The Crimean front in the Ukrainian-Russian crisis has been somewhat quiet the past few days—eerily so for Ukrainians watching Russian troops patrol their streets and knowing the situation could turn suddenly violent. But behind closed doors, Crimea’s Parliament is taking what it says are the first steps towards leaving Ukraine and joining the Russia Federation.
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday the move would “violate the Ukrainian Constitution and violate international law.”
Kostya Bakanov is an associate pastor of an Evangelical-Baptist church in the Crimean town of Simferopol. He’s seen the Russian forces and heard the chants of pro-Russian demonstrators yelling, “Russia, Putin, come and help us!” and says many older Ukrainians have been brainwashed by Russian propaganda.
“The situation is very fragile,” Baklanov told me. “I thank God there is no bloodshed. I think the Crimean Parliament and cabinet are afraid to loose their power and are trying to manipulate people’s opinion and looking for the support of Russian and pro-Russian groups of people.”
Earlier Thursday, the Crimean parliament scheduled a status referendum vote for March 16, two weeks earlier than originally planned. Rustam Temirgaliev, Crimea’s vice prime minister, said Russian experts are already at work on the semi-autonomous peninsula, preparing to transition the popular tourist destination—which also serves as a base for the Russian Black Sea Fleet—to Russia.
But Ukraine won’t let go of Crimea without a fight. Interim Ukrainian President Olexander Turchynov—who Bakanov describes as a “committed Christian and Baptist preacher”—announced that he’s putting a stop to the referendum vote and disbanding the Crimean Parliament. “This will not be a referendum,” he said. “It’s a farce—the biggest in the history of Ukraine.”
On Feb. 27, about 50 pro-Russian gunmen stormed Crimea’s parliament building, raised the Russian flag, and barricaded the building while lawmakers voted to terminate the Council of Ministers and remove the prime minister. They replaced him with Sergey Aksyonov, who leads a political party called Russian Unity. Turchynov has declared the move unconstitutional, reminding both dissidents in Crimea and the Kremlin that Ukraine’s borders are only decided by Kiev.
The United States announced a framework for sanctions against Russia that includes visa restrictions against Russian and Crimean officials who are “threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
“Pray for Russian restraint in a context where they feel they are losing influence in a country which they believe is the cradle of Russian civilization,” Bakanov said. Moscow has refused to acknowledge Kiev’s new government, voted in after months of protests that led to the ouster of the Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych.
“Pray for the Christians in Crimea that God will protect them but also make them witnesses of reconciliation and peace in the present situation,” Bakanov added. “There are Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean Tatar Christians who can model reconciliation between the different groups.”
Watch believers in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv singing “Prayer for Ukraine” on March 5: