Ukraine Fears Being Next On Russia's Hit List

SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine -- Rival groups of Russian and Ukrainian demonstrators hurled insults at each other to a background of cannon fire as the Russian navy’s Mirage sailed into Sevastopol on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula last week.

Russian missile boat "The Mirage" enters the Black Sea port of Sevastopol.

The celebratory gunfire could become all too real if fears are realised that Russia may repeat its incursion into Georgia and turn Ukraine into the next Caucasian flashpoint.

Crimea has a Russian majority population and, because of its strategic importance, Moscow deeply resented its loss at the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Mirage, a guided missile corvette, returned on Friday morning to the home port of the Russian Black Sea fleet after seeing action against Georgia’s port of Poti, where it shelled Georgian defences and landed troops who occupied the city.

Many of the Russians waiting to greet Mirage belonged to a political party called the Russian Bloc, whose leader in Crimea, Vladimir Tyunin, said: “We say categorically that Crimea should and certainly will become part of Russia.”

He claimed that the Ukrainian government was trying to force native Russian-speakers to speak Ukrainian, showing only films and television programmes dubbed in Ukrainian and forcing Russians to assimilate their culture.

While Tyunin maintained that Russian annexation of Crimea would be peaceful, some of his supporters were more outspoken. One young woman said: “This is Russia. We want nothing to do with Ukraine. The Ukrainians oppress our people. They are totalitarians and fascists who take orders from America.”

Her remarks were greeted with approval by others, who aired a ferocious litany of charges and threats against Ukraine. With a million Russians in Crimea, outnumbering native Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars, local loyalties are often to Moscow rather than Kiev and the presence of the base serves only to reinforce the Russian claim.

Many “Crimean flags”, that differ only slightly from the Russian one, fly on the streets, not only in Sevastopol but also in most other Crimean towns.

Taking part in a rival pro-Ukrainian demonstration, opposing the return of the Mirage, was Oleh Fomushkin, a former colonel in the Soviet army and now a community activist.

“Moscow and its intelligence services have been active here for 17 years while the Ukrainian authorities slept or were too timid to act,” he said. “They’ve demonstrated their aggression in Georgia and they won’t hesitate to use violence to get hold of Crimea.”

Tension in Crimea has risen because of the public support for Georgia of Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian president. Russia accused Ukraine of supplying weapons to Georgia and Yushchenko enraged the Kremlin by ordering restrictions on the future movements of the Russian fleet in Ukrainian waters.

The Black Sea fleet facilities are leased from Ukraine until 2017 but Ukraine, which wants to join NATO and the European Union, says it will not renew the lease. Moscow has made clear it is determined to stay.

Reports that thousands of Russian passports have already been distributed on the peninsula have sparked fears that a takeover may be in the offing. Moscow issued passports in South Ossetia to foster its breakaway from Georgia.

A western military source advised caution, saying Crimea was effectively already occupied by Russia.

Mykola Vladzimirsky, a Ukrainian journalist, said Tatars, who were deported by Stalin in 1944 but have slowly returned, might take up arms.

“If they carried out an attack against ethnic Russians, Moscow would have its excuse to annexe Crimea by contending that Ukraine is unable to defend Russian citizens,” he said.

Source: Times Online