It was a remarkable day in Ukraine, with Moscow-backed separatism becoming more plain to see especially in Crimea, coupled with the Kremlin’s surprise announcement of huge Russian military exercises beginning Friday for four days near the border with Ukraine. It’s difficult not to note that the force involved here, about 150,000 troops, is almost exactly the size of the U.S. force that invaded Iraq in March 2003. The revelation that a senior “former” GRU officer assisted with Yanukovych’s plans for mass repression in Ukraine has not calmed moods either.
Today, the Moscow daily Izvestiya, which is generally pro-Kremlin, ran a remarkable interview with a senior official in Crimea who describes the alarming conditions prevailing in that tumultuous region, reflecting the Moscow line that the recent revolution in Kyiv was a “coup.” This piece by Mariya Gorkovskaya and titled “The most pressing issue for Crimeans is where to get weapons,” follows in its entirety:
Outside the Supreme Council of Crimea in Simferopol, local residents staged a rally on 25 February. Several hundred people demanded that the people’s elected representatives should not become “accomplices in the criminal coup” in Kyiv and should not obey the decisions of the new authorities. Simferopol City Council head Aleksandr Mal’tsev has told Izvestiya how Cossacks and Afghan war veterans are defending Crimea against representatives of the new authorities and radicals.
Q: What are the people who took part in the rally outside the Supreme Council of Crimea trying to achieve?
A: Crimeans are frightened. Many of those who gathered outside the Supreme Council have tried to go to the Maidan to support President Viktor Yanukovych. However, their buses were stopped in Kyiv and Cherkasy regions and burned, while they were brutally beaten by radicals in masks. One of the demonstrators was even shot in the thigh from a nonlethal weapon. Because of that, the atmosphere in Crimea is charged. People do not want the government to change. They are gathering outside administration buildings in order to express their views, and are doing so without masks or weapons. You see, even though no one supports Yanukovych anymore, we have elected him in a lawful election. And now we have to wait for the next time to vote. People living on the peninsula are afraid that there will be a repetition of what happened in Kyiv, but this time it will be against the local administration.
Q: Yesterday, Crimeans refused to disarm the local division of Berkut [special police], so under pressure from the crowd, acting Ukrainian Internal Affairs Minister Avakov had to abandon this idea….
A: Crimean Cossacks have taken upon themselves to defend Berkut. They have formed a live shield at the entrance to their base Cossacks, even though they are armed merely with whips, will not allow lustration or any persecution of our law-enforcement officers who were involved in the events in Kyiv. Of course, from a legal point of view, the Cossacks’ actions are illegal, but this is impossible to explain to the Cossacks, who do not recognize the coup d’etat.
Q: Apart from the Cossacks, who else in Crimea is getting organized in order to say “no” to what is happening in Ukraine?
A: Thanks to social networks, all kinds of people have been getting together to form vigilante groups and attend rallies. Cases involving Crimeans forming groups are becoming increasingly widespread. Groups of Afghan war veterans are on duty in Simferopol. Young people have formed their own groups. Crimean women are sending out information and answering calls at call centers. They were prompted to take to the streets in particular by the video of armed Right Sector radicals beating up people, which was distributed in the Internet. There are no clashes here yet. But in these conditions, the most pressing issue for Crimeans is where to get weapons if they come to us with weapons.
Q: Such sentiments cannot please the new authorities. Crimean people’s deputies have already reported cases of pressure from Kyiv. What do you know about this?
A: I cannot confirm this information, although I cannot deny it either. The Party of Regions, despite the latest developments, has huge influence in Crimea. That is why the country’s new leadership simply needs to take representatives of this territory under its control.
Q: Rumors are going around about preparations for a popular referendum on the question of Crimea seceding from Ukraine and becoming part of Russia….
A: There are no such proposals yet at legislative level or in statements by deputies. But in private conversations with Crimeans, you will often hear them say that either Kyiv should reckon with us or we would better become part of Russia. In any case, if the information about Russian deputies promising to organize the issuing of Russian passports to Crimeans using a simplified procedure proved correct, your missions would have to work round the clock.