By: FOX News Radio’s Jessica Golloher in Sevastopol, Ukraine on the Black Sea coast of the Crimean Peninsula
The people of Ukraine have gone through a lot within the last few weeks. They’ve fomented a revolution, forced out president Viktor Yanukovych, formed a new Parliament and will be voting on a new President on May 25th. Now, they’re faced with Crimea— voting whether to join the former Soviet Union.
The brand-new government has hardly had time to catch its breath, not to mention to try to fix Ukraine’s 39 billion-dollar budget deficit. Shortly after Yanukovych was ousted, he popped up in southern Russia, in Rostov-on-Don.
Russia offered Yanukovych refuge– maintaining that Yanukovych is still the legitimate president of Ukraine and that the new government in Kiev is illegitimate– run by fascists and those who will most likely persecute Russian speakers.
The fugitive president is wanted for mass murder in the deaths of more than 75 Ukrainians. This, after the now disbanded Berkut riot police and snipers shot protesters in Independence Square after a European Union brokered cease-fire was agreed upon by Yanukovych.
The same day that Yanukovych appeared in Russia, the strategic Crimean Peninsula here saw an almost overnight increase in the presence of Russian speaking troops. It was like someone had waved a magic wand. Troops effortlessly took over two military airports and Simferopol’s International Airport.
One man said that the forces were mere humble, Russian-speaking Crimeans who wanted to protect themselves from what he called “the new fascist government that had been installed in Kiev”.
The so-called humble, Russian-speaking troops with their arsenal of modern tanks, military helicopters and warships has raised a lot of eyebrows.
Especially, since they appear to be manned by highly trained people– taking over key military installations here. Forcing the head of Ukraine’s Navy, who had only been on the job for two days, to surrender. He is now being tried for treason.
Ukraine’s Coast Guard has also moved several of its ships from key ports here in Crimea, out into the Black Sea. Kiev maintains that they’re still loyal to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the same day Yanukovych appeared in Russia and just a few days before he gave his first press conference since fleeing Ukraine– regional parliament in Simferopol and several surrounding buildings were taken over by Russian speaking gunmen. They lowered the Ukrainian flag and raised Russia’s. Nota Bene: Yanukovych says he didn’t abscond, he merely left because his life was threatened and his family in danger.
During the mass demonstrations that occurred before the regional parliament was seized, one man suffered a heart attack as the crowds swelled. Dozens of others were injured in fistfights.
After parliament was taken over, the autonomous region of Crimea elected a Prime Minister, Sergey Aksenov.
He has since declared full control of the local military, law enforcement and security services.
Ukraine’s newly elected Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has repeatedly come out to say that Aksenov doesn’t have a government and that Crimea belongs to Ukraine and always will. Yatsenyuk did concede, however, that Crimea’s local powers could be increased.
This, as much of the world has been trying to figure out who exactly is responsible for the thousands of well-equipped troops here? None of the troops have any sort of insignia and when I’ve asked them questions, they don’t respond. So it’s difficult to ascertain an accent.
A third generation Crimean, who didn’t want to give his name, says the troops are in fact self-defense forces and not Russian. When I asked him who was financing them, he shrugged his shoulders and said– “Not Russia”.
Ukraine’s interim President has called the troops a military intervention and occupation by Moscow. Several days after the announcement, Putin asked Russian parliament for permission to send troops into Ukraine. He was granted permission.
A day afterwards, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, came out to say that even though Putin has the ability to use troops in Ukraine, doesn’t mean he will. Adding that Putin was aware of all of his options, including recalling Moscow’s ambassador to Washington.
Again– Ukraine asked Moscow to pull back its troops.
Russia’s response? Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov came out to say that the thousands of troops here lining Crimea, in addition to their accoutrements, didn’t belong to Moscow– they’re self-defense forces. So, the Kremlin couldn’t call them home.
The same day Lavrov made his announcement, Crimea’s Prime Minister echoed Lavrov’s claim, saying that the some 11,000 troops here are special-defense forces from Crimea. Sergey Aksenov upped the ante by saying that the troops had taken over key Ukrainian military installations here, and what hasn’t been surrendered by Ukraine, has been blocked.
So, after all this back and forth, what does the average Crimean think about the so-called self-defense troops? Most everyone I spoke with, whether they were for or against Moscow, were uneasy with them being in their backyard. It’s unsettling.
For those who thought that the troops were here to protect the average Crimean and Russia’s interests in the some 60% Russian-speaking region, they still felt uneasy. People who are pro-Kiev say there’s nothing that they can do about them, because well, they’re here.
And, what can be done about it? Washington has threatened sanctions against Russia. But many are wondering what affect that will actually have.
The last time America slapped Russia’s wrist was with the so-called ‘Magnitsky list’, naming Russians allegedly involved in the death of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky– who died in a Russian prison while awaiting trial on charges of tax fraud. Those on the list were denied entry into the U.S. and their assets frozen.
Moscow responded by hitting below the belt– and not to mention where it hurts, by banning Americans from adopting Russian children. Some 16,000 Russian children have been adopted by Americans since the collapse of the Soviet Union– and many children were in the process of being adopted when the ban went into effect.
The events that have taken place here in Ukraine are unbelievable to many. How did the thousands of very well trained troops end up with matching camouflage outfits and machine guns? Did their leader go to the local Army-Navy store here and make a mass purchase? Where did all of these men come from?
Especially, since ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych got rid of conscription two years ago and Ukraine has only a volunteer force. Plus, Ukraine’s military is sorely underfunded. Leaders weren’t able to infuse the armed forces with mass funds after the collapse of the Soviet Union– especially given the recent budget deficit. And Crimea is part of Ukraine, isn’t it?
That’s the million-dollar question as military helicopters continue to surround my hotel here in Sevastopol and I can see warships speeding through the Black Sea.
In Crimea, Jessica Golloher, FOX News Radio.