Geopolitics

Pawns Of Power - With Ukrainian Troops In Crimea

Ukrainian soldiers inside the Belbek military air base on March 16
Ukrainian soldiers inside the Belbek military air base on March 16
Julia Smirnova

PEREVALNE — While Russian flags fly in Simferopol and people celebrate the “return home” in the main square, a few miles away in the village of Perevalne a strange calm has descended.

For weeks now, the Ukrainian military regiments here have been surrounded by Russian forces, and armored vehicles have patrolled the streets. Pro-Russian activists warm their hands around the campfire, letting no one through the gate that leads to the military base.

The Russian soldiers by the fence wear uniforms without the national emblem — but they still carry submachine guns. At another entrance they stand around smoking with Ukrainian soldiers who are nice enough to charge their phones for them in the checkpoint. This kind of informal contact has sprung up between the two armies over the past weeks; the Russian troops say they all go to the sauna together.

Uncertainty reigns

On Sunday it was announced that the Ukrainian military had reached a temporary ceasefire with the Russian army. Ukrainian Defense Minister Ihor Tenkhov was quoted by his country’s media as saying, “Until March 21 there will be no measures taken against the blockades on our military bases.” At first this was interpreted as meaning that Russian troops would retreat from surrounding Ukrainian military bases, but this has not happened. Moscow has still not even officially acknowledged that the soldiers are Russian.

According to press reports Wednesday, pro-Russian forces have broken into the main Ukrainian naval base in Sevastopol.

The situation of the Ukrainian army in Crimea after the referendum remains uncertain. The new Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Askyonov said last week that Ukrainian soldiers could either leave the region or join the Russian army. Parliamentary spokesperson Vladimir Konstantinov announced that all Ukrainian military units in Crimea had been dissolved, but such declarations are just as divorced from reality as the Ukrainian announcement dissolving the Crimean parliament.

For Ukrainian soldiers, the situation is unbearable. “We need official decisions — not this declaration from the new Crimean government,” says Major Alexei Nikoforov, leader of a Ukrainian military unit in Kerch, in eastern Crimea. When we talk on the phone, he tells us about the Russian soldiers stationed at his base. “They say they’re protecting us, but from whom? From ourselves. Their situation is no better than ours. They’re here illegally and their commanders are shocked too.”

Nikoforov interprets the ceasefire as meaning that Ukrainian bases won’t be stormed before March 21, but he still hasn’t heard any official announcement from Kiev. “The only help we get is from ordinary people who send us packages and transfer money to our accounts.” They used the donated money to buy a satellite dish so that they could watch Ukrainian TV, which was blocked in Crimea in the build-up to the referendum.

A difficult choice

The uncertainty is made all the more difficult by the fact that most of the soldiers live in Crimea and must now decide whether to move to Ukraine or join the Russian army. “I was born in Russia. My mother and my wife’s relatives live in Ukraine. I’ve lived in Kerch for years. So where do I belong?” asks Nikoforov. “A people has a right to self-determination but there are many different peoples in Crimea.”

On the day of the referendum, all soldiers from Nikoforov’s unit were allowed to go home and vote. “I spent the day with my family,” he says. “I don’t want to be involved in such nonsense.”

Nikoforov tells us that the cook from his unit gave his passport to his daughter so that she could vote for him. “At the polling station, they told her that was allowed as long as she voted for Russia.”

Defense Minister Tenyukh declared on Monday that “Crimea was and is Ukrainian territory and the units stationed there will remain there. The whole world is on our side and the question is being resolved diplomatically. But if necessary the army will carry out its duty.”

It is not only the situation in Crimea that is preoccupying the Ukrainian army, but also the fear that Putin and his troops will move on to Eastern Ukraine next. Last week several people died in pro-Russian demonstrations in the eastern cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk and the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed concerns about the safety of ethnic Russians in the region — a statement that sounded alarmingly similar to its earlier pronouncements about Crimea.

Cursed generation

According to Tenyukh, around 60,000 Russian soldiers have been stationed on Ukraine’s eastern border. In response, the Ukrainian parliament authorized partial mobilization of troops on Monday, calling up 20,000 reservists and 20,000 soldiers in a new national guard. However, the Ukrainian forces are woefully ill-prepared.

“Our equipment is old, much of it comes from the Soviet era,” 23-year-old Alexei tells us through the fence at his base at Belbek airport, near Sevastopol.

Alexei has no intention of risking his life. “I’m going back to Ukraine as soon as possible,” he says. He wants to leave the army but doesn’t know what to do next. His family lives in Lugansk on the Russian border and they worry that their region will soon be under Moscow’s control.

