Weeks have passed since Ukraine’s anti-government uprising forced president Viktor Yanukovich to flee for his life to Russia. But for activists such as Dima Krizsky, the main battle is still ahead.
In early February, Al Jazeera first interviewed the 20-year-old army veteran, a professional sniper who boasts about wounding – but intentionally refraining from killing – three “Russian snipers” in the capital Kiev after demonstrations intensified last November. He said at the time his only concern was “getting rid of Yanuka”, as he called the former president with obvious disgust.
Little did he and his fellow so-called “Euromaidan self-defence” members know that what started as a revolt to change the government would turn into a fight for the country’s territorial integrity. People in Ukraine’s autonomous Crimea peninsula voted overwhelmingly in a referendum on Sunday to join Russia, and Moscow signed a treaty with regional leaders on Tuesday to make it Russian territory.
Russian forces entered Crimea soon after Yanukovich fled the country in his helicopter to Russia.
“The possibility of the Russian troops invading our country just like that would not even occur to me at that time [of the anti-government demonstrations]. It would be illogical,“ Krizsky told Al Jazeera.
“They [Russian soldiers] should have been shot dead when they crossed the border.“
Western nations also accused Russia of invading Crimea prior to the referendum, but President Vladimir Putin said forces were deployed in line with a treaty with Ukraine that allows Russia to have up to 25,000 troops at its Black Sea fleet base.
Our government is either impotent or they just don't give a damn about it. They are saying 'let's keep it peaceful', but you won't achieve anything with Russia peacefully.
Putin along with pro-Russia citizens of Ukraine blamed activists such as Krizsky for the crisis, saying the Kremlin had always respected Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
According to Putin, a “pre-trained and well-equipped army of militants” steered by nationalist forces was responsible for the unrest in Ukraine, as they were tasked to undermine ties with Russia.
Putin alleged that Ukraine had attempted to forcefully assimilate the Russian-speaking minority in Crimea and deprive them of their language and history.
Bogdan Kurtyak, an activist from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, told Al Jazeera that “this simply does not make sense”.
“This is all politics,” Kurtyak said. “Nobody has ever been forced to do anything here. When we were holidaying in Crimea, we were speaking in Russian. When they [Crimean ethnic Russians] were coming over [to mainland Ukraine], they were speaking in Russian and they were never even told off for it.”
Kurtyak – who first talked to Al Jazeera in late January when he was guarding smouldering barricades on Kiev’s Grushevskogo street – said Russia’s claims about threats to ethnic Russians in Crimea, or anywhere else, in Ukraine is “outrageous”.
Pro-Ukraine activists are now questioning the handling of the situation by the interim government.
“The most important question now that Ukrainians have is why the government is not declaring a state of emergency,” said Krizsky.
Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has been shuttling from one Western country to another to gather support and coordinate unified diplomatic action against Moscow. The United States and the European Union have wheeled out sanctions against a number of Ukrainian and Russian officials involved in allegedly destabilising Ukraine, and have threatened further such action.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, meanwhile, said the sanctions were unacceptable and threatened “consequences”. He did not elaborate.
However, demonstrators against the Yanukovich-led government – who braved a harsh winter and dodged bullets at Kiev’s Independence Square and elsewhere for months – say the only suitable response to Russia’s action is a military one.
“Our government is either impotent or they just don’t give a damn about it. They are saying ‘let’s keep it peaceful’, but you won’t achieve anything with Russia peacefully,” Krizsky insisted.
|A woman walks past a poster urging people in Crimea to vote to join Russia in Sunday’s referendum [EPA]|
“It all reminds me now of the Second World War when Germans crossed the border and Stalin did not believe that the war has started. The same is happening to us now, even worse.”
Putin signed an agreement with Crimea’s de facto leader Sergey Aksyonov to incorporate the territory into Russia less than 24 hours after the autonomous republic voted in the referendum in favour of secession.
Both the referendum and the treaty with Russia have been denounced by Ukraine and the West as illegal under international law. US Vice President Joe Biden described Moscow’s move as “nothing more than a land-grab”.
‘Nothing lost yet’
While Russians and pro-Russia Crimeans celebrate, Ukrainian politicians and some citizens remain defiant.
Oleg Smolniy, who had fought to change Ukraine’s government since November, told Al Jazeera he did not consider Crimea as lost.
“Ukraine hasn’t lost any territory. It’s a matter of time, we will get it back. The land doesn’t belong to the politicians, Crimea will stay Ukrainian,” said Smolniy.
“It doesn’t matter what sort of people live there and what kind of language they speak. Their passports say ‘Ukraine’ and they should be staying with us of course. They are our brothers after all.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s government has mobilised tens of thousands of reservists to help the country’s army secure territory, including Donetsk and Kharkiv – two cities that have seen violence between pro-Russian protesters and rivals. The Black Sea coastal region of Odessa, to Crimea’s northwest, is also an area of concern.
Krizsky, who received his military training in Russia, estimated an “80 percent chance of a full-out war” breaking out between the countries.
“Even if the government doesn’t declare war, we will march to Crimea ourselves. There are tens of thousands of elite fighters who are ready to take up arms and don’t stand under anyone’s command.”
Follow Tamila Varshalomidze on Twitter: @tamila87v