Will Ukraine's Crimea region be Europe's next 'frozen' conflict?
Crimea is an autonomous republic whose history has long been marred by political tension. Gifted to Ukraine by Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, its population is ethnic Russian by just over half and Ukrainian by a quarter, while more than ten percent are Crimean Tatars who are fiercely anti-Russian as a result of Joseph Stalin's repression of the group a half century ago.
Russia's strategically important Black Sea naval fleet is hosted at Sevastopol, the region's largest city, an arrangement that controversially extended until 2042 by the ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was last seen fleeing Kiev. His whereabouts are unknown.
The large Russian population of Crimea has long viewed the central government of Ukraine with suspicion. In recent days the mood has turned into aggressive hostility towards the new authorities in Kiev. Crimean Russians see the newly-powerful opposition movement as illegitimate, sponsored by the West, and even fascist. Anti-Ukrainian protests are being held, Russian vigilante groups have sprung up across Crimea, Russian flags have been hoisted on government buildings, clashes have broken out between Russian separatists and loyalist Tatars and Ukrainians, and the Russian military has been seen patrolling key buildings and infrastructure.
Joerg Forbrig is a Berlin-based program director and Eastern Europe expert with the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.