War of words over Putin’s aggression – but reality is Russia already controls Crimea

Published in The Mail on Sunday (2nd March, 2014)

Ukraine put its armed forces on full alert and braced for an invasion on Saturday night after accusing Russia of ‘naked aggression’ for sending 6,000 troops into its Crimean territory.

Tensions rose alarmingly as Russian soldiers, armed with machine guns, surrounded key strategic sites on the peninsula, including the parliament and Council of Ministers.

Russian President Vladimir Putin won parliamentary backing to deploy his forces anywhere in Ukraine under the pretext of protecting Russian interests.

But Ukraine’s new interim president Oleksandr Turchynov warned his country was threatened with a ‘military invasion and occupation’ and ordered increased security at nuclear power plants and airports

Prime Minister David Cameron said last night there was ‘growing concern’ over the crisis. He added: ‘There can be no excuse for outside military intervention in Ukraine, a point I made to President Putin when we spoke yesterday.’

US President Barack Obama also spoke to Putin in a 90-minute call and warned of the consequences of continued ‘violation of international law’. But Russia’s actions seem to  be calling his bluff as a hitherto  covert invasion turned into a chillingly obvious new wargame.

The news came as:

  • Two Russian anti-submarine warships appeared off the Crimea coast.
  • Armoured personnel carriers were seen in Crimea, amid reports of Russian helicopters in Ukrainian airspace and other aircraft flying in troops to add to an estimated 14,000 soldiers already based in the region.
  • 700 paratroopers were delivered to Russia’s Sevastopol naval base overnight, as Ukraine’s border guards said about 300 armed men were attempting to seize its HQ. Busloads more have been seen in Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv.
  • Troops were reported to have taken over a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile base, a TV station, police stations and the ferry point at the Strait of Kerch.
  • Scores were injured in clashes between pro-Russian protesters and supporters of the new Ukrainian government in the east of the country.
  • Ukraine’s prime minister demanded that Russian soldiers return to their bases, while boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko called for ‘general mobilisation’ to protect their country.
  • Ukrainians were fleeing across the border into Russia amid fears of a full-scale war.
  • Foreign Secretary William Hague said he planned to travel to Ukraine tomorrow as the Russian ambassador to the UK was summoned to the Foreign Office.

The UN Security Council called an emergency meeting, and Ukraine has asked the four permanent  members other than Russia – the US, Britain France and China – for help as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was ‘gravely concerned’ about the situation.

Yesterday began with troops surrounding key positions. Soldiers patrolling in the Crimean capital Simferopol wore no insignia but spoke with Russian accents.

Then Russia claimed gunmen from Kiev tried to seize the Crimean Interior Ministry, and although the claims were heavily contested the pro-Russian Crimean premier asked for Putin’s help to ensure peace in his region, which was granted.

After President Obama’s warning, European leaders urged all sides to refrain from anything that might increase tensions.

It is hard to envisage a more volatile situation – and Britain, along with the US, is a guarantor of Ukrainian territorial integrity under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Nato ambassadors will meet today to assess the situation.

Yet the reality on the ground is that Russia is already controlling Crimea with support from many residents. Crowds flocked yesterday to the centre of Simferopol to show support for the Russian soldiers.

‘I am very happy to see them here,’ said Galina Filippenko, a pensioner in Lenin Square. Others waved military flags, sang patriotic songs and chanted: ‘Russia, Russia, Russia.’

There is growing antagonism towards the West over its support for the new government in Kiev. There were also chants of ‘Berkut, Berkut’, a reference to the special forces disbanded after being accused of killing 88 protesters in Kiev.

At Simferopol’s Berkut base I found barricades erected, drivers honking horns in support and people taking food to the paramilitaries. One man warned of bloodshed if Ukrainian forces moved on them.

According to one witness, the latest Russian troops went into Simferopol city centre shortly after 5am. Within hours, troop trucks were on the streets and cordons were erected around government buildings.

The soldiers were supported by locals organised into what they called civil defence groups, who blocked streets, supported by traffic police. ‘We are here to ensure stability and return power to our legally elected president,’ said the leader of one unit. ‘The revolution in Kiev was illegal. We think it was carried out by the Western powers. Their goal is to cause civil war.’

Russia’s foreign ministry claimed ‘unknown armed men from Kiev’ had tried to seize the Crimean Interior Ministry on Friday night, leaving several people injured. It said the assault was defeated by ‘the decisive action of self-defence squads’. 

But guards at the ministry yesterday said they were unaware of any overnight attacks. Crimean police also rejected the claims.

Among the crowds protesting in front of parliament I found Anatoly Madzhar, 72, who spent 15 years in a Soviet jail and five years exiled in Siberia after joining a 1961 uprising.  ‘Even if there are sacrifices now they will be for the benefit of our children,’ he told me.

Madzhar seemed happy to believe Russian propaganda, which focused heavily on far-Right involvement in the Kiev protests. ‘The people have decided to join Russia where there is no oppression and people are free – and there are no Nazis,’ he said.

But support for deposed president Viktor Yanukovych seems to have withered after his flight to Russia, despite his insistence he remains Ukraine’s rightful president. ‘He betrayed his country,’ said activist Marina Fyodorova, 47. ‘He should have stood his ground and taken responsibility for his deeds, even if he was lynched.’

Ukraine’s new president signed a decree yesterday declaring that Thursday’s appointment of Sergiy Aksyonov, the pro-Russian premier of Crimea, was illegal. Aksyonov insisted he had taken control of local troops, customs and tax administration. He also brought forward a referendum on the region’s status to the end of this month.

If it goes ahead despite the opposition of the Kiev government, it will almost certainly endorse some form of independence under the wing of Moscow.

There are also signs of tensions between the majority Russians and the Muslim Tatars, who comprise 250,000 of the two million Crimeans.

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