Ukraine's Crimea Region Asks Russia For Protection

Millions of people in eastern Ukraine speak Russian as their first language. Russia's foreign minister complains about what he calls "neo-fascist sentiment" in western Ukraine.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

This morning, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, ordered a test of combat-readiness of his military forces in central and western Russia. A major Russian news agency carried a statement by Russia's defense minister. He gives no immediate reason for the test, but those military districts are near Ukraine, where a pro-Russian president was just thrown out of office.

Demonstrators in the Ukrainian province of Crimea have been flying Russian flags, and today, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov complained to a European human rights group about what he called neo-fascist sentiment in Western Ukraine, and efforts to turn Russian speakers into non-citizens.

NPR's Corey Flintoff has returned from Sochi to his base in Moscow, and he joins us on the line. Corey, good morning.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Let's talk about some of the moves that Russia has made. They've withdrawn their ambassador from Ukraine. And just the other day, Russia's prime minister referred to the crisis that toppled Ukraine's president as an armed mutiny. I mean, very different messages from what we're hearing from the West. Explain to us what exactly we're hearing from Russia right now.

FLINTOFF: Well, Russian officials have been doing everything they can to make it clear that they don't recognize the legitimacy of this current parliament or its right to form an interim government. Prime Minister Medvedev made that very clear with the armed mutiny comment. But it's worth considering what the intended audience for all this is. You know, all these statements are reported on Russia's state-run television, along with the images of some of the worst violence during the protest.

There's very little mention of violence by the Ukrainian riot police that helped trigger the clashes. The impression that ordinary Russians would get from that news coverage is really that the Ukrainian Revolution is very much a thing to be feared.

GREENE: And, Corey, when we talk about this message of fear coming from Russia, I mean, they suggest that pro-European segments in Ukraine have been trying to suppress the Russian-speaking part of the population in the east. Is there any truth to this?

FLINTOFF: Well, Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement, pointing out that the new parliament is passing laws that infringe on the rights of Russians and other ethnic minorities. In fact, this statement - and this is a quote - accused the parliament of "suppressing dissenters in various parts of Ukraine by dictatorial and sometimes even terrorist means."

GREENE: Wow. That's tough language.

FLINTOFF: Exactly. And it's essentially the very same rhetoric that's been used by the opposition against the Yanukovych government for months.

The new Ukrainian Parliament did give its enemies some ammunition here by repealing a law that made Russian an official second language in the areas where the Russian-speaking population is greater than 10 percent. And the repeal of that law is being used to frighten Russian-speakers into believing that their rights will be taken away.

GREENE: And we should say there are a lot of Russian-speakers in Eastern Ukraine who seem angry, I mean, that there really is a pro-Russia movement right now in the east and the south, in places like Crimea.

FLINTOFF: Well, it's hard to gauge how big it really is. Several thousand people turned out in Sevastopol on Sunday. That's a city in Crimea. And it's a place where Russia bases its Black Sea Naval fleet. And that town is a bit like, well, San Diego. It's full of military retirees. Many of them have Russian citizenship, and they're deeply suspicious of the opposition in Kiev. So that gets people out on the street.

In addition, there's been a Russian far-right lawmaker named Leonid Slutsky who's been visiting the city. And he's been promising the pro-Russian protesters that Russia will protect them if their lives are in danger.

GREENE: Protect them, of course, raises the possibility - one could imagine - of Russia actually sending troops. And we should say that Slutsky, it doesn't sound like, represents the views of the Kremlin, necessarily. But how far does Moscow want this to go? Do they want these views in the east to grow to boil to a point where there could be some kind of separatist movement?

FLINTOFF: Well, there certainly seems to be the possibility of a strategy from Russia that would support these pro-Russian protests and these pro-separatist groups in the east and the south as a way of keeping up pressure on the interim government in Kiev, keeping them from moving too far toward the West. So, at this point, what we've heard from Russian officials is that they're not interested in intervening militarily. But they certainly might support separatist groups.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Corey Flintoff, joining us from Moscow. Corey, thanks a lot.

FLINTOFF: My pleasure, David.

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