Jeremy Page / The Times – 2006-06-07 10:23:14
MOSCOW (June 7, 2006) — “Yankee go home!” the protesters’ signs read outside the military compound. Inside, about 200 US Marine reservists are confined to their quarters, unable even to visit the local shop.
Nothing unusual, perhaps, by the standards of Iraq or Afghanistan, but this was the scene yesterday in the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea, more than 18 months after the Orange Revolution supposedly set Ukraine on the path towards NATO membership.
The Crimean peninsula was once the site of a bloody war between imperial Russia and an alliance of Britain, France and Turkey, whose futility was epitomised by the Charge of the Light Brigade. But, 150 years on, the region has become a new battleground in a geopolitical struggle between an expanding NATO and its opponents in Ukraine and Russia.
The unarmed Marine reservists arrived last week to install showers and toilets at a Ukrainian military training facility before joint exercises with NATO this month. But the preparations have triggered passionate anti-NATO protests, encouraged by Moscow, that analysts say could undermine efforts by Ukraine to join the alliance in 2008.
The pro-Russian Crimean Parliament passed a resolution yesterday declaring the region a NATO-free zone and demanding that the Government cancel the “Sea Breeze 2006” joint exercises. The Ukrainian Parliament will start debating today whether to allow foreign troops to participate in the exercises, which are part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme.
That decision will also determine whether 150 RAF personnel can take part in an unprecedented British-Ukrainian exercise called “Tight Knot,” starting next Wednesday near Nikolayev.
The local government there has passed a resolution calling for NATO personnel to be banned. “Sea Breeze 2006” will bring troops from the US and 14 other NATO countries to the border of Russia and simulate the defence of a peninsula caught between a totalitarian state and a democratic one.
Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western Ukrainian President, insisted yesterday that the exercise would go ahead. He said: “This political decision changes nothing in the principles and arrangements that govern relations between Ukraine and NATO.” He noted that “Sea Breeze” manoeuvres had been held annually since 1997, and that Russia was also involved in NATO’s Partnership for Peace.
But the row has highlighted the widespread opposition to his NATO membership campaign, especially in Crimea, where Russia keeps its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. Opinion polls suggest that most Ukrainians back thedrive to join the EU, but only 20 percent want NATO membership.
The protests also illustrate how Russia and its allies in Ukraine are steadily undermining Mr Yushchenko’s authority and drawing the country back into Moscow’s strategic embrace. The anti-NATO protests were organised by a pro-Russian party and the Communist Party, both of which have close ties to Moscow.
They began last week when USS Advantage, an American cargo ship, arrived in Feodosiya, a Crimean port, carrying construction equipment. They increased when the Marine reservists tried to reach the training facility that they were supposed to renovate. Protesters surrounded their bus, rocking it and trying to smash the windows, eventually forcing the vehicle to head to a military saNATOrium , where the reservists remain.
Russian politicians have flown in to support the protesters, and Russian state-controlled television, which is watched in many Ukrainian homes, has given them prominent coverage. Ultra-nationalist Russian politicians have even suggested that Crimea, which became part of Ukraine only in 1954 and has a large ethnic Russian population, should become part of Russia again. Analysts say that Moscow and its supporters in Ukraine have sensed an opportunity to capitalise on Mr Yushchenko’s waning popularity and power.
The protesters, who number between 100 and 300, accuse him of inviting NATO troops to build a base without the required approval of parliament.
Brent Byers, a US Embassy spokesman in Kiev, said: “(The reservists) are hoping to do something to improve the quality of life for the Ukrainian military.” He acknowledged, however, that time was running short, as they had expected to finish the task within two to three weeks.
A BATTLEGROUND FOR CENTURIES
• AD250 to 1774 The Goths, the Huns, the Mongols, the Byzantine Greeks and the Ottomans variously control Crimea
• 1783 Empress Catherine the Great annexes the territory for Russia
• March 1854 Concerned about the expansion of the Russian Empire, Britain joins France, Turkey and Sardinia to fight the Russians in the Crimean War
• October 1854 After a misunderstood order, 673 British cavalry troops launch a disastrous attack on Russian artillery positions in what became known as The Charge of the Light Brigade. Between 100 and 200 die
• September 1855 Sevastopol falls to Allied forces after a year-long siege
• 1856 The war ends with the Treaty of Paris, limiting Russian military activities in the Black Sea
• 1920 Crimea is the site of the Russian anti-Bolshevik White Army’s last stand against the Red Army
• 1921 The Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic is created
• 1954 Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, controversially transfers ownership of Crimea to Ukraine
• 1991 The collapse of the Soviet Union leaves the status of Crimea unclear. Despite a large ethnic Russian population, it is agreed that it will remain with Ukraine
• 1992 Crimea proclaims independence, but ultimately remains within Ukraine as an autonomous republic