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Russia Formalizes Its Takeover Of Crimea


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Russian forces have taken a major air force base in the Crimea. Belbek airbase was one of the few military facilities in the Crimean Peninsula that was still controlled by Ukraine after the annexation of the peninsula by Russian forces. NPR's Gregory Warner is in Crimea's capital of Simferopol. Gregory, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: Russia's been taking over bases in Crimea all this week following the referendum. Was this expected? Were there any signs of resistance, near as you can tell?

WARNER: There were signs of resistance. So, just to give you a sense, so this was an airbase - the tarmac area was taken weeks ago. That was in the initial occupation by Russian forces. This part of the base is where the soldiers and the pilots lived, and lived with their families. There were houses, apartments right around there. So not a strategic area but certainly symbolic. And all these bases had a deadline of yesterday. This base missed that deadline; they had an ultimatum of today to evacuate the base or be stormed.

Significantly, this was one of the few bases that did announce their intention to fight. We're not sure what that would lead to, whether it would lead to death. And this is all because of the commander. Very interesting guy named Yuli Montir(ph), who became famous for a YouTube video that he put up, saying that he'd stand until he heard from Kiev, which has not given any information to these soldiers as to what they're supposed to do. Whether they're supposed to evacuate, evacuate or fight. And so when the Russians did come, it was very expected. They came today and the attack was very swift. Military people describe it as very professional. It was clearly designed to minimize casualties, and it seems to have done so. In fact, an ambulance followed the tank that crashed open the gate today.

SIMON: Gregory, what's the range of feelings you've been hearing this week about Crimea and the relationship that's coming with Russia?

WARNER: You know, there's obviously a lot of happiness, a lot of victory. We can't deny that. I mean, the irony here is that when Crimea was part of Ukraine, there were plenty of Russians that lived here. In fact, mostly Russians that lived here with no problem. Now, that it's become Russia, people that feel loyal to Ukraine are very scared. They feel worried that they'll be blacklisted, they'll be ostracized. You know, and there's been - it's been so fast, this Russification that people are feeling disoriented and they don't really know what will happen with their property, their patents, they wonder if their houses will be taken if they don't accept the Russian passport. And a lot of these rumors going out - and then there's also a climate of physical violence, actually abductions and beatings of activists and journalists.

SIMON: Now, initially, the authorities there had promised not to nationalize Ukrainian state property. Has that been the case this week?

WARNER: Well, no. There's been a, yeah, right, wholesale land grab, actually, you'd call it. It began with the gas fields and now has moved, as we said, to, one by one, to the military bases. And we should say, it's not only the military bases, but it's also all the Ukrainian hardware - the tanks and the guns, missiles, or whatever Ukraine has here. In fact, they had a lot of weaponry here.

Yesterday, we saw Russian soldiers just driving off with this stuff. So it shows the illegality, really, of this whole annexation because even if you were to accept Putin's logic for annexing Crimea - it was historically part of Russia, etcetera, etcetera - this did not extend to commandeering Ukrainian military hardware.

There is one thing to note, though. This new prime minister, Sergey Aksyonov, he reportedly owes a lot of money to Ukrainian banks. So now that he's cancelled the Ukrainian civil code, at least he, himself, is, you know, gotten out of his own debts.

SIMON: Yeah. NPR's Gregory Warner in Simferopol, Crimea. Thanks so much.

WARNER: Thanks a lot, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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