The calm that prevailed in the streets of Crimea’s major cities Sunday belied an escalating and ugly situation. Russian troops are reported to be digging trenches on the border, the head of Ukraine's navy was accused of treason after he sided with the Kremlin-backed government of the Crimea region, and the Ukrainian government said it is mobilizing troops in preparation for a possible war against Russian soldiers now surrounding several Ukrainian military bases.
While no shots have been fired yet, Russian troops and their supporters appear to be consolidating their position in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that is part of Ukraine but that is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, and Russia's rhetoric shows no signs of backing down any time soon.
On Saturday Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had the right to invade Ukraine in order to “protect” Russian citizens here, despite no signs of any threats against them. But his comments seemed to reassure a large majority of Crimea’s Russian-speaking population. By late Sunday it appeared the Russian military had silently taken control of Ukraine’s southern peninsula with little objection from the pro-Russia population, and there are reports that thousands more Russian soldiers are pouring into the area.
In central Simferopol, where just three days ago armed gunman took control of the parliament, people stood around speakers that blared patriotic Russian music.
The songs were interrupted periodically by speakers, who took the microphone to declare their devotion to Russia, who they were pleased had come to protect them from the "fascists" ruling in Kiev.
In the pedestrian shopping areas along the city’s Karl Marx Street, families strolled pushing baby carriages, some decorated with small Russian flags. Dog walkers stopped to gaze over at the small crowd in front of the speakers before carrying on with their pets.
Reality and Russian TV
It was an altogether different scene from the media reports running on the predominately Russian news outlets broadcast across Crimea. Russian news channels, such as Russia 24, run hourly reports depicting a deteriorating situation in Ukraine, with editorial suggestions that the lives of the peninsula’s ethnic-Russian population are under threat.
“The news is really scary, and most of my friends and family are not leaving their apartments at all now,” said Gulnar Seidametova, a recent university graduate who had reluctantly come to the city center to see what was actually happening in her city. “But this seems like more of a celebration than anything else.”
The televised claims of Ukraine in chaos and promises of Russian troops coming in to save the Russian population has built up support in Crimea for Mr. Putin’s actions and the Russian military has encountered a population that has largely accepted with open arms.
“We’ve tried living in Ukraine for 20 years now, and it didn’t work,” says Margarita, a retiree from Simferopol. “The Russians are here to help. They will support us and help us. Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] is a loyal man, and he won’t let this turn into a war.”
Russian troops on Friday had surrounded several Ukrainian military bases across the Crimea peninsula, although the Kremlin said it had not yet issued orders for deployment. Russian troops surrounded the Ukrainian naval base in Sevastopol, and at a base in Perevalnoe, a standoff ensued between hundreds of armed men and the Ukrainian military units stationed on the base.
While the armed men had no insignia on their uniforms indicating that they were Russian, they arrived in military vehicles with Russian license plates.
"This is not a threat: this is actually the declaration of war to my country," said Ukraine’s new prime minister, Arseny Yatsenyuk. Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, ordered his country’s armed forces to be at full alert, and the country’s military reserves were called up in preparation for a "potential aggression" from Russia.
The threat of war has been building up in Crimea for several days. On Thursday, armed men took over the regional parliament building, and then seized control of two airports in both Sevastopol, the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and in Simferopol, home to the main passenger airport.
Also on Friday, armored personnel carriers, Russian military trucks full of armed soldiers and tanks began appearing on the highways leading from Sevastopol and Simferopol.
In Balaklava, a port city that was a closed military base until the collapse of the Soviet Union, hundreds of Russian soldiers waited on alert in at least 10 military trucks outside of the port’s entrance late Saturday night. Three armored personnel vehicles kept their engines running as Russian Orthodox priests stood nearby, praying.
Dozens of locals gathered around the soldiers, who remained silent as the crowd chanted “Russia!” Most of the spectators declared their support for the Russian soldiers’ presence in their small city, saying they were happy the soldiers had come to “protect” them from the fascists who had overrun the rest of Ukraine.
“We are happy because we don’t want those western Ukrainians to come in here and threaten us,” said Eduard, 18, who said he was afraid to give his last name.
He said he had seen a lot of frightening information about western Ukrainians on the Internet and that he believed the people in Kiev would not respect his Russian language and culture. “We don’t speak Ukrainian, we don’t want to be part of Europe. Sevastopol is a Russian city.”
In eastern Ukraine, violent clashes erupted in Kharkiv after pro-Russian demonstrators dragged opponents of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from the regional government building they had occupied for the past week.
The occupiers were an extension of the protests that have gripped central Kiev for the past three months. The clashes indicated that Kiev’s new government, desperately trying to stave off a possible military conflict with Russia over its southern Crimean peninsula, was also facing a growing crisis in the east, where a disenfranchised, mostly Russian-speaking population was becoming increasingly frustrated.