A group of gunmen in full combat dress stormed local parliament and the regional government building in the Crimean city of Simferopol in the southeastern part of Ukraine early Thursday. The men, who had no signs of affiliations on their uniforms, were reported as waving Russian flags above them. According to early accounts, the gunmen were several dozen strong and marched into the Crimean regional Parliament, removing the guards without firing a shot.
A witness told Reuters the intruders spoke Russian and were carrying many weapons. They appeared to be ethnic Russian separatists and said they wanted to make their own decisions, without having Kiev telling them what to do. They later put up a sign that read “Crimea is Russia.”
The action has taken place just few days after a climax was reached in Ukraine’s political upheaval that ousted pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in the aftermath of days of gun fighting between police and demonstrators resulting in the death of almost 100 people.
Riots began in Ukraine last November when President Yanukovych refused to sign a far-reaching trade agreement with the EU, opting instead for a $ 15 billion bailout from Russia and causing angry reactions among Ukrainians.
After Yanukovych was ousted last Saturday, the pro-European opposition leaders nominated an interim government, sparking tensions between Russia and the West.
On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin caught western observers by surprise, as he ordered military exercises involving navy and air forces, due to start today and last four days over a district bordering the northwestern part of Ukraine.
Russian minister of defense Sergei Shoigu said the maneuvers had nothing to do with the turmoil in Ukraine and were aimed at checking Russia’s “preparedness for action in crisis situations that threaten the nation’s military security.”
Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, issued a veiled warning to Russia, saying, “We take it for granted that all nations respect the sovereignty and independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and this is a message that we have also conveyed to whom it may concern.”
The Crimean peninsula represents a potential powder keg, as it is a region divided along ethnic and ideological lines between an ethnic Russian majority that strongly opposes the new pro-European political leadership in Kiev and the Turkic ethnic group of the Tatars, who in 1944 were deported by Soviet dictator Stalin to Central Asia and returned to Crimea at the end of 1991. The latter are Russian speakers who strongly oppose Moscow’s influence and have a strong pro-European orientation.
The region was part of Russia until 1954, when Soviet president Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Soviet-controlled Ukraine as a gift. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Crimea became part of Ukraine as an autonomous region and has since shown a political cleavage within the population.
The peninsula is of strategic geopolitical importance to Russia on account of the deep-water harbor of Sevastopol, home to Moscow’s Black Sea naval fleet. This became evident in 2010, as the Kremlin signed an agreement with Yanukovych’s government to keep its naval fleet in the port until 2042.
Andranik Migranyan, the director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York, told NPR that the situation in Crimea might result in a Russian attack, possibly involving the Black Sea Fleet. However, Valentina I. Matviyenko, chairwoman of Russia’s upper house of Parliament, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that “such a scenario is impossible.”
Either way, the seizure of the Simferopol parliament buildings by gunmen is a clear indicator that the Ukraine crisis has just moved from its capital to the Crimean region; a more fertile ground for political fight that might produce unexpected developments in the days ahead.
By Stefano Salustri