CRIMEA, Ukraine — Tensions between Moscow and the West precipitously escalated as Russian forces recently took control of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Russia sent troops across the border after Ukraine’s parliament impeached Victor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s Pro-Russian President, and installed a new government less friendly to Moscow.
Moscow’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula came as Crimea’s parliament elected Sergiy Aksyonov as Prime Minister of the ethnic Russian majority region and as Ukraine’s naval chief defected and pledged his allegiance to the pro-Russian Aksyonov. Since 1995, the prime minister of Crimea, an autonomous republic within Ukraine, has been selected by the Ukrainian government in consultation with the peninsula’s regional parliament; Kiev has refused to recognize Aksyonov’s appointment by Crimean lawmakers.
Appearing alongside Aksyonov in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, Rear Admiral Denys Berezovsky announced that he had directed navy personnel in Crimea to disregard orders from the “self pro-claimed” government installed in Kiev.
Berezosky, who had only been appointed as the head of Ukraine’s navy on March 1, said March 2 would be marked as the birthday of the, “navy of the autonomous republic of Crimea.” He vowed to “strictly obey the orders of the supreme commander of the autonomous republic of Crimea” and “defend the lives and freedom” of Crimea’s people.
The defection by the Ukrainian naval chief on Sunday came a day after Russia’s parliament voted to give President Vladimir Putin the authority to deploy forces in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that is roughly divided between a pro-European, ethnic Ukrainian west and a pro-Moscow, Russian speaking east. On February 28, pro-Russian gunmen in military fatigues seized control of Crimea’s airports.
As of March 2, Russian troops and pro-Moscow ethnic Russian forces appeared to be in complete control of Crimea, which has hosted Russia’s Black Sea Fleet since Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. An agreement signed in 2010 between Moscow and Kiev extended Russia’s lease on its Black Sea Fleet base until 2042.
Crimea is about 60% ethnic Russian, and voted overwhelmingly for the pro-Moscow Yanukovych, a native Russian speaker, in the 2010 presidential election.
Ukraine has been enmeshed in a political crisis since late November 2013, when thousands of protesters erected a tent camp in the country’s capital after Ukraine’s president backed out of a long planned Association Agreement with the European Union. The accord, which had been years in the making, would have incorporated Ukraine into the E.U.’s common market and put Kiev on a path to joining the 28-nation block.
Since Ukraine’s ethnic and linguistic fissures tend to mirror the country’s political divisions, ethnic Ukrainians from the west supported the agreement with the E.U. and took to the streets of Kiev after Yanukovych backed out of the accord.
On December 17, Victor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s President, held a summit with Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, during which the two leaders agreed to a substantial cut in the price Ukraine pays for Russian gas. In addition to reducing the price Kiev pays for Russian gas from around $400 per thousand cubic meters to $268.50, Putin also agreed to use money from his country’s national welfare fund to purchase $15 billion of Ukraine’s sovereign bonds.
– Eric Erdahl
Sources: BBC, BBC, BBC, BBC, The Washington Post, The New York Times