Russians Cling To Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula

Ethnic Russians outnumber Ukrainians in the city of Crimea, even though the city is part of Ukraine. Most of those Russians have yet to reconcile themselves to the idea of an independent Ukraine. This is reinforced by the continued presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in the Crimean port. The Russian navy has leased the port until 2017, but the Western-influenced Ukrainian government wants to join NATO and says it will not renew the lease with Moscow.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Sarah Palin's first big interview since becoming the Republican vice presidential candidate, she took a hard line on several foreign policy issues, including Russia.

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska, Vice Presidential Nominee): We've got to keep an eye on Russia. For Russia to have exerted such pressure in terms of invading a smaller democratic country, unprovoked, is unacceptable, and we have to keep...

Mr. CHARLES GIBSON (ABC News): You believe unprovoked...

MONTAGNE: She was talking about Georgia, but Georgia isn't the only country worried about Russia. Although Vladimir Putin has said his country has no claims to any territory in Ukraine, many Russians do covet Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

It's home to an ethnic Russian majority and to Russia's Black Sea Fleet. NPR's Anne Garrels reports.

(Soundbite of boat)

ANNE GARRELS: A tour boat chugs through the Crimean port of Sevastopol, past memorials to some of Russia's most famous battles. For more than 200 years, this port has been home to Moscow's fleet, but now that Ukraine is independent, Moscow has to lease facilities.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

GARRELS: Russian tourists look approvingly at the Russian cruiser Mirage, which recently returned after taking part in Moscow's attacks on Georgia. But if Ukraine's current president has its way, Ukraine will join NATO and the Russian fleet will leave when its lease expires in 2017.

For 23-year-old tour guide Slava Olenof(ph), NATO is the enemy. He can't imagine Sevastopol without the Russian fleet.

Mr. SLAVA OLENOF (Tour Guide): (Through translator) This is a Russian city and the fleet is our glory.

GARRELS: Sevastopol indeed remains in most ways a Russian city. Signs, newspapers, schools are in Russian. Though almost a quarter of the city's 400,000 residents are ethnics Ukrainians, there's still not one Ukrainian school. The overwhelming ethnic Russian majority has not reconciled itself to living in Ukraine.

Sergei Demitrienko(ph) is one of thousands of Russian civilians here who work for the Russian fleet.

Mr. SERGEI DEMITRIENKO: (Through translator) One day they stamped my passport that I'm Ukrainian. They gave us away like animals and declared I am Ukrainian.

(Soundbite of splashing)

GARRELS: Crimea is attached to Ukraine by a causeway. It was considered part of Russia until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave it to the Ukraine as a present in 1954. At the time this was a symbolic gesture. Ukraine and Russia were both part of the USSR, but with the breakup, Crimea and with it the port of Sevastopol became part of independent Ukraine.

Seventeen years later, ethnic Russians, like 65-year-old Valentina Costina(ph), still bristle.

Ms. VALENTINA COSTINA: (Through translator) We are forced to be Ukrainian. I haven't learned the language and I don't want to. I am a Russian. Maybe Russia will take us back somehow.

GARRELS: Unconfirmed reports abound that Russia is issuing passports to ethnic Russians, just as it did to South Ossetians in Georgia. Russia justified its invasion of Georgia by saying it had come to the aid of Russian citizens. Adding fuel to this smoldering fire, Moscow's powerful mayor, Yury Luzhkov, and other Russian politicians have demanded Ukraine return Sevastopol to Russia.

This, combined with other Russian activities, alarms Ukrainian historian and activist Igor Losev.

Mr. IGOR LOSEV (Historian, Activist): (Through translator) Russian businesses sponsor Russian schools, where Russian kids are indoctrinated into Russian patriotism and empire. Russia is scooping up property. Russia backs dozens of publications, printed incidentally on the Black Sea Fleet Press, and those publications are patently anti-Ukrainian.

GARRELS: Ukrainian analyst Alexander Shusko(ph) says there are also disturbing signs the Russian fleet intends to stay beyond its current lease.

Mr. ALEXANDER SHUSKO (Analyst): We have to start preparation now; lots of steps. Russia is not preparing to withdrawal.

GARRELS: The head of Crimean's government, Anatoly Gritsenko, dismisses all this as hysteria.

Mr. ANATOLY GRITSENKO: There is absolutely no problem. The Russian government has never expressed its designs on Crimea. This is a made-up problem. Moscow's mayor does not represent the Russian government.

GARRELS: But Gritsenko advises the government in Kiev to proceed cautiously, taking into consideration the feelings of ethnic Russians. Other politicians here are not so diplomatic, warning the future is unpredictable, especially if the Ukrainian government forces the Ukrainian language on people here.

History, ethnic rivalry, nostalgia for the past, and Moscow's desire to keep its fleet in this strategically key port are a potentially explosive mixture. Ukrainians says peace depends on Russia. Ethnic Russians say it all depends on Ukraine.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Sevastopol.

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