Ahead of key elections in Ukraine Al Jazeera reports from the region of Crimea, scene of what some say was the world's first "modern" conflict, and now an election battleground as politicians argue over Ukraine's relationship with Russia.

If it was in a different place on the map, Sevastopol might be known more widely as a tourist attraction.

If it was on a different place on the map, you might not see quite so many memorials to the war dead here, they are everywhere.

Imperial Russia fought the British and French to a standstill on these shores in the Crimean war.

A century later, Sevastopol became known for its proud resistance to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

Hundreds of thousands have died around here in the last two centuries and everyone, it seems, wants to own Sevastopol.

Harbouring ambitions

You can see the reason for the current tension as you pass through the harbour. 

The Crimea has been the scene of several
bloody conflicts in the last 200 years


Until ten years ago, the ships in its port were all part of the same Soviet fleet.

Now they are divided under Ukrainian and Russian flags, and their respective commanders must be wondering for how much longer they are likely to remain friends.

If you accept that the current political crisis in Ukraine is an ideological one, either to maintain historical ties with Russia, or to form new ones with the West, then here is where you can see it being played out most dramatically.

It is one thing for Ukrainian and Russian ships to coexist peacefully enough for the moment.

It is quite another, surely, for a future Nato fleet to sit in the same harbour as a Russian one.

Particularly given the current view of Nato in Moscow.

Vocal support

There is lots about Crimea that is Russian through and through. The language for one thing, the ways in which people look and behave.

No surprise then that the Party of Regions, which carries half of the vote here, wants a referendum on keeping Russian as an official language, and keeping Ukraine out of Nato.

Vadim Kolesnichenko, from the party's Sevastopol branch, said: "It's not the matter of language, it's a matter of human rights. Everyone has a right to speak their own language and has a right to defend his culture and communicate with his friends and relatives using their native language." 

If that sounds diplomatic, the blunter version is espoused by the communists, still worth tens of thousands of votes, who accuse Nato of causing disaster wherever it goes, and fear catastrophe if it got its claws into Crimea.

"Are you ready to die for Nato?" reads one poster, "Not here".

"We don't want the Yugoslavian scenario to repeat here or [like in] Afghanistan or the Caucasus," Vasily Parkhomenko, of the Ukrainian Communist party, says. "So we consider the presence of the Russian fleet a guarantor of peace here in the south of Ukraine.

"We know where Nato appears, the blood and suffering appear as well."

Better bet

Even if one day the Russian fleet was forced out by the pro-European, pro-Nato supporters of the Orange revolution in 2004 there is much else that would be far harder to shift, a Russian installation cut under a mountain, for one thing.

No-one here has any idea what it is for, and staying around it is not a very good idea.

Still, some are prepared to suggest Nato might be a better option for Crimea, as well as Ukraine in general.

The remains of 14 Russian soldiers are buried

"When Ukraine is in Nato relations with Russia will become more straightforward than they are now," Sergei Kluik, a military analyst, says.

"There wont be as many arguments with decision making."

Bloody battle

This time every year they hold a commemoration for the many thousands of Russians who died in one particularly bloody battle of the Crimean war.

It was particularly special this year, as they found the remains of fourteen Russian soldiers and gave them the full send off.

This weekend the voters of Crimea will join the rest of the country at the polls, and a decisive vote one way or the other could lay the ground for strategic alliances which could have consequences far beyond the horizon.
 
It is a point worth bearing in mind, since it is young men that tend to pay the price when the great powers use foreign pieces of land for their great games.

Source: Al Jazeera