The bloody week of protests may have just ended in Kiev, but the revolution that gripped Ukraine in the past weeks is far from over. Violent clashes have now broken out in the country's southern region of Crimea, raising worries that it might become Ukraine's next flashpoint for conflict.
Thousands of pro- and anti-Russian protesters are facing off in front of the regional parliament in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, with only a thin police barricade to separate the opposing rallies. At least one person has reportedly died from being crushed in a massive crowd as scuffles between the groups continue.
Now that the pro-Ukraine groups are in power in Kiev, pro-Russian groups are in the uncomfortable position of being in the minority, and their actions are motivated in part by self-defense, explains Alexey Solomin, a Russian journalist currently covering the protests in the capital of Crimea.
“Most Russians in the Crimea area are afraid of persecution by the new government in Kiev, because there are some radical people in it,” Solomin told VICE News. “Some politicians in Kiev said that Russians should get the 'noncitizen' status. This is why so many people in the Crimea region want to leave Ukraine and have Russia to either save or back them.”
Russian state TV has also played in role in spreading the allegations of fascism amongst the new government in Kiev, which has helped stoke the flames of paranoia among pro-Russian groups in Crimea.
The protests came as Ukraine begins the process of picking their new interim government, after the former president Vicktor Yanukovych fled Kiev earlier this week. His whereabouts were a mystery until today, when the Russian news source RBC reported a sighting in the town of Barvikha, outside of Moscow. The report states that Yanokovych arrived Monday night and is currently in a health spa owned by the Russian Presidential Administration.
These clashes raise concerns about secessionist movements in Crimea, a semi-autonomous region where the majority of the population is still ethnically Russian. Russia maintains a large military presence there, most notably its Black Sea Fleet, which is based there and consists of nearly 1,500 vessels.
Anti-Russia groups shout “Ukraine, Ukraine” and struggle over a Russian flag.
The BBC reported that pro-Russian groups have been organizing demonstrations over the past several days, and protesters even went as far to tear down the Ukrainian flag in the eastern Crimean town of Kerch to replace it with the Russian one, amidst shouting of “Crimea is Russian!”
To make matters worse, Russia quietly began to conduct unannounced military drills yesterday, in an area adjacent to Ukraine. Russia maintains that these exercises, which are slated to continue until March 3 and involve 150,000 troops, 880 tanks, 90 aircraft and 80 navy ships, have nothing to do with the events in Ukraine. Although the Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu said in a statement the exercise is merely intended to "check the troops' readiness for action in crisis situations," it sure seems like a suspicious time for the Russian military to be carrying out combat exercises at full tilt. Reports are also emerging of Russian military vehicles filled with troops rolling into Crimea, adding to the already heightened tensions.
“It is more complicated in [the Crimean capital] Simferopol, because there are both Russians and Crimean Tatars and these two nations are locked in a permanent ‘cold war’, ” Solomin told VICE News. “Crimean Tatars are talking with Kiev while Russians are calling Kiev's new government neo-Nazis.”