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Ukraine-Russia tensions are simmering in Crimea

Kremlin seeks influence over former republic

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post / October 18, 2009

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SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine - On maps, Crimea is Ukrainian territory, and this naval citadel on its southern coast is a Ukrainian city. But when court bailiffs tried to serve papers at a lighthouse here in August, they found themselves surrounded by armed troops from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet who delivered them to police as if they were trespassing teenagers.

The humiliating episode underscored Russia’s continuing influence in the storied peninsula on the Black Sea nearly two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union and the potential for trouble here ahead of Ukraine’s first presidential vote since the 2005 Orange Revolution.

Huge crowds of protesters defied Moscow in that peaceful uprising and swept into power a pro-Western government. Now, the Kremlin is working to undo that defeat, ratcheting up pressure on this former Soviet republic to elect a leader in January more amenable to Russia’s interests.

President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia issued a letter in August demanding policy reversals from a new Ukrainian government, including an end to its bid to join NATO. He also introduced a bill authorizing the use of troops to protect Russian citizens and Russian speakers abroad, a measure that some interpreted as targeting Crimea.

A group of prominent Ukrainians, including the country’s first president, responded with a letter urging President Obama to prevent a “possible military intervention’’ by Russia that would “bring back the division of Europe.’’ They pointed out that Ukraine gave up the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union in exchange for security guarantees from the United States and other world powers.

If a crisis is ahead, it is likely to involve Crimea, a peninsula of rolling steppe and sandy beaches about the size of Massachusetts. The region was once part of Russia, and it is the only place in Ukraine where ethnic Russians are the majority. In the mid-1990s, it elected a secessionist leader who nearly sparked a civil war.

Crimea is also home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which is based in Sevastopol under a deal with Ukraine that expires in 2017. Russia wants to extend the lease, but Ukraine’s current government insists that it must go.

“It would be easy for Russia to inspire a crisis or conflict in Crimea if it continues to lose influence in Ukraine,’’ said Grigory Perepelitsa, director of the Foreign Policy Institute in the Ukrainian Diplomatic Academy. “That’s the message they’re sending to any future president.’’

Russia’s state-controlled media have hammered the authorities in Kiev as irredeemably anti-Russian, and prominent Russian politicians have been calling for reunification with Crimea.