Ukraine's 'Dangerous game": why the Crimea Conflict matters - KALB-TV News Channel 5 & CBS 2

Ukraine's 'Dangerous game": why the Crimea Conflict matters

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(NBC News) Armed men raised Russian flags over government buildings in CrimeaThursday, throwing the Black Sea province firmly into the center of what experts fear could become a deadly international dispute.

The ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has been accepted across the vast country, but Crimea – home to Russia's Black Sea naval fleet - is so far alone in challenging the new order.

"Crimea is a wild card," explained Alexander Motyl, professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. "It's totally different from the rest of Ukraine."

Why is Crimea different from the rest of Ukraine?

Crimea is an autonomous region of Ukraine and the only one to have its own constitution and a separate parliament, based in the capital city of Simferopol.

Most of Crimea's 2 million inhabitants speak Russian, and describe themselves as Russian - even if they hold Ukrainian passports, because Ukraine does not allow dual citizenship. In the last national census in 2001, 58 percent of Crimeans identified themselves as Russian, compared to only 24 percent who identified themselves as Ukrainian and 12 percent who called themselves Crimean Tatars.

Sevastopol, home to Russia's Black Sea naval base, enjoys a further distinction as one of only two cities to have the same administrative status as a region. It is separate from the rest of Crimea - a nod to its special status during the Soviet era – and Russians account for almost three-quarters of its 370,000 inhabitants.

A 2010 deal allows Russia to use Sevastopol as its naval base until 2042, although a new pro-Western Ukraine government might not honor that agreement.

Crimea has a historical resonance with Russia, and Sevastopol is viewed as a hero city for resisting the Nazis during the Second World War. It also remains an icon of Russian imperial power, even after the region was transferred into Ukraine following the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.

Soviet soldiers in Sevastopol celebrate their victory against the last remaining German troops in the Crimea on May 12, 1944.

However, the Soviet era was disastrous for Crimea's ethnic Tatars, who were deported en masse to central Asia by Stalin. Many only returned after 1991. Tatars might not support rule from Kiev, but they certainly would not choose rule from Moscow.

"Ukrainian nationalists and Crimean nationalists have the same enemy: Russia," 52-year-old Ibazir Ilyasov told Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper.

This complex ethnic picture means that although Crimea is the most likely candidate for separation from Kiev, any power transfer is likely to become a flashpoint.

Even before Yanukovych was forced to flee Kiev last week, there were rallies in Crimea by ethnic Russians worried that they had lost an ally who would protect them from pro-European Ukrainians.

However, most analysts agree that any future separation of Crimea would not necessarily undermine the rest of Ukraine.

"Crimea is a different matter from the rest of Ukraine," said Andy Hunder, director of the Ukrainian Institute in London. "The other eastern provinces in Ukraine have already ruled out separation."

Will Russia invade Crimea? Could it become the next Kosovo?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has previously ignored calls by Russians in Crimea to reclaim the region, so the timing of Moscow's latest chest-beating has aroused suspicion.

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