Crimea becomes the hot spot of Russia-Ukraine tensions

The Crimean peninsula [Wikimedia]

The United States told Russia to demonstrate that it was sincere about its promise not to intervene in Ukraine as armed men stormed the regional parliament in Crimea and hours later, in the morning of 28 February, others seized the airport in a mainly ethnic Russian region. 

Crimea, the only Ukrainian region with an ethnic Russian majority, is the last big bastion of opposition to the new leadership in Kyiv since pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich was ousted at the weekend.

The region also provides a base for the Russian navy's Black Sea Fleet. Kyiv's new rulers said that any movement by Russian forces beyond the base's territory would be tantamount to aggression.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had assured him by telephone that Moscow would not intervene militarily in its neighbour.

"We believe that everybody now needs to take a step back and avoid any kind of provocations," Kerry said at a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

"We want to see in the next days ahead that the choices Russia makes conform to this affirmation we received today."

The United States pledged its support for the new government in a call on Thursday by Vice-President Joe Biden to Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk.

European perspective

The EU’s foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, is expected in Kyiv on Monday (3 March). Yesterday, the Ukrainian ambassador to the EU, Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, said that his country was aiming at signing its Association Agreement (AA) with the EU on the occasion of the next EU summit, on 20-21 March.

Also yesterday, the European Parliament passed a resolution, which said that Ukraine was a country entitled to apply for EU membership, provided it adhered to democracy, fundamental freedoms and human and minority rights, and ensured the rule of law. 

The AA stops short of mentioning an EU membership perspective [see Parliament resolution here, page 144-150, relevant article N. 24].

Yanukovich, who fled Kyiv after scores of demonstrators were killed last week, was expected to hold a news conference in Russia today (28 February). He declared that he was still Ukraine's president, but had lost support even in regions where the ethnic Ukrainian population mainly speaks Russian, as he does.

Crimea, which was administered as part of Russia within the Soviet Union until it was transferred to Ukraine in 1954, is a more tendentious question. Separatism there has often flared up at times of tension between Moscow and Kyiv.

Russian flag 

A group of armed men in military uniforms seized the main regional airport in Simferopol, Crimea, Interfax news agency reported early on Friday. According to the news website Zerkalo Nedeli, the armed men ended the occupation and left the airport early this morning (28 February).

A day before, unidentified gunmen seized the Crimean parliament and raised a Russian flag. The gunmen issued no demands and police hardly seemed to treat the event as a major security incident.

Instead, they casually guarded the building while hundreds of pro-Russian demonstrators assembled, including elderly people who danced cheerfully to recordings of Soviet martial music.

The regional parliament even managed to hold a session inside the building on Thursday despite the siege, where it voted to stage a referendum on "sovereignty" for Crimea.

By the early hours of Friday, police guarding the building would not say what had happened to the gunmen or whether they were even still there. Russia's flag still flew from its roof and lights were on in the windows of its top floor.

Oleksander Turchinov, Ukraine's acting president, warned Russia not to move personnel beyond areas permitted by treaty for those using its naval base. "Any military movements, the more so if they are with weapons, beyond the boundaries of this territory will be seen by us as military aggression," he said.

Russia has repeatedly declared it will defend the interests of its citizens in Ukraine, and on Wednesday announced war games near the border involving 150,000 troops on high alert. Kerry said Lavrov told him the war games were pre-planned.

Although Moscow says it will not intervene by force, its rhetoric since the removal of its ally Yanukovich has echoed the run-up to its invasion of Georgia in 2008, when it sent its troops to protect two self-declared independent regions and then recognised them as independent states.

Witness accounts suggest those who captured the Crimean parliament building in the early hours of Thursday were pro-Russian gunmen of some kind.

"We were building barricades in the night to protect parliament. Then this young Russian guy came up with a pistol … we all lay down, some more ran up, there was some shooting and around 50 went in through the window," Leonid Khazanov, an ethnic Russian, told Reuters.

"I asked them what they wanted, and they said 'To make our own decisions, not to have Kyiv telling us what to do'."

Ukraine's new interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said the attackers had automatic weapons and machine guns.

The regional prime minister said on Thursday he had spoken to the people by telephone, but they had not made any demands or said why they were there. They had promised to call him back but had not done so, he said.

With the siege apparently still under way, the regional parliament met in another part of the building and voted to hold its referendum on 25 May, the day Ukraine plans to elect a new president to replace Yanukovich. The measure, if passed, would declare Crimea sovereign, with its relationship to the rest of Ukraine governed by treaty.

The pro-Russian crowd outside cheered the news.

"In three months we will have a chance to choose our future," said Yuri Lukashev, 58, a carpenter standing in a group of other ethnic Russian men outside the building late at night. "We're celebrating our victory. It's a chance for peace in Crimea, guaranteed by Russia."

However, elsewhere there was some anger at the invasion of the regional parliament and the flying of the Russian flag.

Alexander Vostruyev, 60, in a leather cap and white beard, said: "It's disgrace that the flag of a foreign country is flying on our parliament … It's like a man coming home to find his wife in bed with another man." 

The Ukrainian government announced on 21 November that it had decided to stop its preparations to sign an Association Agreement (AA) with the EU.

Following the news that the country’s president Viktor Yanukovich failed to sign the AA at the Vilnius summit on 28-29 November, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets in what is called the EuroMaidan protest, demanding his resignation [read more]. In the meantime, Yanukovich accepted a $15-billion (€11 billion) Russian bailout.

On 18 February at least 26 people died in the worst violence since the EuroMaidan protests started. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich accused pro-European opposition leaders of trying to seize power. Worse, on 20 February at least 47 people were killed in central Kyiv, many by snipers or machine-gun fire. On the same day, EU ministers met urgently in Brussels and imposed sanctions to Ukrainian officials responsible for the massacre [read more].

On 21 February Ukraine opposition leaders signed an EU-mediated peace deal with President Yanukovich [read more]. But the protestors said they would stay on until Yanukovich resigns. On 22 February Yanukovich fled Kyiv and Parliament speaker Oleksander Turchinov took over as acting president. On 26 February a government was formed [read more].

  • 1 March: Catherine Ashton arrives in Kyiev;
  • 20-21 March: EU summit to be held in Brussels, at which Ukraine expects that its Association Agreement be signed;
  • 25 May: Presidential elections to be held in Ukraine, and independence of Crimea referendum to be held in this Ukrainian region.

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