Europe and Russia have not been closer to war then when Crimea became part of Russia in 2013. The joining of a piece of land, formerly belonging to Ukraine, to Russia enraged many in Europe. Reactions of Russian media however, were rather the other way around. All were claiming, of course, to tell the truth, but it all sounded too hard to believe and I never really made up my mind what to think. There was only one way to find out: travel to nomans land myself. Venture into the part of Russia no western journalist dared to venture. Go to Crimea!
The Euromaidan revolt in Kiev was hailed by many as a revolution for freedom and democracy. People protested peacefully against Viktor Yanukovych, a man widely believed to be corrupt, to have poisoned his political adversaries. People in Ukraine wanted closer ties to Europe and protested against Yanukovych his refusal to sign the agreement. The protests soon turned violent as Yanukovych send his police to beat down the protests. European MP’s came to support the protestors and even the US assistant secretary of state, Victoria Nuland came to the square the hand out bread to support the protests. Democracy and freedom eventually prevailed in the end and the dictator was toppled!
Victoria Nuland (assistant secretary of state) offering bread to Euromaidan protestors
European MP’s Guy Verhofstadt and Hans van Baalen supporting protestors on the Maidan.
But… This was the view generally held in the West. The view was very different in Russia and with the Russian population, including the ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Even though Yanukovych was generally not regarded as a saint, the protesters were seen as far worse. Almost one third of the protesters, in fact the protesters most active, were neo-nazi’s linked to the far rightwing part Pravy Sector and Svaboda. (These right wing protesters were well known for their support for WWII fascists like Stepan Bandera, responsible for the murder of thousands of people.) And while the Maidan was commencing people in support of closer ties to Russia came to Kiev as well to show their support for the government. In some instances, the buses carrying people from as far away as Simferopol were attacked by anti-government protestors. (1)
Oleh Tyahnybok leader of the far-right Svaboda Party (Original)
After the Maidan revolution proved successful, one of the first things Ukraine saw was the destruction of many monuments honouring the Red Army soldiers for the liberation of Ukraine. A move highly controversial for Russians, a country where more than one in ten people would die in World War II. Even worse was the language law that was announced which no longer recognized Russian as an official language in Ukraine.
A WWII monument being removed in Stryi, Ukraine. (Original)
The combination of the Neo-Nazi’s, the destruction of WWII monuments and the prohibition to talk Russian did not make it hard to associate the Euromaidan with WWII. More so, the Maidan was supported by the US and the EU, senior US officials even visited the square. (2) In the many cities all across Ukraine people would go to the streets to protest during and after the revolution against the referendum.
The people in Crimea would take it one step further still as they were trying to organize a referendum for independence from Ukraine. But in the process leading to this referendum, Ukrainian nationalist tried their best to prevent any such actions by the inhabitants of Crimea. Despite that whole trains filled with extremists would travel to Simferopol in the Crimea locals would await them armed with only shields and sticks. And at the night that a similar thing threatened to happen at the airfield of Simferopol unknown Green Men appeared from nowhere.
Polite People (Original)
Though initially Russian president Putin would deny that these “Polite People” were Russian soldiers, later he would admit that they were. These ‘Polite People’ would block any outside interference in the Crimea until the referendum. The people voting ´За´ (for) was in the huge majority. More than 95% of the voters would choose to join the Russian Federation. And so Crimea would join Russia.
Despite I had strong reason to believe people in Crimea were indeed happy to join Russia, it still deemed on me. Were the elections fair? The results seem to be too positive. Russian media portraits as if the Crimeans are too friendly. Meanwhile, no messages about what Crimean locals thoughed are heard in western media, except that the Crimean tartars are unhappy with the decision and strong insinuation that the whole election process was not democratic and Russian control. What to believe? Only one way to find out: Travel to Crimea myself.
To be Continued.
2 – If this does not seem strange to you. Imagine Putin giving public support to a protest that is trying to topple your government. Public outrage would be total.