Thursday, February 27, 2014

Deposed Ukrainian President Yunukovych Reportedly Flees Ukraine as Masked Gunmen Take Parliament, Airport in Crimean Region

Less than a week after the closing ceremony of the Sochi winter games and Ukrainian president Yanukovych's exodus from Kiev, Russian news agency RIA Novosti is reporting that the deposed Ukrainian leader has fled the volatile Crimean peninsula to the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don on Thursday night. Yanukovych's flight reportedly received fighter escort to the southern Russian city once inside of Russian airspace.

Meanwhile, the nominally autonomous Crimean peninsula has become the new flashpoint in the Ukraine as ethnic Russians clashed with Ukrainian nationalists in Simferopol. The strategically situated peninsula is majority Russian but still considered part of the Ukraine since the 1992 breakup of the Soviet Union. During the breakup, Russia and the newly-independent Ukraine reached an agreement to partition the Soviet Navy's Black Sea Fleet in exchange for ongoing use of the Crimean port of Simferopol.

Shortly after the 2008 Russian incursion into the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Yanukovych's predecessor- Viktor Yushchenko- announced that the lease on the Sevastopol naval base would not be leased past 2017. However, Yanukovych reversed course on Yushchenko's decision and agreed to extend to lease on the Sevastopol facility in exchange for discounted natural gas from Russia in 2010.

In the early morning hours on Thursday, dozens of masked, heavily armed gunmen seized the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol and raised a Russian flag on the roof. Later in the day, masked men in fatigues but with no insignias took up positions in Simferopol's airport- the main air hub in the region. Eyewitnesses say the men arrived in trucks adorned with the Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet insignia and the road leading to the airport was now ringed with checkpoints manned by armed men in plainclothes with a Russian flag raised at each one. The takeovers come shortly after Russian President Vladmir Putin ordered troops to mobilize on the Ukraine's doorstep. Ukraine's interim president- who the Kremlin does not recognize as the Ukraine's legitimate government- has called the 'mystery troops' occupying the parliament building and airport in Simferopol a 'Russian incursion'.

Crimea's parliament had voted to oust the region's premier on Thursday and a referendum on greater autonomy from Kiev is set to take place on May, around the same time as the rescheduled Ukrainian presidential elections are slated to take place.

Meanwhile, Israel has expressed concerns that the makeup of the opposition groups and demonstrators that ousted Yanukovych includes ultranationalist, anti-Semitic and pro-fascist parties such as Svoboda. Op-ed pieces in Israeli media are calling for the Ukraine's 65,000 or so Jews to 'come home' to Israel amid concerns that racist and anti-Semitic groups could take advantage of the turmoil on the Ukraine to step up attacks on Jews and other minority groups. On Monday, a newly built Chabad facility in the southeastern Ukrainian town of Zaporozheye was firebombed- although Chabad officials say the damage was 'mostly cosmetic and the arsonists were caught on camera.

Anti-Semitism is nothing new in the Ukraine- there have been vicious pogroms and purges directed at the Jews in Kiev since medieval times. In the 20th century, the Soviet Union shut down Jewish groups and synagogues, exiling many Jews in other Soviet republics thousands of miles away. During World War II, the occupying Nazis exterminated Jews and other Ukrainians- the most infamous incident was the Babi Yar massacre in which SS Officers- aided by Ukrainian collaborators- massacred more than 30,000 Ukrainian Jews in a ravine outside of Kiev over two days in September 1941.

Towards later years of the Soviet Union, many Jews in the Ukraine and elsewhere in the USSR began to take advantage of Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glastnost and peristroika to move overseas to the USA or Israel.

UPDATE 2/28- Moscow has admitted the troops with no insignia that took up positions at the Simferopol Airport are in fact Russian. The troops that initially set up positions in Crimea's parliament and the airport came from the Russian naval base on the Crimea while additional troops from Russia were flown in.

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