Alexei passes money through the fence so that 16-year-old Sergei can buy him supplies at the shop. Sergei’s parents work here at the Belbek unit and he hopes to join the Russian army. “I want to stay here and later study in Russia,” he says.

At the control points in Belbek, lower-ranking officers try to lighten the mood with a few jokes. “We’ll fight to the last cartridge, we’re Russian and Russians don’t give up,” laughs 40-year-old Yuri. He was born in Ukraine but is an ethnic Albanian. On his ancient record player, he listens to hits from the Perestroika era while his friends drink instant coffee with condensed milk.

“We all come from the USSR,” Yuri says. He doesn’t know what he wants to do in the future; it seems that every soldier has to make the decision for himself.

Andrei, in his late 30s, is still unsure, but his family wants to stay in Crimea. “We’re a cursed generation,” he sighs. “In the 90s we were too honest to earn big money like the rest of them, and now we have to start again from scratch.”

He goes to the map of Ukraine on the wall and points to a stretch from Kharkov in the east to Odessa in the south. “Putin will just take this whenever he wants,” he says. “Sometimes I think that Ukraine is just a laboratory for political experiments. And we have to live through it.”

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Protests against gasoline price hikes in Lebanon

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Wai!*

Welcome to Thursday, where leaked documents show how some countries are lobbying to change a key report on climate change, Moscow announces new full lockdown and the world's first robot artist is arrested over spying allegations. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt looks at the rapprochement between two leaders currently at odds with Europe: UK's BoJo and Turkey's Erdogan.

[*Bodo - India, Nepal and Bengal]


🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Documents reveal countries lobbying against climate action: Leaked documents have revealed that some of the world's biggest fossil fuel and meat producing countries, including Australia, Japan and Saudi Arabia, are trying to water down a UN scientific report on climate change and pushing back on its recommendations for action, less than one month before the COP26 climate summit.

• COVID update: The city of Moscow plans to reintroduce lockdown measures next week, closing nearly all shops, bars and restaurants, after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a nationwide seven-day workplace shutdown from Oct. 30 to combat the country's record surge in coronavirus cases and deaths. Meanwhile, India has crossed the 1 billion vaccinations milestone.

• India and Nepal floods death toll passes 180: Devastating floods in Nepal and the two Indian states of Uttarakhand and Kerala have killed at least 180 people, following record-breaking rainfall.

• Barbados elects first ever president: Governor general Dame Sandra Mason has been elected as Barbados' first president as the Caribbean island prepares to become a republic after voting to remove Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

• Trump to launch social media platform: After being banned from several social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter, former U.S. President Donald Trump announced he would launch his own app called TRUTH Social in a bid "to fight back against Big Tech." The app is scheduled for release early next year.

• Human remains found in hunt for Gabby Petito's fiance: Suspected human remains and items belonging to Brian Laundrie were found in a Florida park, more than one month after his disappearance. Laundrie was a person of interest in the murder of his fiancee Gabby Petito, who was found dead by strangulation last month.

• Artist robot detained in Egypt over spying fear: Ai-Da, the world's ultra-realistic robot artist, was detained for 10 days by authorities in Egypt where it was due to present its latest art works, over fears the robot was part of an espionage plot. Ai-Da was eventually cleared through customs, hours before the exhibition was due to start.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Nine crimes and a tragedy," titles Brazilian daily Extra, after a report from Brazil's Senate concluded that President Jair Bolsonaro and his government had failed to act quickly to stop the deadly coronavirus pandemic, accusing them of crimes against humanity.


📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Erdogan and Boris Johnson: A new global power duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too, write Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung in German daily Die Welt.

🇹🇷🇬🇧 According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey. The country has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

⚠️ Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey. She never supported French President Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU. But now that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

🤝 At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense. The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"He has fought tirelessly against the corruption of Vladimir Putin's regime. This cost him his liberty and nearly his life."

— David Sassoli, president of the European Parliament, wrote on Twitter, following the announcement that imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was awarded the 2021 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Union's highest tribute to human rights defenders. Navalny, who survived a poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin, is praised for his "immense personal bravery" in fighting Putin's regime. The European Parliament called for his immediate release from jail, as Russian authorities opened a new criminal case against the activist that could see him stay in jail for another decade.

💬  LEXICON

魷魚的勝利

Chinese video platform Youku is under fire after announcing it is launching a new variety show called in Mandarin Squid's Victory (Yóuyú de shènglì) on social media, through a poster that also bears striking similarities with the visual identity of Netflix's current South Korean hit series Squid Game. Youku apologized by saying it was just a "draft" poster.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Anyone want to guess Trump's first post on his upcoming social media platform...? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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