Clashes in Crimea as Ukrainian PM vows ‘this is our land’

Published in The Daily Mail (10th March, 2014)*

Demonstrators loyal to Ukraine were attacked with whips, baseball bats and clubs in Sevastopol yesterday as the mood in Crimea turned increasingly tense after the stealth invasion by Russia.

The assault by about 100 Cossacks and pro-Russian militiamen was described as ‘very savage’ by BBC reporter Ben Brown – who had to sprint to his hotel to escape the thugs. 

The violence came after 200 people took part in a rally in Sevastopol to commemorate the anniversary of the birth of Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko.

Fighting started after a group of militia and Cossacks arrived at the rally, with both sides saying Crimea was ‘our country’. One man was kicked, beaten and lashed with a Cossack’s whip, while the attackers also smashed the windscreen of a car and tried to turn it over with the terrified driver inside.

Brown later tweeted it was ‘a terrifying moment that was  a glimpse of the abyss Crimea hovers over’.

Russian troops are now in effective control of the region, and have been joined by hundreds of  Cossack paramilitaries in recent days. Sevastopol in particular is a key strategic city and is largely sympathetic to Moscow.

However in Simferopol, the regional capital, rival rallies passed off peacefully. Several thousand people joined a pro-Russian protest in Lenin Square, while a far smaller number sang the Ukrainian national anthem.

The Russians appear to be continuing to build up troops in Crimea – where a slender majority of the 2.3million population are ethnic Russians – and are reported to have around 30,000 elite troops in the region.The Ukrainian defence minister, however, said yesterday that there were no plans to send additional forces to resist the invasion, despite alleged intimidation and violence towards Ukrainians who are trapped behind the blockades.

Energy Secretary Ed Davey warned yesterday that fuel costs could rise as a result of the crisis in Crimea, but urged the Big Six energy firms not to cash in. He said they ‘shouldn’t use it as an excuse to put up prices’.

In Donetsk pro-Russians have set up a round-the-clock picket on the square under a red Soviet flag with the hammer and sickle and they are calling for a secession referendum like the one planned in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

In Kiev, meanwhile, Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a crowd gathered at the statue to nationalist writer Shevchenko: ‘This is our land.Our fathers and grandfathers have spilled their blood for this land. And we won’t budge a single centimeter from Ukrainian land. Let Russia and its president know this.’

‘We’re one country, one family and we’re here together with our kobzar (bard) Taras,’ said acting President Oleksandr Turchynov. ‘Will we be able to deal with these challenges? There should only be one answer to this question and that is: yes.’

Crimea, a strategic peninsula in southern Ukraine, has become the flashpoint in the battle for Ukraine, where three months of protests sparked by President Victor Yanukovych’s decision to ditch a significant treaty with the 28-nation European Union after strong pressure from Russia led to his downfall.

A majority of people in Crimea identify with Russia, and Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol, as is Ukraine’s.

This weekend, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov ruled out any dialogue with Ukraine’s new authorities, whom he dismissed as the puppets of extremists.

Senior lawmakers in Moscow have said they will support Ukraine’s March 16 referendum, ignoring sanctions threats and warnings from President Barack Obama that the vote would violate international law.

In Simferopol, the Crimean capital, a crowd of more than 4,000 people turned out Sunday to endorse unification with Russia. On Lenin Square, a naval band played World War II songs as old women sang along, and dozens of tricolor Russian flags fluttered in the cold wind.

Meanwhile, it was announced U.S. President Barack Obama will meet with Yatsenyuk at the White House on Wednesday. Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said the president would consult with Yatsenyuk and that the meeting demonstrated U.S. support for Ukraine.

Blinken says the White House strategy is to mobilize the international community behind Ukraine, isolate Russia for its actions and reassure U.S. allies and partners. 

 * Joint article with Leon Watson

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