Crimea on a knife edge

Thursday 06 March 2014 10.46
Armed men in military uniform stand guard the Ukrainian navy ship in the harbor of Sevastopol, Crimea (Pic: EPA)

Armed men in military uniform stand guard outside a Ukrainian navy ship in the harbour of Sevastopol, Crimea (Pic: EPA)

By Tony Connelly, RTÉ Europe Editor

As Russia intensifies its grip on Crimea, they are creating facts on the ground. But in this most surreal of struggles, facts are never what they seem.

At the Perevalnoye naval base, there are two layers of militia preventing access in or an exit out, but many more layers of truth and myth over who is in charge, who are the heroes and who are the villains.

The first line is composed of burly men in irregular, paramilitary fatigues standing behind barbed wire and triangular blocks of concrete. They stand around and smoke, trade jokes and stories, or prepare meals using makeshift barbeques and wood fires in oil drums.

At the first sign of anyone approaching the gated entrance to the base, where inside 2,000 Ukrainian troops – brigade strength – have been besieged since 27 February, they step forward to block access, gathering around whoever the visitor might be to ask questions.

Some of the visitors, usually relatives of those troops inside, are allowed through to bring food or clothing. Others are denied access.

Behind them, discreetly and to one side, are more professional looking soldiers, masked, with green, unmarked fatigues, helmets and rifles, which they cradle in gloved hands.

These are the troops now ubiquitous wherever you come across a Ukrainian military or naval base. They are also seen across Crimea in military buses and troop carriers, which have distinctive black Russian number plates.

At Perevalnoye they are in quiet, unblinking control. Any attempt to question where they are from is met with a stare, or a subtle turning away of the head.

According to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, these men, who are well-armed, are simply volunteers who have formed self-defence units at the request of Crimean citizens.

One of the paramilitary volunteers standing at the barricade, Sergei Vasilenko, from Simferopol, says that he “doesn’t know” where these strange, armed figures come from, or if they are Russians. “They’re peaceful,” he says.

Later, he lets slip that a “Russian commander” had told the masked soldiers not to reveal their identity.

As for Sergei, his view point is straight forward. Although he is clearly part of the local pro-Russian muscle, he says he and his comrades are peaceful people, and are there to keep the peace.

“We don’t want war, we just want peace. Blood shouldn’t fall on our earth. We are a peaceful people. That’s why we are here,” he tells RTÉ News.

As for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Ukraine, he says: “Russia is our only protector, they are guaranteeing our security. Russia has helped us prevent aggression reaching here. Thanks to Russia we don’t have gunmen or vandals. We don’t need that. We have families, and we want peace. We don’t want war with anybody.”

No shots have (yet) been fired in anger in Crimea, in this the most serious crisis in East-West relations since the end of the Cold War.

But a full scale war is taking place in the realm of the imagination across television, radio, social media and the blogosphere. For a sizeable majority of the Russian speakers in Crimea, who make up 58% of the population, the demonstrators in Maidan Square in Kiev are “fascists”.

That’s not a fringe view. In his first news conference in days, President Putin on Tuesday described the anti-government protest movement in Kiev as an “orgy of neo-nazis, anti-semites and nationalists”.

This is not just name calling. It has provided Russia with a justification for intervention in order to “protect” Russian citizens. One analyst on Voice of Russia actually described what was happening in Ukraine as “genocide” against Russian speakers.

According to the US and Europe, there is no evidence of serious or widespread attacks against Russian speakers in Crimea or elsewhere.

That is not to say that Russian speakers and citizens in Crimea do not have genuine concerns about the pro-Western takeover in Kiev.

In the immediate aftermath of the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president of Ukraine, the parliament, or Rada, voted to drop Russian as an official language in regions such as Crimea.

However, the new government swiftly overturned the measure.

But is there any basis to claims that the revolution is being spearheaded by neo-Nazis?

Such claims are fanciful to say the least, according to an expert in far right groups in Europe, Dr Anton Shekhovstov, of University College, London.

He estimates that only between 5% and 10% of the pro-Western demonstrators in Kiev and in western Ukraine are from the far right.

But most analysts urge vigilance, especially now that some members of the far right have gained a seat at the table in the new government.

The most prominent political party is Svoboda, translated as “Freedom”, founded shortly after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. In the 2012 parliamentary elections, Svoboda won 10.4% of the popular vote, or 37 seats. When the new Ukrainian government was formed on 27 February, Svoboda took five cabinet seats out of a total of 20.

According to Dr Shekhovstov, Svoboda has largely moderated its right-wing rhetoric and had been co-ordinating its activities with the other main anti-Yanukovych opposition groups, Fatherland – the party of the new interim prime minister Arseny Yatsenyuk – and former professional boxer Vitaly Klitschko’s Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform.

Svoboda does have an unsavoury past and has associated with some “nasty” elements. In 2012, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on other parties to disassociate themselves from Svoboda.

Another right-wing group with a harder edge is Pravy Sektor, or Right Sector. It fashions itself on the partisan groups that fought both the Soviet Union and Nazis in World War II and is today, according to reports, considered the largest far right group with perhaps 5,000 members.

Pravy Sektor is seen as having given the protest movement a more violent edge, taking part in clashes with riot police in Independence Square (Maidan) in Kiev. Its members are now thought to take part in patrols around Maidan, armed in many cases with baseball bats and other weapons.

In the past Pravy Sektor has associated with other extremist groups such as White Hammer, although during the height of the protests the group reportedly approached the Israeli embassy in Kiev to declare that they were not anti-semite and would not take part in anti-semitic attacks.

In reality, most of these far right groups have been adapting to a fast-moving political and street-level situation, while at the same time their professed views reflect a post-Soviet political culture that is far from mature.

According to Professor Nicolai Petro, of the University of Rhode Island, they feed on a sense of historical injustice visited upon Ukraine by forces like the Soviet and German armies (per capita more civilians died in Ukraine during World War II than any other country, if you include the Soviet Terror Famine).

“A lot of people are also attracted to the notion: let’s get together and get rid of the scum and fat cats and distribute the wealth to the people,” says Professor Petro.

“Svoboda have been ideological opponents of liberalism.  They want ‘authentic’ Ukrainian values,” he adds.

Ironically such groups have in the past opposed deeper integration with both the EU and Russia.

The problem is that perception and a rapid polarisation of attitudes are driving the conflict over Ukraine.

While analysts say that the far right only makes up a small percentage of the wider, anti-Yanukovych movement, and that it has no real power, the presence of extreme nationalists is fuelling anti-Kiev sentiment in Russian speaking regions and is giving Moscow the perfect excuse to intervene.

This is a place where any mention of the word “fascist” evokes powerful memories emotions, not all of them rational. “These are the same people our parents and grandparents fought against in the War,” a retired Soviet naval captain told me in Sevastopol, where Russia maintains its Black Sea Fleet.

“The ultranationalists won’t be satisfied with crumbs,” adds Professor Petro. “It’s vital that the EU and the mainstream opposition marginalise the right wing radicals.”

For the moment any efforts in that direction are being drowned out by the cacophony of claim and counter-claim that is fuelling this dangerous geo-political crisis.

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