All Quiet on the South-Eastern Front

My initial thoughts and feelings from the ground in Crimea by Ryan O’Neil (Everything Left Blog)

Crimea Ryan O'Neil

Coming to Crimea, having had most of my knowledge on the region come from the media following the recent events that have put the peninsula in the spotlight, I didn’t really know what to expect. If a lot of the mainstream press were to believed, a Russian invasion and occupation had taken place here and parts of the region were heavily militarized and under the control of the russian army. Now it would be very easy to label this perception of the mainstream media’s take on these events as a mere misunderstanding but the way in which footage of what is happening on the ground has been used to accompany the portrayal of a situation that so clearly isn’t happening, it cannot be understood to be anything other than a lie.

On Saturday morning, I watched two rival demonstrations taking place in Simferopol. The much larger demonstration was pro-Russia and had gathered on Lenin Square and began to march through the streets of the city. The pro-Ukraine demonstration had managed to gather around 100 people (who I was told were mainly Tatars) and was literally marching on the other side of the road and there were no clashes, no trouble and no clear signs that there would be any problems with this taking place whatsoever. I saw no military presence in the city, only police and groups of cossack volunteers that had a presence around the airport. I was told that there had been a military presence of some sort a week earlier but that it had moved on and that the “self defense groups” that had formed in the region were working with police officers to ensure the trouble that gripped maidan didn’t come to Crimea. Despite there not actually being any military here, Putin’s claims that the people of Crimea felt threatened by the new government of Kiev and would look for protection from Russia were completely correct. Those concerns and hopes for protection are very real and have been at the centre of the calls for the referendum.

On Saturday afternoon, I arrived in Sevastopol and was immediately struck by the much heavier militarised scenes here. There are military ships in the bay that are visible as you enter the city, there are military patrol vehicles on the highways and military trucks that drive through the street here. However, the people of Sevastopol do not seem to be concerned with this, they barely even seemed to acknowledge it and it isn’t until you speak to them that you realise exactly why this is. Sevastopol is a military city. It is a military base. There have been military vehicles and military ships here since the late eighteenth century. The people here do not acknowledge the military presence here as anything other than normal because the soldiers and military personnel here are their friends and families. Russia has an allowance in accordance with international law of having up to 25,000 troops based in Sevastopol and Russia’s black sea fleet is a source of pride for the people of the city. They find notions of this very army ‘invading’ their country not only confusing, but laughable.

Which brings me to the elements of the mainstream media. I have seen footage from various news outlets of military vehicles driving through the streets of Sevastopol without making it clear whatsoever that this is actually common for this city. There are parts of the press that through the use of their footage without proper explanations of context, they are subtly implying that the military scenery of Sevastopol is a recent occurrence, supporting these ideas of a Russian “military occupation”. Russia is no more occupying Sevastopol than Britain is occupying Sandhurst or Wooton Bassett, or the United States are occupying the towns or cities where they have over 900 bases around the world. Military bases bring military scenery to the town or city where they are based, this is just a matter of fact. I spoke to locals here at length about how the Black Sea Fleet is something they are incredibly proud of here in this city. They have holiday weekends to celebrate the presence of the fleet and you can tell just from their expressions as they discuss this that they are immensely proud of the military aspect to their city, not fearful in any sense of the word.

There has also been a lot of coverage too linking the “self defense groups” to the Russian military. Footage started to circulate on Saturday night of two journalists being attacked by “Russian troops” as they tried to film outside a military base. The footage however shows clearly that it is members of the self defense organizations that are involved in the confrontations. Again, the evidence is clear enough for anybody here on the ground to see who these groups are and to continue to label them as Russian troops cannot be a mere misunderstanding, but an outright lie. Whether this lie is being peddled to represent a certain agenda or to make the story more interesting than the reality is the only thing that is up for debate here. The identity of the self defense groups is clear enough to see.

On Sunday afternoon, I met with members of the self defense groups to discuss why they have felt the need to organize themselves in this manner. Every member I spoke to was a local to Sevastopol and many of them have a military background. One of them was keen to discuss with me how angry it made him that his friends from different parts of the world are calling him to ask about Sevastopol since they heard that Russian troops have seized control or are patrolling the streets. He pointed out that he himself, along with the local volunteers that make up the self defense groups, considers himself Russian, not Ukrainian and that most of Sevastopol have always considered themselves russian. They have been happy to live within the borders of Ukraine as a national minority but local majority in close proximity to the Russian military fleet for many years but events in Kiev that risk pushing them away from their motherland have forced them to address their present situation. Many of the people in Crimea had attempted to travel to Kiev during Maidan protests to try and organize anti-Maidan or pro-Russia protests in the capital and they suffered severe beatings from the the more aggressive elements of the pro-Maidan groups on their way there. Many were taken from their buses and physically beaten on the street and their buses set on fire. The checkpoints they have set up are part of real concerns that this type of violence which carried the right sector to positions of power in Kiev might come to Crimea. Its frightening to consider what might have occurred here had these checkpoints not been set up as bats and clubs, firearms and even a large quantity of TNT explosives have been confiscated over the past week or so.

Many volunteers of many ethnicities have volunteered for these defense groups and every one of them that I have spoken to has talked of the elements of the far right within the new self imposed government in Kiev and the concerns that they have regarding the actions of the right sector. This is completely understandable when you view this within its proper historical context for this region. Another other obvious feature of this city aside from the military fleet is the sheer number of soviet memorials and remembrance statues to the fight against fascism from the Soviet Union. The steel railings that circle the main square in the city has “1941-1945″ in solid steel throughout the perimeter and there are soviet statues along many of the main roads as well as the eternal flame burning brightly. When looking at the events that specifically took place in Crimea in the second world war, it becomes so obvious why this city fear any influence of far right nationalism and have assembled themselves in such a way to make sure the influence of the right sector is not welcome in this peninsula. Crimea was the unfortunate victim of many nazi massacres in the second world war, especially in Kerch and Sevastopol itself was a strategic battleground that was under German occupation until it was liberated by the red army again towards the end of the war. With the clear far right influence in the new self imposed government in Kiev, and their targeting of ethnic Russians through laws against the use of the Russian language and outlawing of pro-Russian or left wing political parties since they came to power, the people here are taking no chances. If they were happy to live within the borders of Ukraine together as a national minority, but local majority and near to a Russian fleet before, they certainly do not want to live within the borders of a country moving closer to Europe and away from Russia. Many of the people here have called for this referendum to simply say “we’ll rejoin Russia, and Ukraine can do whatever it likes, but without us.”

The referendum itself is not what I think will be the most interesting aspect to this dispute so far. Anyone on the ground in Crimea can see the Russian flags on every municipal building and the Russian colours on everyones clothing and cars and we already know what the result of this referendum will be. It will be the response from Kiev that will be the most interesting. Brute force has no opportunity in Crimea and the real test now will be to see whether there is any willingness for diplomacy on behalf of the self styled politicians that were pushed into power by the bats and clubs of the right sector.


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