Strange Invasion: On the Ground as Russia Takes Crimea From Ukraine
The Ukrainian naval base in Sevastopol sits on an inlet at the western end of the bay, walled off by an old metal fence. One day earlier this week, a cold, wet wind was blowing off the Black Sea, rocking the weathered ships of the Ukrainian navy. It’s a ragtag assortment of vessels: a handful of aging cruisers and gunships, along with the Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine’s only submarine, a diesel-powered ship commissioned in Leningrad in 1970 whose batteries, used to drive the propellers when it’s underwater, gave out in the mid-1990s. Beyond the row of Ukrainian ships, another mile or so out to sea, a ring of warships from the Russian Black Sea Fleet stood guard, reminding the sailors, as if they weren’t already aware, who was in charge.
I walked toward the edge of the docks with Alexander Goncharov, 40, a captain in the Ukrainian navy and the deputy commander of the base. He wore a heavy black raincoat over his fatigues and talked with the crisp speech of a lifelong military man. As we neared the water’s edge, Goncharov told me of the day not long before when a high-ranking Russian officer from the Black Sea Fleet came ashore and suggested he and his men come over to the Russian side, along with their ships. He refused, not so much out of any animosity toward Russia but from a soldier’s sense of duty. “I gave an oath to defend a state and its people,” he explained.
The two navies have shared the waters off Sevastopol since the splintering of military forces after the fall of the Soviet Union; Goncharov knows Russian sailors well from their many joint naval exercises in the years since. The godfather of his 10-year-old daughter is a Russian officer who lives across the street from his family.
“Why,” he said, “push two peoples against each other, bang their heads, borders or no borders, for a piece of land? Why raise such aggression?” He’s tried to calm tensions by telling his sailors to lock away their weapons and walk on deck unarmed. “A single shot could lead to a large-scale war,” he told me, his voice turning ominous. But on the whole, he has been made a passive observer of his own fate. The Ukrainian fleet in Sevastopol is no match for its Russian counterpart, and the military command in Kiev is issuing few orders and avoiding displays of force.
One week into Russia’s creeping, almost spectral, takeover of Crimea, the Russian military presence resembles a pantomime of an invasion, more alluded to than executed, and yet it’s a genuine occupation all the same. The Kremlin denies its troops are there yet is firmly in control of the events on the ground. In such a way, Russia’s show of force appears as an extension of the country’s politics of the last decade, a dominion of make-believe in which actors play roles but with real and often dramatic consequences.
A referendum to be held by the newly installed pro-Russian authorities on March 16 will likely see Crimea vote to join Russia. For starters, Crimea is home to a deep and authentic reservoir of pro-Russian sentiment; what’s more, the vote will take place in the middle of an aggressive propaganda campaign carried out under armed occupation. The Russian State Duma has already passed a law that speeds up the process for adding federal territories. Crimea, in other words, is well on its way to becoming Russian.
Should that come to pass, there will be little room for Goncharov: He’ll be a foreign military commander at a naval outpost that will surely be liquidated or transferred to Russian control. When that happens, he’ll head north to mainland Ukraine, to a land and life that feels as foreign to him as it would to any of Crimea’s ethnic Russians eager to escape Kiev’s rule. “I will be grabbed and evicted by force from the territory to which I gave all my years of service,” he told me. “I defended my nation, and now they consider me an occupier.”
Night was falling over the harbor, and the tinny recorded sound of a bugle echoed across the docks. It was time to take down the flags for the evening. Standing on the rear deck of the Donbass, a command ship painted a grayish blue, Goncharov raised his arm in salute. One of the sailors under his command lowered the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine. Goncharov’s base is one of the few remaining places in Crimea where you can still find the Ukrainian colors: At the regional parliament, prosecutor’s office, airport, and just about every other official building, the only flag you’ll see these days is the Russian tricolor.
