Nation & World

With Ukraine powerless to help, Tatars face certain Russian victory in Crimea

The governor of this Crimean district, Ilmi Umer, wants Ukrainian and world leaders to consider a couple of facts as they think about how to respond to the coming referendum in Crimea on leaving Ukraine and joining Russia.

The first fact is that Crimea is not self-sufficient. He points out that it relies entirely upon Ukraine for its drinking water and electricity and for much of its natural gas. Crimea has a large ethnic Russian population, but unlike the mainland, it doesn’t share a border with Russia. A thin stretch of the Black Sea separates them.

The second fact is that Russia knows this. Between 20,000 and 40,000 Russian troops are thought now to be on Crimean soil. Russian President Vladimir Putin denies this, calling the troops Crimean defenders, but the troops admit they are Russian military, and are certainly supplied as such.

Putin also claims he has the authority from the Russian Parliament to send many more troops into Ukraine, and the word out of Kiev is that Russian forces are moving toward the 1,500-mile shared border. Ukrainian defense experts now say their military is basically a sham, with only 6,000 troops battle-ready enough to defend that border.

The meaning of these facts is simple, when combined with a referendum Sunday that’s so predetermined that neither of the two choices being put to voters - becoming part of Russia or becoming an autonomous region under a 1992 constitution that makes it all but an independent country - includes the status quo. Umer takes a blank piece of paper and draws a rough outline of Crimea, Ukraine and Russia. Then he draws in a possible bridge that would connect the two places. A bridge, he says, would be a slow, expensive and less than perfect way to connect Crimea to Russia.

The much quicker route, he notes, would be through Ukraine, to the neck of the peninsula. He redraws his map to take away a chunk of southeastern Ukraine and add it to Russia. It’s a move that would require Russia to take control of three largely ethnic Russian oblasts, or states.

“The policy, by Ukraine and the West, of avoiding drawing first blood is not working,” he says. He notes that he returned from a visit to Kiev by car this week, to be stunned by the degree to which Russian troops had dug in to create a border between Ukraine and Crimea, which still officially is in Ukraine. He says he has no idea how many were there, but the military presence seemed vast, and he saw vehicles that included tanks.

“Crimea is the flower, eastern Ukraine is the fruit, and it will follow once the flower falls,” he says.

Umer is a Tatar, the ethnic group that calls Crimea home but whose numbers have been dwarfed over the centuries by determined Russian campaigns to force them out. They now make up 22 percent of Crimea’s population. Ethnic Russians are more than half.

Critics insist that the vote will legitimize Russian plans in Crimea. Western powers have tried to use the threat of sanctions to get Russia to back off. But while some village mayors, mostly Tatars, have sworn not to allow the vote, Umer and others know they can’t stop it. It may be illegal, and ill-advised, and he think it is both, but the Ukrainian government appears powerless in Crimea these days.

Another Tatar in town, Abdullah Abdullaif, scoffs at the idea of the vote.

“I will stay home. I will not respect the referendum,” he says. It’s the only way to show support for remaining in Ukraine.

But the idea of becoming part of Russia is not unpopular beyond the Tatars. Lena Kapitannikova, an ethnic Russian shopkeeper, says she’s excited by the prospect.

“We all have many relatives in Russia,” she said. “And we know that their lives are better than ours. Life in Ukraine is difficult. It won’t change quickly, of course, but as a part of Russia, we have a chance for a better future.”

A newspaper vendor not far away gave his name as Viktor Aleksander, which was probably a lie. But he voiced a common notion for ethnic Russians, and especially those who like he are 60 or older.

“Our lives were much better in Soviet times,” he said. “There is no question about that. We trust Russia to bring those times back.”

The Crimean Parliament, which has been ordered by the government in Kiev to stop the referendum or be officially disbanded, has shown no sign of interest in orders from Kiev. Tuesday, it passed a resolution to join Russia if the vote favors that notion.

With less than a week before the vote, pro-Ukrainians knows they’d be facing a losing battle even if the referendum were fair.

The billboards covering Crimea promote Russian-Crimean togetherness. A few show the Ukrainian motherland decorated with a Nazi swastika, just in case some voters were on the fence.

Pro-Russian factions have been whittling down the Ukrainian footprint in this occupied piece of Ukraine. They’ve closed the airspace to commercial flights and taken control of train stations, put up roadblocks on highways connecting Crimea to the mainland. Russian troops have surrounded or taken full or partial control of everything from military bases to hospitals.

This week especially, they’ve been actively courting the Tatar vote. On Tuesday, the Crimean public passed a Tatar Bill of Rights that included measures they’d been seeking without success since the fall of the Soviet Union. The bill included guarantees of Tatar seats in a new Parliament, elevates the Tatar language to official status in Crimea and would provide financing for building homes and businesses, an avenue that’s been denied to them for decades.

The Tatars appear to see the gifts for what they are, a bribe, and an attempt to make Tatars forget that the Russian-led Soviet Union forced their relocation from Crimea in 1944, and that they were allowed to return only when the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia was weak.

Umer says Tatars have longer memories than that.

On the far side of Umer’s office is a shelf that holds decorative plates commemorating Crimean Tatar leaders as far back as 1550.

Today, Umer is the only Tatar in a top leadership role in Crimea. His office is in the traditional historic seat of power, the former home of the Khan Dynasty in Crimea. He fears the vote will be accepted by many, particularly ethnic Russians, who after forcing out the Tatars in 1944 came to be the region’s largest population.

“Whatever anyone might think of the idea of independence, they should not ignore that Crimea goes to vote Sunday at gunpoint,” he says. “No matter what is said in Moscow, we are clearly under Russian occupation.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the choices Crimean voters will be given in Sunday's referendum.