As Russian armoured personnel carriers patrolled the streets of nearby Sevastopol, the troops in Balaklava — who all actually wore black balaclavas to hide their faces — blocked access to the port area, where millionaires’ yachts are moored near fishing dories and small warships.
The troops all carried assault rifles and were calm and relaxed. Unlike in Chechnya, they allowed everyone to take their pictures or shoot video of them.
The soldiers spoke quietly sometimes among themselves, but never said a word to the crowd of adoring Crimean Russians or to the handful of western journalists there.
The troops sent by President Vladimir Putin to protect Russian interests in Crimea got a rapturous welcome from Russian Crimeans.Postmedia photo by Matthew Fisher.
As Ukraine put its troops on full combat alert late Saturday, fearing further Russian military moves into northeastern Ukraine, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russia’s Putin spoke for 90 minutes on the telephone without apparently resolving anything.
Russian notes released after that conversation made it ominously clear that Russia reserved the right to send a larger force into eastern Ukraine, where there was bloody fighting today between pro-European and pro-Russian activists. The coal mining region, which includes the cities of Luhansk, Donetsk and Kharkiv, has a large ethnic population and has close economic ties with Russia.
After an emergency cabinet meeting, Canada recalled its ambassador to Moscow, ceased preparations for the upcoming G8 Summit in Sochi, Russia and urged that international monitors go to Ukraine to monitor the rapidly deteriorating situation.
The caretaker government installed in Kyiv after the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was toppled last Saturday, could do nothing to prevent the sudden takeover of the Crimean Peninsula by Russian troops. It spent Saturday feebly considering whether to convene parliament on Sunday to discuss whether it should mobilize troops to try to take back what Russia had apparently occupied without a shot being fired.
In what sounded like a Cold War declaration from another, distant era, U.S. President Barack Obama warned Russia on Friday that “there will be costs” if Russia sent its combat forces into Ukraine.
Ignoring Obama and many other western leaders, Putin formally asked parliament Saturday for permission to use “the armed forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine pending the normalization of the sociopolitical situation in that country.”
Despite Washington’s deep concern over developments in Ukraine, it was not obvious what it can do to change the situation there, short of sending troops.
As Russia is a nuclear power and has tens of thousands of troops based near the Ukrainian border, the possibility of any U.S. or NATO military action is deemed extremely unlikely.
Although Crimea was not mentioned by name, sources in Moscow said that for now the legislation approved by parliament only pertained to the strategically important peninsula, which juts into the Black Sea.
Putin’s move is likely to be immensely popular in Russia, where most people have always considered the Crimea to be part of that country.
“The people here are afraid of what happened in the west of Ukraine in recent weeks,” said a young stevedore who would only give his name as Sasha as he stood about 10 metres from those troops closest to the harbour.
“There are a lot of Russians in Crimea and we don’t like that new government in Kyiv. We needed to ask Russia for help because we can’t defend ourselves.
“And look at them. They are peaceful. They attack nobody.”
Asked whether it was right for troops from Russia to enter Ukraine, Sasha, who had driven over from Sevastopol to see the scene for himself, replied: “We don’t care where they came from. They came to protect us. I am here to say ‘thanks’ to these guys.”
Among the onlookers carrying the Russian tricolor and the white and flag of the Russian navy were several young couples who had been out on a date.
“We’re really happy tonight,” said 18-year-old Edouard, who was there with his girlfriend, Valeriya. “Sevastopol and Balaklava are Russian cities while Kyiv is in the hands of radicals.”
Given how much more powerful the Russian military was, he predicted that despite the invasion “there will be no fight” with Ukraine.
The Crimea is the only part of Ukraine with a Russian majority. It has had deep military ties here that reach back centuries.
The Crimea was Russian territory until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine as gift in 1954. That never really mattered until the Soviet Union disintegrated.
The Crimean Russians have made noises about rejoining Russia from time to time. Since pro-western activists forced Yanukovych from office those demands have reached an almost hysterical pitch.
About 6,000 Russian sailors and marines are based in and near Sevastopol with the Black Sea Fleet as the result of agreements signed with Ukraine when the Soviet Union broke up. Judging by the identifying numbers on their black military license plates, the troops in Balaklava were not from the local garrison, but from the republic of Chuvash, which is about 300 kilometres east of Moscow.
According to CBS News, the number of Russian troops from outside Crimea that have joined the troops permanently based here number between the high hundreds and just over 1,000.”
Read more at canada.com