“We’re here to protect Sevastopol,” said one of the men who stopped our car on the road south from the Crimean capital of Simferopol to the more famous port city he claimed to be guarding.
He and his friends stomping their feet around a campfire wore the same ramshackle outfits as the “Self Defence” units guarding barricades throughout central Kyiv: military surplus camouflage and ratty balaclavas. They held anti-riot shields and even gave themselves the same name Self Defence name as their Kyiv counterparts.
The most visible difference, and one that spoke volumes, was the flag affixed to a military-style truck parked nearby. It was not the blue and yellow of Ukraine, but the red, white and blue tricolour of Russia.
Crimea is a peninsula dangling off the southern coast of Ukraine where most of the population is ethnic Russian. It once belonged to Russia but was given to Ukraine during Soviet times. Russia still docks its Black Sea naval fleet here. Many Crimean Russians reacted with fear and anger to the ouster of former president Viktor Yanukovych by a popular uprising that was strongest in Kyiv and in western Ukraine. They worry ethnic nationalism fuels the protesters, and describe them as fascists and worse.
There have been rallies in Crimea against the new government in Kyiv and in favour of independence for Crimea, or its union with Russia. At such events, demonstrators wave Russian flags, chant “Crimea is Russia!” and praise the Berkut special police who revolutionaries in Kyiv hold responsible for shooting almost 100 of their comrades to death.
“Did you see what happened in the Maidan?” the man at the roadblock campfire asks, referring to Kyiv’s main square, where the demonstrations and battles between police and protesters took place. “Do you like people dying? We don’t want war.”
And so, he says, he and his friends set up the roadblock to search passing cars for “provocateurs” who might try to stir up unrest.
He especially wants to prevent the sort of rally that took place earlier in the day outside the regional parliament in Simferopol. There, thousands of pro-Russian demonstrators faced off against equal numbers of mostly Crimean Tartars, an ethnic and religious minority in Crimea who largely back the Euro-Maidan movement and want to preserve a united Ukraine.
“We remember the 1944 deportations,” one Tatar man told Maclean’s, a reference to the Stalin-ordered deportation of the Crimean Tatar population during the Second World War. Others noted the poor standards of human rights and rule of law in today’s Russia and said that only in a true democracy of the type Ukraine aspires to become could their rights as a minority be protected.
The two sides shouted and occasionally shoved each other, but the event was mostly peaceful. A man who died at the scene is believed to have succumbed to cardiac arrest. Eventually, the Tatar demonstrators left voluntarily, and a local politician, Sergiy Aksenov, climbed a nearby ledge and tried to calm the pro-Russian demonstrators, urging them to be peaceful and work toward a united Ukraine.
Back on the road to Sevastopol, the men in balaclavas got irritated answering questions and told us to leave.
One followed us to our car and took a close-up photograph of our licence plate, and then one of me. We arrived in Sevastopol late this evening. Our hotel was showing footage of a concert that took place earlier in the day. A woman sang beside a banner adorned with a Russian flag. The banner read, “Fight for Crimea.” The battle of Ukraine’s future is shifting here.
Note: There are two kinds of tricolour flags in the video. The one with the broader stripe of white in the middle is the Crimean flag, held in this protest by those opposing Kyiv’s new government. The one with three even bars of red, white and blue is the Russian one, held by similarly-minded protesters.
Maclean’s correspondent Michael Petrou is on the ground in Ukraine. You can follow his reporting here: