Celebrations In Crimea — And Worries Among Troops Left Behind

Now that Crimea has voted to separate from Ukraine and join Russia, Ukrainian troops still stationed on the peninsula have become even less secure.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Crimea is now an independent sovereign state. Putin signed an order to that effect today, a day after election officials declared that Crimea had voted to join Russia. In any case, Crimean lawmakers are wasting no time in starting the formal process of splitting off from Ukraine.

The U.S. and European Union are not happy. In a moment, we'll hear about the sanctions they're putting in place, but we'll start this hour with NPR's Gregory Warner in Crimea.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Crimeans woke up this morning to a pronouncement by the Crimean parliament that 97 percent of those who had voted had chosen to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Construction worker Sergei Stepchinikov(ph) said that Russian-speakers like him had been waiting for this day since the fall of the Soviet Union.

SERGEI STEPCHINIKOV: (Through interpreter) I think this wave will not stop here and will go further. What's happening now is the reconstruction of a greater Russia.

WARNER: The swift counter-announcement of U.S. and European Union sanctions was met by some here with the glee of a long-awaited soccer match. Twenty-three year old Sasha Masunov(ph) is a DJ who plays patriotic music for the nationalist Russian Unity Party.

SASHA MASUNOV: (Through interpreter) I think that Russia will act in a mirror reflection and also impose sanctions against America and Europe and everything will happen symmetrically.

WARNER: So fully indentified with Russia, many parts of Crimea swiftly become that it's easy to forget that President Putin has not actually yet agreed annex this Ukrainian peninsula. Today, he signed an order recognizing Crimea as a sovereign state. Still, Crimean parliament declared the ruble the new currency, passed a law moving clocks two hours ahead to Moscow time. Notary Publics took a collective vacation day to discuss navigating the switch from Ukrainian to Russian procedure.

But there are still signs of dissent. Graffiti chalked on the sidewalk had the word Putin with the T as a swastika. In the city's center, Cossacks in fur hats and camouflage guarded the parliament as a Russian biker gang called the Night Wolves, of which Putin is an honorary member, rode past with Russian flags. I'd met one of these bikers, Peter Nikitan(ph) the day before when he rode into a polling station with 20 other bikers to, as he said, prevent any provocation.

PETER NIKITAN: But, you know, there is old proverb: if you want peace, prepare to war.

WARNER: Do you think this might be, for people who are pro-Ukrainian or they want to vote Ukraine, do you think this might be a little intimidating?

NIKITAN: Actually, I don't care how they will feel about this. They did their Maidan and why can we do what we want here?

WARNER: Maidan is Independence Square in Kiev, shorthand here for the revolution that deposed the Ukrainian president. There's this idea you hear throughout Crimea that the perceived illegitimacy of that revolution has made everything that's happened on this side of the border legitimate, including today when parliament voted to nationalize all Ukrainian state property in Crimea.

Uncertain was the fate of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers effectively held hostage in their army bases by pro-Russian troops, but not yet given permission from Kiev to evacuate. I met Colonel Igor Mamchur(ph) outside the headquarters of the Ukrainian Coast Guard in Crimea.

COLONEL IGOR MAMCHUR: (Through interpreter) You understand that every day the situation is psychologically more and more difficult. We're just trying to do whatever we can to protect the life and health of our subordinates.

WARNER: So he's organized emails and videos from supporters in Kiev. This weekend, his men built barricades more as stress relief than any real defense against overwhelming Russian firepower and each day they play patriotic Ukrainian music as loud as possible.

MAMCHUR: (Speaking foreign language)

WARNER: Listen, he tells me, you can hear music on the grounds there. And it was true. Very faintly, through the barbed wire fence, you could make out the sound of an accordion. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Simferopol.

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