Simferopol, Ukraine — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Feb. 26 2014, 6:37 AM EST
Russian troops now control the main access to Sevastopol, the Ukrainian port city that is home to a major Russian naval base, following orders from Russian President Vladimir Putin that put Russia’s military on alert.
A military checkpoint – with a Russian flag and a Russian military armoured personnel carrier and troop transport truck -- was set up on the main highway between the Crimean capital of Simferopol and the naval port of Sevastopol. The checkpoint is north of the city of Sevastopol, and so well beyond the Russian base.
The Globe and Mail saw the uniformed soldiers – some with balaclava masks -- force cars travelling south to slow down. The soldiers shone flashlights into cars, although it was not clear what they were searching for.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said "carefully watching what is happening in Crimea" and would take "measures to guarantee the safety of facilities, infrastructure and arsenals of the Black Sea Fleet.”
The provocative move by Mr. Putin came amid ferocious debate on Wednesday about the future of Crimea, a pro-Russian peninsula here on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.
Russia’s western military district borders Ukraine, which last week saw a pro-Western protesters oust the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych following violent street battles between protesters and police that claimed dozens of lives.
Some of the protesters who helped oust Mr. Yanukovych have vowed to come to the Crimea and confront pro-Russian groups, and it is likely the Russian troops are watching the entrances to the naval city to head off such demonstrators
Mr. Putin has ordered several such snap military drills in the past, but the timing of this move is certain to raise already sky-high tensions in the country, as well as suspicions that Russia is considering some form of intervention in this former Soviet republic.
Many here in Crimea say they would welcome that.
Several thousand pro-Russian demonstrators gathered Wednesday outside the Crimean parliament building, demanding that legislators declare independence from the new government in Kiev, and call for Russian assistance. The pro-Russian crowd was countered outside parliament by a similar number of Crimean Tatars – a Turkic-speaking mostly Muslim minority – who waved Ukrainian banners as well as their own Tatar flag.
A health official says at least 20 people have been injured in clashes between the two sides.
The protesters shouted and attacked each other with stones, bottles and punches, as police and leaders of both rallies struggled to keep the two groups apart.
“Crimea was part of Russia before. It has only been part of Ukraine for 60 years. We want a referendum, and 100 per cent we will vote to be with Russia,” said Alexander Chechotenko, the 42-year-old owner of a construction company, the crowd around him waved Crimean and Russian flags and shouted “Russia!” and “Referendum!”
Crimea was part of the Russian Empire for almost 200 years before it was transferred to what was then Soviet Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954.
“It’s very dangerous right now. Some people are for Russia, some are for Ukraine. People are very aggressive,” said Asan Useinov, a 23-year-old IT programmer who said he didn’t want to see Crimea annexed to Russia. “Of course I’m scared. I don’t want a war in Ukraine.”
Ethnic Russians make up about 58 per cent of the population of Crimea. Ukrainians make up 24 per cent, while Crimean Tatars are 12 per cent.
With a file from Associated Press