Russia maintains grip on Crimea bases

Crimean volunteers turn out to denounce Yanukovich's ousting and support troops believed to be Russian soldiers.


    Simferopol, Ukraine - Pensioner and former Soviet soldier Vladimir Vinogradow, 56, is standing guard outside Belbek military airbase, which was taken over by pro-Russian forces last week.

    He believes the ousting of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and the formation of a new government was illegal, claiming that Nazis and radicals are behind Ukraine's uprising. "All these Nazis, they woke up the Russian bear," Vinogradow says. "Now they have burned [Kiev]… they're trying to make the same things [happen] on the east [of] Ukraine."

    He is wearing camouflage because he says it is more comfortable and easily accessible in his hometown of Sevastopol, which is home to a Ukrainian and a Russian military base. He says he has created a self-defence group to protect the city from fascists. "We don't want our beautiful city… to be just ruined [by] somebody." 

    Both Russia and Yanukovich argue that extremists are behind the movement that toppled the Ukrainian government. But protesters at Kiev's Independence Square strongly deny the claims, saying the uprising was a pro-democracy movement to oppose corruption.

    Vinogradow says he wants to prevent a war from breaking out, explaining that they are here to act as a buffer between troops and provocateurs and terrorists. He and his colleagues are wearing pro-Russia ribbons, but Vinogradow insists the group is neutral and does not oppose Ukrainian troops. 

    He adds that there are enough Russian troops in Crimea, and does not believe Putin will add more soldiers. On Tuesday, the Russian leader said he would only use force as a "last resort", decreasing fears of a war. 

    US-Russia talks

    Russia's foreign minister is set to hold talks with United States Secretary of State John Kerry, boosting hopes that there will be a diplomatic solution to what has been described by the US as a Russian invasion of Crimea. 

    Russian military expert Igor Sutyagin, at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says Putin is likely to retain control of Crimea because Ukraine does not have the might to confront Russia on its own - and because the West is unwilling to take strong decisive action against the intervention. "The calculation is to create a sort of area… of instability to control [the] Ukrainian government, and [Putin's] going to get that." 

    Sutyagin adds that another benefit for Russia is that Ukraine would be unable to join NATO, because under the military alliance's rules, a country cannot become a member if it is involved in a territorial dispute. 

    However, it has not been a complete success for Russia. Television footage showed soldiers believed to be Russian firing warning shots as unarmed Ukrainian troops walked towards them. "Ukraine has already won a very important moral victory because they have shown they are not frightened, while the Russians have shown they are frightened," Sutyagin says. "That's just humiliating to be associated with these sort of people."

    'We want to be independent'

    Many in Crimea have long wanted more autonomy from the Ukrainian central government, and the region is set to hold a referendum on the issue on March 30. "We want to be independent… from Ukraine. That's for sure," Vinogradow says, adding that he would like Crimea to join Russia. 

    We don't actually want to speak Ukrainian, we want to speak Russian, we have our right to speak Russian.

    - Maxime, volunteer

    While his passport is Ukrainian, he considers himself Russian and believes the new government in Kiev is against people who identify themselves as such. "They want to forbid us to be Russian-Ukrainian." 

    On the road leading to Belbek base, cars are stopped at a check-point. One of the volunteers, Maxime, says they want to prevent people from carrying weapons into the city and the base. 

    He says he is a social activist and wants to help the local government to protect the city, and believes the Ukrainian media is falsely claiming there is a war in the region. "We are not ready to join the European Union, not only Crimea but the whole Ukraine… because of the corruption," he says. 

    Maxime, who did not want to give his last name, adds that if the protesters had only demonstrated against corruption they could have achieved reform but, he says, their demands spread to contentious issues around language differences, increasing regional tensions. "We don't actually want to speak Ukrainian, we want to speak Russian. We have our right to speak Russian."

    He also says that while he did not like some of what Yanukovich did, he was still the legitimate leader of the country and does not accept the new government. "For 20 years, nobody hears Crimean people, what they want to do… nobody cares about the opinion of people living here and now [we] just want to be heard." 

    Support for Russia

    About 60 kilometres away from Belbek is another base in Perevalnoe. On Monday, there were no checkpoints leading to the entrance, but surrounding the base there were dozens of masked, armed soldiers widely considered to be Russian. However, Putin has denied they are his troops but rather "local self-defence forces". 

    On the left side of the base's driveway, 12 army trucks are parked alongside an SUV and four armoured vehicles. Next to the vehicles soldiers are digging into the ground.

    At a gate to one building, six armed, masked soldiers without national insignia stand outside the entrance. Behind the gate, two Ukrainian soldiers stand guard at the building housing military equipment. 

    Two hundred metres away, about 40 men dressed in camouflage and wearing pro-Russian ribbons are lined up, refusing to talk to reporters. Two poles flying the Russian flag are at both ends of the line-up. 

    To the side, locals have gathered in support of Russia. One of them is Inna, a 26-year-old resident of Perevalnoe who did not want to give her last name. She says she strongly supported the Russian troops coming into Crimea. "I want [to keep] order, [so we have] no Maidan in Simferopol, as it was in Kiev with… victims." 

    Also at the base is Ukrainian Orthodox priest Ivan, 58, who says he is praying for both sides. "We came here very early to become a living shield in order to prevent provocations," he says. "I am worried and I pray that [a conflict] doesn't happen."

    The Tatar minority

    Not everyone in Crimea backs the foreign presence, however. In a nearby village, Andrey Lunyov, 30, says he fears many of his neighbours who are members of the Tatar Muslim minority will face discrimination and be used as an ethnic scapegoat if there is a greater push for autonomy supported by Russia. 

    Lunyov, who is Ukrainian and converted to Islam, stresses that the Tatar residents in his community are peaceful. "It's calm and quiet, and you can go to any of the Tatar villages and you won't find anything terrible there." 

    He says most people in his community fear the negative economic effects of the crisis and do not want to head to war. "People are scared and kids are not being sent to school. That is to say that no one wants it, no one wants blood to be spilled. It is just a dirty political game of people who acquired power now and [are] trying to keep it."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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