Across much of Crimea, a peninsula roughly the size of Maryland that juts into the northern waters of the Black Sea and is home to 2 million people, the transition to Russian rule has begun. Government offices prepare to switch their paperwork to Russian documents and forms. Flights to Kiev are canceled, while those to Moscow leave unhindered. On Monday, Crimea’s new pro-Russian prime minister, Sergey Aksyonov—appointed during an armed takeover of the regional parliament on Feb. 27—swore in a batch of soldiers that he promised would soon be turned over to Russian forces.
The Russian takeover has roots in the protests in Kiev last fall but most especially in how those protests ended: messily, violently, and with much of the Ukrainian state left rudderless. People in Crimea will tell you the current crisis began in 1856, after Russia’s loss in the Crimean War, or in 1954, when Crimea was transferred from the Russian Soviet Republic to the Ukrainian one. But it was the dramatic fall of the Russian ally Viktor Yanukovych in late February that, for many in the south and east, reawakened a fear of Kiev and longing for Moscow.
Vladimir Putin was never fond of Yanukovych, but at least he was a pliable client. The sudden collapse of his rule presented Putin with a potential geopolitical catastrophe, as Russia faced losing almost all its influence over its neighbor—and the prospect of watching Ukraine fall into the arms of Europe.
Crimea, even more than eastern Ukraine, which is also predominantly Russian, is the logical place to begin the Russian countercampaign. It is revered by Russians as the site of several bloody and decisive battles in World War II. Many locals, especially in heavily Russian Sevastopol, still harbor resentment against Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev for transferring Crimea to Ukrainian control in 1954. Not only does it have one of the Ukraine’s highest concentrations of ethnic Russians, at 58 percent, but it’s also geographically self-contained, connected to the rest of Ukraine by a thin strip of land. And Crimea has a special resonance in the Russian psyche, says Alexander Gersten, the rector of the history department at Taurida University in Simferopol, the Crimean capital. It’s associated with “heroism, the settling of Russia’s borders, and a very high price that has been paid for this land.”
The Kremlin thus, perhaps correctly, judged that it would not be too difficult to whip up all that history into something apocalyptic. Local Crimean television has been shut off and replaced with Russian broadcasts, which deliver a nonstop feed simultaneously discrediting the new government in Kiev and the West while building up Moscow as a savior and protector. The propaganda campaign, aired across the whole of Russia and now in Crimea, is “unprecedented in its intensity and aggression,” says Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center, an independent polling agency in Moscow. At a demonstration in Simferopol in favor of joining Russia, an 80-year-old military veteran gave me an impassioned lecture on how Russians in Crimea had suffered over the years, denied everything by the government in Kiev, “except for right to breathe the air and speak Russian at home.”
The arrival of Russian troops, still absurdly denied as such by Putin and other Russian officials, met little resistance. But in recent days they have been a less visible presence, gradually replaced on city streets and outside Ukrainian military bases by men in tall Cossack hats and loosely organized self-defense militias. Compared with the Russian soldiers, who are on the whole disciplined and reserved, Crimea’s newly christened irregular forces can be rough and aggressive. They have beaten demonstrators who oppose joining Russia and detained Ukrainian and Western journalists. In an ironic turn of events, the heavily armed and professionally trained men whom Putin laughably calls “local self-defense brigades” aren’t the ones to be wary of in Crimea these days—it’s the actual local self-defense brigades.
These men in mismatched uniforms, some of whom are armed and under unclear command, are positioned around Simferopol and many government buildings elsewhere in Crimea. They have set up roadblocks on every route in and out of Sevastopol, lighting trash can fires at night and inspecting each car that goes past. I came across two Russian men who were looking to join a self-defense brigade to watch over a Ukrainian military base so that the revolutionaries from Kiev couldn’t come and steal weapons. “We want to make sure that the same thing that happened in Kiev doesn’t happen here,” one of them, Viktor, said. As he explained, they’re not supporters of Yanukovych—he’s a thief and a criminal, they say—but they can’t allow the bloodthirsty radicals in Kiev to take over in Crimea, too. He went on to tell me of the many dangers of fascism, a list that wound its way from anti-Semitic attacks and general anarchic violence to a lack of stable supplies at the factory in town to high gas prices. “And soon we’ll join NATO, and then we’ll have American missiles in Kharkov,” his friend, Alexander, added. They then sped off to find the local commander to offer their services.
