He sent us a dispatch this morning and the situation sounds dire. Crimea is headed for a vote this week on whether to a) join Russia or b) declare its independence from Ukraine. "There is no option to maintain the current status, and leaving the ballot blank renders it invalid," Collison writes. "The result is a forgone conclusion."
No flights are allowed into Simferopol between now and the Sunday vote unless they've come from Moscow—can't fly from Kiev, can't fly from Istanbul—and thuggish-looking pro-Russian "self-defense" boys are patrolling the streets wearing red armbands and the Ribbon of St. George.
“Be careful who to talk to," Larisa said as my colleague Vasya and I got off the bus in Feodosia, a Crimean port and resort city on the Black Sea. "Your accent could cause problems for you here.”
Larisa, a Ukrainian, is scared out of her mind about what will happen to her and other non-Russians in Crimea in the coming weeks and months. She said she expects that many Ukrainians, who make up a significant minority of Crimea, and other non-Russians will leave if they can.
"I have never been religious," she said. "I have Jewish blood, but I have never felt Jewish. I realize that I can move to Israel. I don't want to. I don't have any money, and I would lose my home, but I understand now that it is a possibility."
Larisa is not the only person in Crimea facing this very real dilemma. Opinion polls suggest that Crimeans who favor Russian annexation are in the minority. But they are a very vocal minority, and one that has the backing of Russia’s propaganda machine.
On Sunday, Crimea will hold a referendum over whether to join Russia. It is a complete farce for many reasons. The Crimean parliament voted for independence and decided to hold the poll after the regional leadership was reshuffled by force when gunmen stormed the parliament building late last month. The Ukrainian government and most of the international community (except for such champions of democracy as Syria's Bashar al-Assad) consider the Russian incursion in Crimea as well as the peninsula’s current leadership to be illegal.
The ballot is also blatantly rigged. There are two options: join Russia or return to the 1992 constitution, which would mean de facto independence from Ukraine. There is no option to maintain the current status, and leaving the ballot blank renders it invalid. The result is a forgone conclusion.
Signs in Feodosia urge residents to vote in favor of Russian annexation.
Crimean Tatars, the Turkic people who were expelled under Stalin but have partially returned since Ukraine’s independence, have called for a boycott. Ukrainians living there are similarly disillusioned. Authorities have already printed too many ballots, and vote rigging is expected. So the referendum will pass with an overwhelming majority, and Moscow will claim that the people have spoken. Then what?
Whatever happens, Crimea won't be the same. Putin and his misinformation drive, in coordination with Russian military forces, have managed to do what the Kremlin does best—stir up fear and make everyone paranoid of each other. A vocal minority of people in Crimea are now so convinced that Ukraine is full of fascists that they can no longer be reasoned with. If you try to explain that things in Kyiv and the rest of Ukraine aren't like they are portrayed in Russian media, you are a Nazi or a foreign provocateur. The "self-defense" forces that are roaming the streets only serve to deepen the paranoia.
A train car reads "death to fascism" in Sevastopol.
In Simferopol, a group of Russian supporters berated me and Vasya while we were doing a report, calling us fascists and liars. I told them we were working for a Jewish news channel. It didn’t matter. We were still fascists. The irony was completely lost.
Soldiers in unmarked uniforms have surrounded Ukrainian military bases throughout the peninsula. In many cases they have taken them over and prevented Ukrainian troops from entering. In Feodosia, Ukrainian soldiers are still on base, but the perimeter is being guarded by the foreign troops. It’s clear they are Russian, but they still refuse to be identified. Locals have begun referring to them as “little green men.”
We took a taxi to the base in Feodosia, where we were supposed to meet a Ukrainian soldier for an interview. Along the way, Vasya and the woman who was accompanying us got into a discussion with the driver, who was pro-Russian. He gave the usual schtick: fascists in Kyiv, Russia will save us and give us money, etc. After he dropped us off, we watched as he drove a few dozen meters down the road, pulled over, and spoke to a man who was walking toward the base.
A few minutes later, one of the little green men approached us and asked us what we were doing there.
“Which army are you from?” Vasya asked him.
“Oh, one of them,” he said with a big grin.
“Is that a real weapon?”
“No, it’s a toy. I bought it at the central market for 15 hryvnias.”
Time to leave.
By this point, if there were any doubts left that this was a military occupation, those were put to bed. But it wasn’t until we made our way to Sevastopol that I realized the extent of the military’s presence. On the bus, Vasya got into an argument with a woman who had told someone next to her that there would be a checkpoint and that soldiers would look at everyone’s documents before we entered the city.
“Why? This is my country, and it’s my own personal business where I travel,” Vasya told her.
“If you have your documents, what is the problem?” she responded.
I realized that I might be the problem.
At the checkpoint, an officer got on the bus and made a quick inspection. After he got off, one of the unmarked soldiers came in.
“You two. Gather your bags and come with me.”
The woman had told them about us. We got off the bus, and the soldier and a police officer led us about 10 meters down the road. There, the officer interrogated us, asking what we were doing in Crimea. My Washington state ID was especially interesting to them. I explained that I was student studying Russian in Ukraine (technically true). They told me I shouldn’t be in Crimea. Fortunately, we had bought return tickets to Kyiv, and our train was due to leave in a few hours. We explained that we were just passing through, and after some more questioning they let us back on the bus.
“Don’t cause any problems,” the officer told me.
Every other billboard in Sevsatopol is plastered with pro-Russian propaganda: Stop fascism! Make the right choice on March 16! Bring Crimea home to Russia!
We saw one of the women who had been on the bus that took us to the city. She made a crack about how it was nice that the soldiers had decided to let us in.
“What happened back there is just like what people were doing to the Jews in the 1940s,” Vasya told her. She turned white and we left.
I realize that it’s an overused old trope to invoke World War II, but that is the language that is being spoken in Russia and Ukraine at the moment. The comparisons are impossible to avoid when you hear them being repeated over and over again every day. Seeing “self-defense” forces marching through the streets of the city, carrying shields and wearing red armbands is intimidating, and I can only imagine how terrifying it must be for the largely silent majority who don’t want Russian troops in Crimea and don’t want life to change.
Vasya asked a woman in Sevastopol which tram would take us to the bus station.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Kyiv,” Vasya responded.
“Kyiv? Go find a police officer, show him your documents, and he will take care of you,” she said.
Not everyone has bought the propaganda. While I was taking photos of Russian flags on a pier in Sevastopol, an elderly man who looked like he had probably been drinking came up beside me and began shouting in very colorful language.
“What is this shit? How can they do this? The bastards! I’m a Soviet man, a Russian man, a Ukrainian man, a Crimean. How many times does this place have to change? Twenty-three years and now they come to change it again. For what? There is no sense in it. They can go to hell.”
Ukrainians and Tatars rally against Russian aggression in Simferopol—the man in black is holding a drawing of Putin with Hitler's mustache and slicked hair.