Crimea remains a serious issue for Russia, Ukraine

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Alleged Russian soldiers on patrol in Crimea.

It is almost impossible to find a Russian news story about Ukraine that does not mention the interim Kiev government as “fascists” or “Nazis” in the first paragraph. In turn, news sources affiliated with Kiev quickly report rumors of Russian soldiers flying into the capitol. The overblown rhetoric is only adding to the surreal scene that recently unfolded in Crimea, where heavily-armed men in unmarked uniforms set up roadblocks without explaining who they are.

The mysterious soldiers appeared at the end of February, shortly after protests that resulted in the impeachment of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych . Despite speaking Russian and driving military vehicles with Russian license plates, the soldiers refused to identify themselves. Questions directly posed to the Russian President Vladimir Putin received similarly strange answers: he called them “local self-defense units.”

Despite denials, officials from the United States and European Union are convinced that Russian troops have moved to seize control of roads and military bases in Crimea, engaging in a series of non-violent confrontations with Ukrainian troops.

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Soldiers have seized key highways near Armyansk, which connects north-western Crimea to Ukraine.

“This is clearly a reaction to what happened with Yanukovych,” Professor of Political Science Barbara Hicks said. “Now, Yanukovych was elected – and we can go back to figure out what levels of fraud there were, et cetera – but Yanukovych was elected, and people did throw him out by force; although the violence was largely started by security forces.”

Despite the circumstances of Yanukovych’s flight from Ukraine, Putin made it clear that he still considered Yanukovych the legitimate president of Ukraine, albeit one with no political future. While continuing to deny that the troops in Crimea were Russian forces, Putin reserved the right to defend Russian interests in the region.

“He’s whipped up hysteria to a point that he got such a vote in Parliament to use force,” Hicks explained. “There’s rhetoric about how ethnic Russians are being repressed and killed, anti-Semitism in the ranks of the new government. None of which is really true.”

Crimea has long been a point of contention between Russia and Ukraine. In 1954 it was transferred to Ukraine as a symbolic gesture, since both countries were part of the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the region remained under control of Ukraine as an autonomous republic.

The population of Crimea consists of 58 percent Russians, 24 percent Ukrainians and 12 percent Tartars, in a self-reported 2001 census. The recent tensions have thrown the question of ethnicity into sharper relief as residents contemplate the referendum to join Russia recently passed in the Crimean parliament.

There is currently a spirited debate happening in the United States and Europe on the type of actions to take in response to the Crimean vote. Thesis student Blair Sapp has been following the situation in Russia and Ukraine with interest, trying to understand the effect of Western sanctions on Putin’s behavior.

The sanctions might bite Russia,” Sapp said. “But it’s very clear from previous experience with the economy that that doesn’t necessarily always reflect badly on Putin himself.”

Many of the pro-Russian groups in Eastern Ukraine are not just content with their successes in Crimea, however. Organizations such as the “Civil Defense of Ukraine” and the “Eurasian Alliance of Youth” were asking for male volunteers, ages 18-45, to travel beyond Crimea to other critical areas in Eastern Ukraine.

“Wherever you are, drop everything and defend the people’s will,” read the posting on VKontakte, a popular Russian social network. “Residents of other cities in Ukraine, Russia! The fate of Ukraine is being decided right now in Donetsk! Everyone to Donetsk! Gather in front of the main administrative building!”

“Putin wanted to show Russians that he made them a world power,” Hicks said. “He’s got a great deal of tension on the question of internal legitimacy, and there have been challenges to that legitimacy starting before the last presidential elections. And so he senses that there is more and more criticism.

“We’ve had a lot of confrontation with no shooting,” Hicks concluded. “A sort of stand-off or posturing on both sides; and now, this will be an external victory for internal consumption, to show off Russia’s power.”

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