Standoff on frontline as ruthless Putin turns screw

 Published in The Daily Mail (3rd March, 2014)

In front of me, three young Ukrainian soldiers peered out nervously through the bars of the gate at their army depot. Just yards  behind my back, a dozen men from Russia’s special forces swaggered around with automatic weapons.

For last night at least, this windblown military base in the middle of the Crimea was the strange frontline of the new Cold War that is so alarming the world. The troops of two neighbouring nations were in tense standoff – a symbol of the increasing hostility between Ukraine and Russia.

In the latest astonishing Russian provocation, a a convoy including at least 13 troop vehicles, each containing 30 soldiers and bearing Russian licence plates, turned up at the Perevalnoye base. They were supported by four armed vehicles with mounted machine guns.

The Ukrainians positioned a tank at the gate in response. “We don’t know anything,’ one soldier told me, declining to comment any further as he smoked cigarettes and joked with two colleagues.

The Russian soldiers also refused to comment. I tried to speak to them, but they just stared back in silence. Local supporters of Russia turned up to show their backing for the latest incursion. Several told me it was a peace camp – although they added that they would fight ‘the bandit government’ in Kiev.

One army veteran who spent time inside the camp – just 20 minutes from the regional capital Simferopol – claimed there had been no contact from the defence ministry, leaving the solders unsure how to respond. ‘These young men have been betrayed,’ he said.

Another man turned up to offer support to the Ukrainians. ‘This is an occupation by the Russian army,’ he said, slipping through the gates. ‘I feel sorry for them – they are going to feel the ground burning beneath their feet.’

Ukrainian marines were also reported to be barricaded into their base in Feodosia, where their commander Dmytro Delyatytski said he had rejected Russian demands to give up their weapons. ‘We are preparing our defences,’ he said. ‘We have orders.’

Once again, these were belligerent moves from Moscow played out deliberately in front of the world’s media. On previous days armed Russian soldiers have strolled brazenly around airports and surrounded key government buildings. The Russian flag flies over the regional parliament – and most people on the streets seem to support Moscow over the people they call ‘fascists’ in Kiev. ‘We think the people who have come to power in Kiev did so illegally,’ said Yuri, 48, a manager in higher education.

And this is the growing concern. The majority of people in Crimea are ethnic Russians – the peninsular was only given to Ukraine 60 years ago – so there has been little opposition to the Russian-backed rush for independence except among minority Tatars.

But the rest of the country is linguistically and politically divided – and now experts fear the cracks opening up in the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine. Bloggers over the border are even talking about a ‘Russian Spring’.

There were big pro-Russian rallies in at least six major eastern cities over the weekend. In Kharkiv, the country’s second biggest city, 111 people were reported injured in bloody clashes between pro- and anti-Russian supporters on Saturday, with counter-protests yesterday.

The pro-Russian mayor alleged that a far-right group threw explosives into public transport, opened fire on protesters and left behind 120 bombs. Moscow propaganda makes great play of ‘fascist’ groups involved in the Kiev protests.

Politicians in Kiev fear Russia is deliberately stoking the trouble; one well-placed source claimed Moscow bussed in paid activists and military personnel from over the border disguised as tourists. 

There is growing fear these protests could be used to justify military intervention. Russia has 150,000 troops on exercises just over the border – and President Vladimir Putin was given parliamentary approval on Saturday to use them anywhere in Ukraine to defend Russian people or interests. ‘Putin wants to see civil war but it is not going to happen,’ said Oleh Rybachuk, former deputy prime minister. ‘His tactics are going to fail.’

Others are less optimistic. ‘This is going to end in bloodshed and civil war,’ said one Russian journalist covering events in Ukraine yesterday.


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