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ARMED AND DANGEROUS: Russian soldiers block access to a Ukrainian border guards base near Sevastopol on March 3.
Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images
ARMED AND DANGEROUS: Russian soldiers block access to a Ukrainian border guards base near Sevastopol on March 3.

Crimean war

Ukraine | As Russia invades Crimea, Ukrainians strive to preserve their hard-won independence

Issue: "Inside the wire," March 22, 2014

Just as Ukraine’s months-long protests came to the end and lawmakers began crafting a new government and plans for painful reforms, Russia stepped in. On Feb. 28, unidentified armed men blockaded two airports in Ukraine’s southern resort destination of Crimea. By March 2, Russian troops had control of the entire peninsula, with reports of 16,000 soldiers in the region.

The semi-autonomous region of Crimea is home to the Russian Black Sea Naval Fleet, and ethnic Russians comprise a little more than half of the population. One quarter are ethnic Ukrainians and the rest are Ukrainian Tatars (who became staunchly anti-Russian after being deported by Stalin in 1944). The parliament in Moscow gave Russian President Vladimir Putin permission to use military force in Crimea to defend Russian nationals and interests against what they claim are threats from the new regime in Kiev. “This is not a threat. This is actually the declaration of war to my country,” said interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. 

The crisis began last fall when former President Victor Yanukovych backed out of a long-anticipated trade deal with the European Union and weeks later accepted a $15 billion bailout from Russia. Ukrainians viewed this as a move away from Europe and back into the Russian orbit. Hundreds of students gathered in Independence Square to protest the president’s actions, and in late November, an elite group of riot police arrived on the scene and beat the student protesters. This aroused anger among Ukrainians already upset with government corruption, and they arrived by the tens of thousands to join the growing protest movement. The Maidan, Kiev’s city center, eventually transformed into a full-scale revolution with barricades, makeshift weapons, and army tents.

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The lawless violence of the riot police continued into February and culminated with clashes that resulted in the deaths of more than 80 people, primarily protesters. The streets of Kiev burned for days, and some activists were kidnapped from hospitals while others were tortured or hosed with water and left in the woods to die.

Opposition leaders attempted to cut a deal with the Kremlin-backed government, but the protesters were not interested in finding middle ground after witnessing the violence in the streets. The anger spread: After Ukrainians toppled more than 50 iconic Lenin statues across the country and volunteers mobilized checkpoints to stop government thugs, or titushkis, from terrorizing protesters, Yanukovych finally got the message that he was no longer welcome and fled to Russia. From there he still claims to be Ukraine’s legitimate president.

As soon as Yanukovych’s exodus was confirmed, journalists and protesters flocked to his 350-acre presidential compound and discovered far more than “the golden toilet” long rumored as a fixture in his residences.

The estate quickly became the most popular tourist attraction in Ukraine. Jonathan Eide, a church planter with Mission to the World, walked an hour with his family to make it through the cars full of people lining up to see the palatial estate. Once inside, they toured the grounds for hours and still didn’t have a chance to see the petting zoo, the Spanish galleon, or the nine-hole golf course.

Eide said the people there were both giddy and relieved: “Many were commenting that this was ‘our’ money that built this, and the disgust was tangible. It seemed cathartic for people to come and see what has come to represent the center of corruption, and it felt like on Sunday all of Ukraine breathed a sigh of relief.”

RELIEF TURNED TO FEAR, though, after the Russian invasion of Crimea on Feb. 28 and the following days. Russian propaganda is painting a picture of ethnic Russians in Ukraine as endangered by Kiev’s new government. Ukrainians say this is far from the truth and that Russians are a source of violence. A disturbing video from a Feb. 28 demonstration in Kharkiv shows a mob of pro-Russian demonstrators beating a group of Ukrainians. Dozens were badly wounded. In Donestk, a similar mob waving Russian flags beat a photographer. There are some reports of Moscow paying Russians to go to Ukraine and riot.

Kostya Farkovets, a 40-year-old Ukrainian who lives in the eastern city of Gorlovka with his wife and three boys, told me that life is “turning pretty lousy” in his town and in nearby Donetsk. “Some pro-Russian radicals have mounted the Russian flag on top of the governor’s building yesterday instead of Ukraine’s national flag. Here in Gorlovka, the Russian flag is sitting right next to Ukraine’s flag over our city council building. I can’t believe it.”

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