Tensions Remain High In Crimea

Mar 4, 2014
Originally published on March 4, 2014 4:49 pm

There have been standoffs between Russian and Ukranian troops outside the bases that the Russians have been occupying since the weekend.

Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kiev today promising financial aid to the new Ukranian government and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke for the first time since he sent the troops into Crimea.

NPR’s Peter Kenyon joins Here & Now’s Robin Young from Simferopol, Crimea, with the latest.


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.


I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. In a few minutes, we'll speak with a longtime Russia observer who says the current headlines in Ukraine are happening because Vladimir Putin no longer fears the West. He knows Western elite want Russia's money, and it is big money.

HOBSON: But first, let's get to the situation in Ukraine. President Obama said today that there is room for Ukraine to be a friend to both Russia and the West, and he talked about the steps the U.S. is taking to try and tamp down the crisis.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We've condemned their intervention in Crimea, and we are calling for a de-escalation of the situation and international monitors that can go into the country right away.

HOBSON: Well, Secretary of State John Kerry visited the square in Kiev where dozens of people were killed in violent protests last week. The BBC's Christian Fraser joins us from Sevastopol, in Crimea. And Christian, tell us, first of all, what you're seeing now, and what's happening there today.

CHRISTIAN FRASER: Well, I have a good vantage point looking over the bay in Sevastopol, home, of course, to the Black Sea Fleet, and I'm just watching a Russian minesweeper coming into the bay. In fact, I've been watching them throughout the morning here. They've parked a big crane ship just at the mouth of the harbor, and beyond that, we've seen five different ships belonging to the Black Sea Fleet, traversing back and forth on patrol, as if warning any other ships to dare to enter the harbor.

And, of course, just beyond us, over to the right here, as I look out, are the Ukrainian ships, which are pretty much staying where they are, because they're not being allowed to go out, of course. And around the railings of those ships today, we could see mattresses and sheets that have been draped over the edge to stop Russians fixing grappling hooks to the ship.

HOBSON: And there was a standoff today, near the Belbek Air Base in Crimea. This is a Ukrainian base that was taken over by Russian troops, and the Ukrainian air force troops who used to work there were trying to get back into the facility. Let's listen to what happened.


HOBSON: So you can hear the Russian troops. They're firing warning shots over the heads of the Ukrainian troops. What happened after that?

FRASER: Yes, these soldiers, these Ukrainian soldiers, have been confined to base since Friday, and today, they marched out with their flags - singing the anthem, as you can hear there - towards the Russian soldiers, unarmed. And there were several volleys of gunfire that were fired over their heads, and as they got close, the guns of the Russian soldiers were lowered.

And suddenly, we had open confrontation between the two sides, which we had not seen so far. And, of course, this is the concern for the international community, that something could go badly wrong in these confrontations, and open warfare could begin.

And it's my feeling, Jeremy, that things have slightly changed over the last couple of days. I think the international community thinks Crimea is a hopeless case. Kiev certainly doesn't. It's still trying to hang on. And I get the feeling that the Ukrainian soldiers who refused to surrender these bases and their arms to the Russians are starting to test the mettle of the Russian troops that are here.

So they come out peacefully, but they're pushing the boundaries all the time, because I think what they want to show to the outside world is that Ukrainians are being bullied here by their Russian masters.

HOBSON: But if it comes down to a battle between the two of them, the Russians are much more powerful, in this case.

FRASER: Yes, they are, but we should be careful to think that they are under siege and that they're isolated and that they can't come out fighting, because the reverse is actually true. Inside these bases, they are very heavily armed. So it would be messy. It would be very messy, and there would be bloodshed.

You know, positively, I think that Moscow will probably calculate that so far, it's been able to take over Crimea very swiftly, largely with local support, and what it won't want to gamble on is these kind of confrontations, which might test the public mood, not only here in Crimea, but also at home. So I still get the feeling - and we saw it when the two officers came face to face today. The Ukrainian officer said he wanted joint patrols around the air base. The Russian officer said, well, I'll radio that in, and then there was a - really, a stalemate.

And I think both sides realized, at the end of the day, it was probably better not to exchange fire, certainly on the Russian side, because that could end badly.

HOBSON: Now, you're right at the center of this, but of course this story is reverberating all around the world. And I want to hear what the British Foreign Secretary William Hague had to say about this today.


WILLIAM HAGUE: I commend the Ukrainian authorities for refusing to rise to provocation, and I urged them yesterday, when I was in Kiev, to maintain that posture through all circumstances.

HOBSON: Christian Fraser, it does seem like there is a whole lot of restraint going on.

FRASER: Yes, I think so. I think what we're seeing are classic Vladimir Putin tactics here. He comes in very hard, and it looks as if the worst-case scenario is playing out, and then he just leaves a chink for negotiation. Everyone was worried over the weekend that this was going to spread to eastern Ukraine. The cities like Donetsk, Lugansk, Kharkiv, where we've seen pro-Russian-speaking minorities facing up against those that support the new government in Kiev, those could be potential flashpoints.

And people thought, well, is the Russian army going to roll over the border and take a large chunk of Ukraine? That is still a possibility. It's still a fear in the international community. But I think today, in this press conference, he's opened - and it's his first press conference he's given, his first comments on the situation. He's left a chink for negotiation, and that chink would be, I think, that, you know, Crimea, he's here to protect the pro-speaking - the pro-Russian-speaking majority. That's fait accompli. But we can talk about eastern Ukraine. And I think he's banking on the fact that the longer this goes on, the more the international community might start to forget about it, as they did in Georgia, and of course as they did in Afghanistan at the end of the 1970s.

HOBSON: The BBC's Christian Fraser, joining us from Sevastopol, in Crimea. Christian, thank you so much.

FRASER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.