WASHINGTON, D.C.: Ukraine and Russia may be headed for a fresh conflict over Crimea, where ethnic Tatars and members of a Ukrainian extremist group blockaded truck traffic into the Ukrainian province seized by Russia last year.
The blockade on three highways by the Tatars and Right Sector, in its third day Tuesday, prevents food and other supplies from entering the peninsular province. It is a legal protest approved by Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, according to the Kyiv Post newspaper. It comes as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko hopes to focus world attention on Crimea in a speech next week at the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
“Crimean Tatars were pushed out of their own territory,” Ukraine’s ambassador to Washington, Valeriy Chaly, told USA TODAY in an interview. “Crimean Tatars, according to the Ukrainian constitution, are Ukrainian citizens. And all Ukrainian citizens have the right to peaceful protest.”
The demonstration, led by the Tatars elected leaders, is allowing people to pass but not truck cargo, he said. “It’s a demonstration for Russia that Crimean Tatars will not give up on Ukraine.”
Crimea receives electricity, gas and some food from the Ukrainian mainland.
One of the Tatar organizers of the blockade, Refat Chubarov, said nearly 6,000 tons of food passes from Ukraine into the peninsula in a week. He defended the blockade, saying, “The Ukrainian state feeds those who occupied our land and support Kremlin power, which now opposes Ukraine,” according to the Ukrainian Media Crisis Center.
Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov countered that the blockade will lack impact because the peninsula gets less than 5 percent of its supplies from Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Pravda newspaper reported Tuesday that 20 trucks traveling on a main route to Crimea turned around at a checkpoint at Chaplinka, Ukraine. The situation was tense but peaceful, according to international monitors with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
In eastern Ukraine, a cease-fire between government forces and pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions continued to hold, according to the OSCE.
The success of the cease-fire appears to be part of the reason for the Crimea blockade, said analyst Alina Polyakova, who is working on a report on human rights in Crimea for the Atlantic Council in Washington.
“It could be a response to the cease-fire by the Crimea Tatar community because there’s anger and frustration that Crimea has been forgotten by the West,” Polyakova said. “There is no real effort to hold Russia responsible for what happened in Crimea.”
U.S. and European sanctions on Russia were imposed over its intervention on behalf of the separatists in eastern Ukraine, which Russia denies. Ukraine’s government, which has been preoccupied with fighting a war against the Russian-backed rebels in the east, has not taken any actions to regain Crimea, where a Tatar minority tends to be loyal to Ukraine, unlike ethnic Russians who live there.
Ukrainian Tatar leaders will also travel to New York and Washington next week to push their case, Polyakova said. “There’s obviously some coordination.”
Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula in February 2014 and annexed it a month later. Russian President Vladimir Putin argued the move was necessary to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea after pro-European demonstrators in Ukraine forced the country’s pro-Russian president to flee to Moscow.
Since the takeover of Crimea, Russian authorities have presided over a deteriorating human rights environment that has targeted ethnic Tatars, a mostly Muslim minority, as well as journalists and activists who oppose the Russian rule, according to reports by Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Amnesty International.