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From Kiev To Crimea, Epicenter Of Unrest Might Move East


Separatist rhetoric is perhaps strongest in Crimea, the strategic peninsula that's home to Russia's Black Sea Naval fleet. Crimea used to be part of Russia, but in 1954, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine. Ethnic Russians are a majority in Crimea and the region tilts toward Moscow. Paul Sonne is in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol reporting for The Wall Street Journal and he joins me now. Paul, welcome to the program.

PAUL SONNE: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: You quote the speaker of Crimea's regional legislature today saying, we will fight for an autonomous republic until the end. We will not surrender Crimea. Those sound like really strong defiant words. What do they mean? Can you translate for us?

SONNE: You know, it's actually, strangely enough, it's toned down from the first thing he said when the violence erupted here last week. He initially said, you know, in the event that Ukraine falls apart, we are going to have to essentially secede and try to reunite with Russia. But certainly, what he's trying to do here is still assert the autonomy of Crimea, which is already, actually, autonomous technically under law.

It has a lot of rights that other areas of the Ukraine don't have. But not go so far as to say, you know, we're starting a war. So that's the game he's playing. And one of the reasons he's playing that game is because eventually Kiev is going to have to negotiate with the leaders here in Crimea if they want to have a unified government and by saying things like this, it gives him more power at that negotiating table.

BLOCK: I've read that the Russian flag is now hoisted outside city hall there where you are in Sevastopol. There's a new mayor who's been installed, a Russian citizen. He calls himself a Russian mayor for a Russian city. How does that kind of talk go over among the folks that you've talked to?

SONNE: You know, it's a really tricky situation here in Crimea. The majority, probably about 60 percent, of the population are ethnic Russians and Russian speakers and they very much feel threatened and it's not only the sort of pro-Europe bent, it's also the fact that Ukrainian nationalists played a very sizable role in this uprising.

And one of the big scaremongering things that you hear at the rallies here or hear on the streets is, oh no, what if they bar the Russian language from being spoken?

BLOCK: There are also reports of pro-Russia self defense militias being formed in Crimea. Have you been seeing signs of that?

SONNE: Yes. I was in Simferopol, which is the capital of Crimea, let's see, two days ago, and there were a bunch of people, mostly men, and they were signing up for militias and they had most - a lot of them had seen the advertisement to come and defend Crimea, you know, from the Ukrainian nationalists. They had seen this advertisement on various social networks.

There were hundreds, probably more than a thousand as some point, maybe 1500 people there, and you know, from what I can tell, these militias aren't really doing anything yet, but it's sort of this idea that if the nationalists come and try to pull down our statues of Lenin or cause havoc here or make us do something that we don't want, we're going to mobilize.

So in some way it's a show of teeth.

BLOCK: You know, I mentioned that the Russian Black Sea Naval fleet is based there is Sevastopol. Are people very mindful of that? Is it a really visible presence and do people think a lot about the possibility for Russian intervention in Crimea if this goes south?

SONNE: Absolutely. The presence of the Russian naval fleet is extremely felt in Sevastopol, which very much feels like a Russian city. And Russia will certainly defend its interests in the region.

BLOCK: One last thing, Paul, the ousted Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, is believed to have fled to Crimea, where you are right now. Is there a lot of buzz about that, people wondering about where he might be?

SONNE: There's definitely a lot of joking about it. I don't know if people have any idea really where he is. Even the acting interior minister said something along the lines of yesterday is, if I had a piece of paper for everyone who's told me where Yanukovych might be, I wouldn't have any pockets left to put it in. So where he is is a great question.

BLOCK: And if you wanted to hide as a former president of Ukraine in Sevastopol or Crimea, fairly easily done?

SONNE: You know, one of the things that's really interesting here is people think that people here just because they're often pro-Russian and they're against the uprising in Kiev, that they're pro-Yanukovych, and that is not the case. A lot of people here really don't like Yanukovych for a whole host of reasons. Sevastopol and some of the cities here economically are really not doing well, like a lot of the rest of Ukraine.

So I don't know if he would be welcomed with open arms and that they would give him, you know, quarter. But certainly it would be a lot easier to do it here than somewhere in western Ukraine or Kiev.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Wall Street Journal correspondent Paul Sonne. He's in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. Paul, thanks so much.

SONNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.