Tensions Over Ukraine's Future Are Most Acute In Crimea

The Crimean Peninsula has a majority ethnic Russian population. Armed men took over 2 government buildings and raised the Russian flag. David Greene talks to Courtney Weaver of the Financial Times.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And there are more developments in Ukraine this morning. Russian news agencies are quoting a source in the Russian government, saying ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych is on Russian territory, and under the protection of the Russian government. This comes at a moment when the Russia-Ukraine relationship is very tense. This morning, unidentified armed men took over two government buildings in Crimea and raised the Russian flag.

Crimea is a province of Ukraine where most people are ethnic Russian, and many of them are worried about the new Ukrainian government's tilt away from Russia and towards Europe. Ukraine put its security forces on high alert, and in Moscow, the Russian foreign ministry said Russia will defend its, quote, "compatriots" strongly and uncompromisingly. Reporter Courtney Weaver from the Financial Times is in Simferopol, Crimea's capital, and she spoke to us a short while ago. Courtney, good morning.

COURTNEY WEAVER: Hi, David. How are you?

GREENE: Well, Courtney, this image with a Russian flag over government buildings in Crimea certainly sends some kind of symbolic message. I mean, what's the latest. What's happening?

WEAVER: So, basically, what we know at this point is that at 5 AM, around 50 armed men stormed a building carrying grenades and shotguns. There were about eight policemen on hand at the time, and they basically just gave over the building to these militants. We believe they are members of these new militias and brigades that have been forming here in Crimea. Since Friday, local pro-Russian activists have been gathering the people who'd be willing to fight for either Crimea's autonomy, or to be part of Russia. So that's basically what we're seeing at this point.

GREENE: And there has been some kind of local response. You said there are police, but are - did they just give up and let this militia take over the building, or has it been some kind of police response?

WEAVER: I mean, they were vastly outnumbered, according to the eyewitnesses that I spoke to. The police now are keeping a pretty wide perimeter around the government buildings that's been seized, but it's basically protecting the people on the street and the journalists from getting hurt. Inside, this morning, there was a loud bang when journalists tried to approach the building. So it seems like the police are trying to protect everyone else's safety outside the building.

GREENE: And we should say this is a part of Ukraine that has been part of Russia in the past, and where there are a lot of people who feel much closer emotional ties to Moscow, and it's been the case for some time.

WEAVER: Absolutely. So, yesterday, actually, what you had was thousands of ethnic Russians massing on the main square in Simferopol and facing off against the Tatars, which are an ethnic minority here. And talking to the ethnic Russian protestors, what you hear them say is: We don't want to be part of the Ukraine. We want to be part of Russia. And they're also very against the new government in Kiev. They see this national party, Svoboda, here as being fascist, and think that now is the right time for Crimea to return to Russia.

You know, a couple of days ago, it seemed like there was no way that this question of Crimean secession was really in play. Now that things are getting quite violent now with these armed men in the capital here, in Simferopol, the situation is really escalating quite quickly. So it's unclear how things are going to end at this point.

GREENE: You mention the possibility of secession. I mean, is that what you're hearing from a lot of ethnic Russians in Crimea right now, that that's what they want?

WEAVER: I would like to say that, you know, it's not all ethnic Russians wants secession. A lot of them just want autonomy. They say they are Ukrainians. But as things escalate, I think you're hearing more and more Russians saying that their future will be better lined with Russia, at this point, than with Ukraine.

GREENE: And we should help our listeners get a sense for some of the names of these cities we're talking about. You're in the capital, Simferopol. Sevastopol is a city where there's a huge Russian naval base. The acting president of Ukraine today warned Russia that they should keep their military personnel on that base, or they would consider it an act of aggression. I mean, that seems like the tension is just growing right now.

WEAVER: Yeah. I mean, it's just over the past couple of days. It's really quite remarkable how much escalated. This morning, there are reports that there were armed personnel carriers on the road, either from Kiev or from Sevastopol, and the situation's still very much in flux.

GREENE: We've been speaking to reporter Courtney Weaver from the Financial Times. She joined us from Simferopol, the capital of Crimea. Courtney, thanks very much.

WEAVER: Thank you.

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