On Wednesday, the Kremlin ordered surprise military exercises in a western region of Russia bordering Ukraine and put troops in the area on high alert. The move, which Russia insists were routine, comes as ethnic Russians in the Crimean Peninsula push back against the pro-Western protests that forced out the country’s president and toppled the government.
In Crimea’s capital, Simferopol, pro-Russia demonstrators confronted pro-Western ones, leaving at least one person dead—an elderly man who died of a heart attack at the rival demonstrations outside local government buildings. “Crimea was Russian territory until the Soviet Union ceded it to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine in 1954,” The New York Times reports, “and Russians there have already pleaded for the Kremlin’s intervention to protect the region from Ukraine’s new leadership.” Crimea is already an autonomous region within Ukraine and has more self-governance powers than other regions in the country
As Lucian Kim at BuzzFeed phrased it:
By conducting military exercises close to Ukraine’s border, Putin is giving the finger to the interim government and its western allies, without facing any consequences. The Kremlin understands perfectly well that keeping a naval base in Crimea is much more useful than annexing the entire peninsula, since it is Ukraine’s most vulnerable part.
The military exercises are set to begin Friday and last until March 3. They are also expected to involve the Russian naval fleet stationed in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. According to The Washington Post, “Sevastopol looks, sounds and feels like a little corner of Russia, and activists here have declared that it will remain that way, no matter what happens in the rest of Ukraine.”
On Thursday morning, armed men seized the parliament building in Crimea. It is unclear who they are affiliated with or what their goals are.