Ukraine-Russia Tensions Evident in Crimea
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine -- On maps, Crimea is Ukrainian territory, and this naval citadel on its southern coast is a Ukrainian city. But when court bailiffs tried to serve papers at a lighthouse here in August, they suddenly found themselves surrounded by armed troops from Russia's Black Sea Fleet who delivered them to police as if they were trespassing teenagers.
The humiliating episode underscored Russia's continuing influence in the storied peninsula on the Black Sea nearly two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union -- and the potential for trouble here ahead of Ukraine's first presidential vote since the 2005 Orange Revolution.
Huge crowds of protesters defied Moscow in that peaceful uprising and swept a pro-Western government into power. Now, the Kremlin is working to undo that defeat, ratcheting up pressure on this former Soviet republic to elect a leader more amenable to Russia's interests in January.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev issued a letter in August demanding policy reversals from a new Ukrainian government, including an end to its bid to join NATO. He also introduced a bill authorizing the use of troops to protect Russian citizens and Russian speakers abroad, a measure that some interpreted as targeting Crimea.
A group of prominent Ukrainians, including the country's first president, responded with a letter urging President Obama to prevent a "possible military intervention" by Russia that would "bring back the division of Europe." Ukraine gave up the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union in exchange for security guarantees from the United States and other world powers, they noted.
If a crisis is ahead, it is likely to involve Crimea, a peninsula of rolling steppe and sandy beaches about the size of Maryland. The region was once part of Russia, and it is the only place in Ukraine where ethnic Russians are the majority. In the mid-1990s, it elected a secessionist leader who nearly sparked a civil war.
Crimea is also home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which is based in Sevastopol under a deal with Ukraine that expires in 2017. Russia wants to extend the lease, but Ukraine's current government insists it must go.
"It would be easy for Russia to inspire a crisis or conflict in Crimea if it continues to lose influence in Ukraine," said Grigory Perepelitsa, director of the Foreign Policy Institute in the Ukrainian Diplomatic Academy. "That's the message they're sending to any future president."
Russia's state-controlled media, widely available and popular in Crimea, have hammered the authorities in Kiev as irredeemably anti-Russian, and prominent Russian politicians have been calling for reunification with Crimea.
But five years of policies in Kiev aimed at drawing Ukraine closer to Europe and the United States and at promoting Ukrainian language and history have also alienated the region. Ukraine's president, Viktor Yushchenko, the hero of the Orange Revolution, won only 6 percent of the vote here.
"He tried to force his ideology on us, and he failed," said Valeriy Saratov, chairman of the Sevastopol city council. "We don't feel we were conquered by Russia, but by Europe. We fought the Italians, the Germans, the French, the British. . . . We would never take sides against Russia."
Vladimir Struchkov, a pro-Russia activist and leader of a parents' organization in Sevastopol, said residents are especially upset about a new regulation requiring students to take college entrance exams in Ukrainian, eliminating a Russian option.