops in unmarked uniforms stand guard in Balaklava, on the outskirts of Sevastopol, as residents walk by. The port city is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet and the Ukrainian uprising has unsettled ethnic Russians there.
Andrew Lubimov/AP

SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine — Friday night, Vasili Kryshko bought a pair of woodland green hunting waders. A friend accompanying him bought a long waterproof trench coat, also in camouflage, and they set off to serve their shift at the local self-defense battalion checkpoint, 20 miles outside the Crimean city of Sevastopol.

Speaking from the checkpoint, Kryshko said it was set up a week ago to prevent “provocateurs” from Kiev and western Ukraine from coming into the city after three months of protests led to the ouster of president Viktor Yanukovich last Saturday. They are in communication with other battalions across the autonomous peninsula, coordinating security.

"We are not paid," he said. "We are not here for money. We are here for security.”

The post was unarmed on Saturday morning, but Kryshko said they could have weapons delivered in less than 15 minutes if needed. “We hope it won’t come to that, but we are ready for anything,” he said. “Crimea will decide its fate for itself, it’s the people who will decide.”

But the checkpoint’s loyalty was clear: A Russian flag was flying high over the barricades and a sign on the roadblock said: “Russia is where we are.” 

Unhappy with the outcome of the protests in the capital and alarmed at the rise of Ukrainian nationalist groups in Kiev, many ethnic Russians in Crimea, who make up almost 60 percent of the population here, have been protesting and calling for Russia to come to their aid — with some even going as far as demanding their neighbor immediately absorb the territory.

On Saturday afternoon, they may have gotten their wish. The new pro-Russia prime minister of Crimea asked Russian president Vladimir Putin for help safeguarding the Black Sea peninsula. Putin requested and received authorization from the Russian senate to use military force in Ukraine. Already, professional-looking gunmen in neat, matching uniforms, widely assumed to be Russian troops, took over the capital's government buildings, two Crimean airports and the local television building.

'We are not radicals'

Earlier in the day in Sevastopol, the Crimean port city that houses Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Illena Prokena was among several thousand pro-Russia protesters who gathered in the city’s main square. Prokena, a 33-year-old blogger, holds a Ukrainian passport, but self-identifies as Russian.

“We are not radicals or separatists as they call us," she said. "We are ethnic Russians who are afraid of the illegitimate government in Kiev,” she said.

Prokena explained she had been sympathetic to the protesters in Kiev when they first took to the streets — she, too, wanted more from the government. When she saw the rise of Pravy Sektor, a right-wing nationalist organization, however, she had concerns. And when the Ukrainian parliament convened after Yanukovych’s ouster and decided to abolish a 2012 language law that allowed regions to adopt Russian as a second official language, she took it as a harbinger of changes to come. She thinks she will be treated like a second-class citizen by the new government in Kiev.

 Crimea, Sevastopol, Black Sea Fleet, Russia, Ukraine
A local resident moves barricades as unidentified gunmen in the background block the road to the military airport in Sevastopol in Crimea, Ukraine.
Darko Vojinovic/AP

“I want my rights guaranteed. Not in words, but in actions,” she said. “Who are they to have changed the government anyway and tell us how to live? It’s like someone coming in your kitchen and telling you you’re brewing your morning coffee wrong. Would you stand for that?”

Crimea has long been a contested territory. In 1954, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decreed the peninsula become a part of Ukraine, despite the presence of many ethnic Russians in the region. After the Soviet Union fell apart, Crimea remained with Ukraine. In May 1992, the Crimean parliament declared independence from Ukraine, though ultimately remained with the country and was granted autonomous status.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia negotiated to lease Sevastopol to use as the headquarters of its Black Sea Fleet. In 2010, Yanukovych agreed to extend Russia’s lease for another 25 years with an additional option to continue until 2047.

The stationed Russian servicemen bring business to the city, and Russian tourists flock to Crimea’s natural attractions, bonding ethnic Russians closer to their neighbor.

Near newly built yellow and white apartment blocks in Sevastopol specifically for Russian soldiers, Natalia, a saleswoman at a small store specializing in lingerie and underwear, declined to give her last name, but said the Russians were integral to business.

“Where else would they buy underwear?” she asked.

Natalia admitted she doesn't take much interest in politics, but was concerned about the developments in Kiev. She had not been to any protest in the main square, but said she wanted Crimea to join Russia. “We already are Russia,” she said. “We’re speaking Russian!”

Back at the rally in the city square, Peter Vichislav stood with a huge Russian flag he had attached to the top of a massive fishing pole. The 55-year-old fire truck driver was glad Russia was sending troops to the peninsula and said he would continue to protest and push for Crimea to join Russia.

“Russia is the only country that can guarantee our stability. Ukraine is the one who has been occupying us,” Vichislav said. “Thank God this is starting. It’s been a long time coming.”

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