Chaotic In Crimea

Armed men just seized government buildings in Simferopol, the capital of Ukraine’s autonomous Crimea region, raising the Russian flag above the parliament building and refusing to allow workers in (NYT):

Police officers sealed off access to the buildings but said that they had no idea who was behind the assault, which sharply escalated tensions in a region that serves as home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and also to a number of radical pro-Russia groups that have appealed to Moscow to protect them from the new interim government in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

The Lede is live-blogging. Simon Shuster puts the event in context:

Since revolutionaries took over Ukraine’s capital a week ago, the ethnic Russian majority in the Crimea has largely refused to recognize the new government. In some Crimean cities, citizens have begun forming pro-Russian militias to resist the new authorities. “There’s not a chance in hell we’re going to accept the rule of that fascist scum,” Sergei Bochenko, the commander of a local militia group in the Crimea, told TIME last week in the city of Sevastopol. He said his battalion was armed with assault rifles and had begun training to “defend our land.”

Tatyana Malyarenko and Stefan Wolff take a wider look at Crimean separatism:

Separatist forces have a broad social base in Crimea. Available polling data since 2006 has consistently indicated that more than 50% of residents in the peninsula would support annexation to Russia. These figures suggest a strong pro-Russian sentiment among the region’s ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians, but not one that has so far automatically translated into an active pursuit of separatism.

At the same time, there are also strong anti-separatist forces in Crimea, notably the Crimean Tatars, who make up approximately 12% of the peninsula’s population. One of the Soviet Union’s nationalities that experienced deportation under Stalin, they have gradually returned to the Crimea since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. While they have continued to experience ethnic prejudice and discrimination in Ukraine, they are, for obvious historical reasons, fundamentally opposed to Crimea “returning” to Russia.

Meanwhile, Yanukovych is seeking refuge in Moscow:

Russian newspaper RBK reported on Thursday that ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was spotted at a Moscow hotel and is currently staying at a state-run sanatorium nearby. Although, his presence in Russia is still unconfirmed, the paper carried Yanukovych’s plea for protection from the Kremlin. “I have to ask Russia to ensure my personal safety from extremists,” he wrote. Despite fleeing, he still insists that he is still the rightful leader of Ukraine.

And, as we noted yesterday, Russia is carrying out military exercises not far from Ukraine:

Okay, so according to Ria Novosti, more than 150,000 troops are due to take part in the drills, as well as 90 planes and more than 120 helicopters. While we don’t know precisely where the troops will be, Moscow has said the drills would happen in the Western and Central military districts. … [W]hile the Western district does border Ukraine, it also covers a huge amount of other land, too. It is possible that some of the troops in this district may be relatively close to Ukraine: According to the Wall Street Journal, the 20th Army, based about 200 miles from the border, is listed to be involved in ”operational and tactical exercises.” On the other hand, the military district in the South is the only one that borders Crimea, and Russia says it is not the part of the drill at all.

Ed Morrissey fears that Putin is laying the groundwork for intervention:

For the moment, he’s still playing his cards close to the vest; he’s agreed to sit down for IMF discussions on a Ukraine bailout to take the place of the one Putin suspended, for instance. Yanukovich is simply a clown show, though, as his credibility in Ukraine is shot, and Putin knows it. The Crimean peninsula will be the flashpoint for any action, and it’s not long odds on Ukraine losing it, either diplomatically or otherwise.

But Timothy Snyder warns that meddling in Crimea would be dangerous for Russia, setting a “rather troubling precedent” for similar meddling by China in the east.