On March 9, a rally in favor of Crimea joining Russia drew several thousand people to Simferopol’s Lenin Square. The demonstration clearly benefited from what in Russia is known as the “administrative resource,” which in this case included a permit to block off the city’s central square, money for a big stage, a powerful sound system, performers from local universities, and so on. But the sincerity and enthusiasm was striking among those who were holding signs and shouting in favor, as one women put it, of Crimea not “joining” Russia but “returning” to it. It was a level of emotion I had not seen at any pro-Kremlin rallies in Moscow, which are usually filled with listless municipal workers bused in for the occasion.
Not everyone in Crimea is going along with Putin’s territorial adventurism. That same day, a rally in support of remaining Ukrainian drew several hundred people—a small crowd compared with the pro-Russia rally across town—but they were impassioned and angry, worried about joining an authoritarian, intolerant country. Ilya Shkrebko, a 19-year-old university student, was holding a Ukrainian flag. He feared that such elementary freedoms as the right to stand in a square and protest would disappear. “Believe me,” he said, “the riot police would be on us right away.”
No one in Crimea is more wary of a Russian takeover than the Tatars, a Turkic-speaking Muslim group that makes up about 12 percent of the population. They’re among the earliest settlers of Crimea but were displaced during the rise of the Russian Empire and deported by Stalin after World War II. I spent one morning with a Tatar majlis, or council, in Bakhchisaray, a town in southwest Crimea that’s home to the exquisite 16th century palace of the Tatar Khans. At a heated, emotional round-table meeting, the local council decided to boycott the referendum.
It would be hard to convince the Tatars that the Russians have benign intentions. For the Russian population of Crimea, the shared, foundational historical event is the region’s suffering and heroism during World War II. For the Tatars, it’s the experience of deportation and exile. “We still feel what our elders lived through,” Akhtem Chiygoz, the chairman of the regional majlis, told me after the meeting in Bakhchisaray. Chiygoz is 49 and was born in exile in Samarkand, Uzbekistan; his family was allowed to return to Crimea in the late 1980s. A crowd of men in Chiygoz’s office worried that once Crimea joined Russia, the Tatars would be left exposed and vulnerable, likely victims of ethnic violence. “Wherever the Russian army has entered, blood has been spilled,” Chiygoz said.
Putin has called the leadership of the Crimean Tatars to Moscow for talks and will probably offer money, jobs, and assurances of security. But Putin has little control over the bands of local toughs his invasion has emboldened. A number of ominous X’s have already appeared on the doors of Tatar homes; a Tatar-owned hotel was burned to the ground. Things on the streets may look calm, Chiygoz cautioned me, but “great tragedy and misfortune is hidden beneath the surface.”
For Putin, the acquisition of Crimea will be the victorious capstone of his rule or the beginning of his undoing. For now, in the wake of Russian intervention, he’s enjoying the highest popularity ratings of his third presidential term. But the annexation of Crimea is still in its early, pretend stages; the real and quite complicated work of transferring this piece of territory from one state to another hasn’t yet begun. An outbreak of violence that the Kremlin would be unable to control—whether caused by an accidental clash between Ukrainian and Russian soldiers or between the bands of young men roaming the streets who seem to be itching for a fight and resistance fighters among the Tatars—could quickly sink the popularity of Putin’s Crimean project.
And this won’t come cheap for Moscow. Crimea has long received subsidies from Kiev, and Russia may have to spend billions of dollars to keep its new prize afloat. At a moment when the Russian economy, now growing at a little more than 1 percent a year, is likely entering a period of prolonged stagnation, Putin may not have long before euphoria turns to doubt about the wisdom of acquiring a dependent region. These questions loom in Russia proper, but the citizens of Crimea are not being given much of a choice. A billboard that has popped up in several places along the main road asks which country you’d rather be a part of: Russia, identified by its tricolor flag, or Ukraine, marked by a big, black swastika.