Where The Fight Over Crimea Began

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

Russian President Vladimir Putin said today that he is not trying to make Crimea a part of Russia and that only people living in Crimea can determine their future.

But how did this piece of land become so contested? In 2008, former NPR correspondent Anne Garrels took a look at the Ukrainian city and it’s relationship with Russia.


  • Anne Garrels, former NPR correspondent.
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Well, right now we're talking all about the Russian intervention in Ukraine. But it's worth remembering that back in 2008, Russia sent troops into Georgia, another former Soviet republic that had become independent. The Russians said they were going into South Ossetia to protect the ethnic Russians. Now at the time, then NPR reporter Anne Garrels went into Crimea, which also, as we've heard, has a large population of ethnic Russians. And she filed this report which has an eerie resonance today.


ANNE GARRELS, BYLINE: A tour boat chugs through the Crimean port of Sevastopol, past memorials to some of Russia's most famous battles. For more than 200 years, this port has been home to Moscow's fleet, but now that Ukraine is independent, Moscow has to lease facilities.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: Russian tourists look approvingly at the Russian cruiser Mirage, which returned after taking part in Moscow's attacks on Georgia. But if Ukraine's current president has his way, Ukraine will join NATO and the Russian fleet will leave when its lease expires in 2017. For 23-year-old tour guide Slava Olenov(ph), NATO is the enemy. He can't imagine Sevastopol without the Russian fleet.

SLAVA OLENOV: (Through Translator) This is a Russian city and the fleet is our glory.

GARRELS: Sevastopol indeed remains in most ways a Russian city. Signs, newspapers, schools are in Russian. Though almost a quarter of the city's 400,000 residents are ethnic Ukrainians, there's still not one Ukrainian school. The overwhelming ethnic Russian majority has not reconciled itself to living in Ukraine. Sergei Demitrienko(ph) is one of thousands of Russian civilians here who work for the Russian fleet.

SERGEI DEMITRIENKO: (Through Translator) One day they stamped my passport that I'm Ukrainian. They gave us away like animals and declared I am Ukrainian.

GARRELS: Crimea is attached to Ukraine by a causeway. It was considered part of Russia until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave it to the Ukraine as a present in 1954. At the time this was a symbolic gesture. Ukraine and Russia were both part of the USSR. But with the breakup, Crimea and with it the port of Sevastopol became part of independent Ukraine.

Seventeen years later, ethnic Russians like 65-year-old Valentina Costina(ph) still bristle.

VALENTINA COSTINA: (Through Translator) We are forced to be Ukrainian. I haven't learned the language and I don't want to. I am a Russian. Maybe Russia will take us back somehow.

GARRELS: Unconfirmed reports abound that Russia is issuing passports to ethnic Russians, just as it did to South Ossetians in Georgia. Russia justified its invasion of Georgia by saying it had come to the aid of Russian citizens. Adding fuel to the smoldering fire, Moscow's powerful mayor, Yury Luzhkov, and other Russian politicians have demanded Ukraine return Sevastopol to Russia.

This, combined with other Russian activities, alarms Ukrainian historian and activist Igor Losev.

IGOR LOSEV: (Through Translator) Russian businesses sponsor Russian schools, where Russian kids are indoctrinated into Russian patriotism and empire. Russia is scooping up property. Russia backs dozens of publications, printed incidentally on the Black Sea Fleet Press, and those publications are patently anti-Ukrainian.

GARRELS: Ukrainian analyst Oleksandr Sushko says there are also disturbing signs the Russian fleet intends to stay beyond its current lease.

OLEKSANDR SUSHKO: We have to start preparation now, lots of steps. Russia is not preparing to withdrawal.

GARRELS: The head of Crimean's government, Anatoly Gritsenko, dismisses all this as hysteria.

ANATOLY GRITSENKO: (Through Translator) There is absolutely no problem. The Russian government has never expressed its designs on Crimea. This is a made-up problem. Moscow's mayor does not represent the Russian government.

GARRELS: But Gritsenko advises the government in Kiev to proceed cautiously, taking into consideration the feelings of ethnic Russians. Other politicians here are not so diplomatic, warning the future is unpredictable, especially if the Ukrainian government forces the Ukrainian language on people here.

History, ethnic rivalry, nostalgia for the past, and Moscow's desire to keep its fleet in this strategically key port are a potentially explosive mixture. Ukrainians say peace depends on Russia. Ethnic Russians say it all depends on Ukraine.

HOBSON: Again, that report from former NPR correspondent Anne Garrels. It was reporter in 2008. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.