From the train, the town of Armyansk doesn't look like much. On one side of the tracks, there's a low-rise factory that appears not to have produced anything for some time. The other hosts a clutch of Soviet-era apartment blocks.
And then you see the men with guns flanking the train track. Some are in green, with no insignia on their uniforms. Others openly wear the sky-blue colours and badges of Berkut, the riot police reviled and disbanded in Kiev for shooting pro-Western protesters last month on the orders of the deposed Viktor Yanukovych. All of them wear balaclavas.
Five of the gunmen board our train. With their balaclavas still on and Kalashnikov automatic rifles dangling from their shoulders, they move from cabin to cabin demanding to see passengers' documents. "What are you doing in Crimea?" they challenge each traveller. If they don't like the answer, they demand that bags be opened and contents examined.
No one on the train questions who the masked gunmen are, or what right they have to stop and search the train. Twenty minutes later, the all-clear is given and our train continues its journey south to Simferopol, the capital of what the local government says is now "independent" Crimea. Soon, it could be part of the Russian Federation.
A tiny place that marks the skinny northern tip of the Crimean Peninsula, Armyansk in March of 2014 is the modern Checkpoint Charlie, the crude new border between a Russian-aligned East and an increasingly nervous West. Moscow's empire has shrunk in size since the days when the Iron Curtain divided Europe, but it's again getting harder to cross between the two sides.
It's at Armyansk that you can see how badly the international order was damaged by the geopolitical earthquake that rumbled through Ukraine last month, as pro-Western politicians toppled the Russian-backed Viktor Yanukovych, sparking a furious reaction from the Kremlin that has included support for Crimea's move to break away from Kiev.
"We are at the beginning of a new era in international relations. The previous one, which began in 1991 [when the Soviet Union collapsed], finished in February and March of 2014," said Sergii Glebov, associate professor of international relations at Mechnikov National University in Odessa, a city just a few hours drive from the tip of Crimea that is deeply divided about both the revolution in Kiev and events in Crimea.
"Today, we are facing a new edition of Cold War times. It will not be a bipolar world, but it will be a world of democracy and humanitarian values on one side, and post-Soviet authoritarianism on the other."
Crimea is being sealed off as that uncertain new era begins. Flights connecting Kiev and Simferopol have been cancelled until at least after Sunday's referendum (one Simferopol-bound plane to turn around in mid-flight Tuesday after being denied permission to land in Crimea), as are flights from Istanbul. For the past two days, the only planes given permission to land in Simferopol International Airport were those from Moscow.
The roads into Crimea – and there are only two that connect this peninsula to the rest of Ukraine – are also controlled by armed checkpoints. Teams of monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who had been hoping to establish what precisely is taking place on the ground here, were blocked from entering Crimea twice in the past week.
South of Armyansk, the highways are packed with military activity. The Globe and Mail spotted convoy of green construction vehicles – including five earthmovers – headed towards Armyansk and the new border with the rest of Ukraine on Wednesday.
Convoys of troop trucks and armoured personnel carriers can also be seen moving about and blocking the entrances to Ukrainian military bases, belying the heavy Russian military presence that Russian President Vladimir Putin insists is not here. (Mr. Putin says the clearly well trained and equipped military in Crimea is a local self-defense force. The new government in Kiev says there are at least 18,800 Russian "invasion" troops now in Crimea.)
Russian warships have also been deployed to blockade the much smaller Ukrainian navy in its ports.
An extra security cordon has been set up around the port city of Sevastopol, which hosts Russia's Black Sea Fleet. On Wednesday, it was manned by a motley crew of pro-Russian militiamen, joined by a handful of volunteers from Serbia. They stopped and checked cars that had license plates from places other than Crimea.
The Soviet-era train, for now, is the most reliable way of entering the peninsula. But no one knows whether it will still be running in a week's time. "Everything's getting worse," grumbles my cabin mate Volodymyr, an elderly building remodeler from the city of Mykolayev, just north of the new Crimean ministate. With most of his customers in Crimea, he doesn't know what will become of his business. "We'll have to see what they do next week."
On Sunday, Crimeans will vote in a referendum on joining the Russian Federation. Though much of the world won't recognize the vote, no one doubts what the result will be. (Billboards around the peninsula make the choice easy: the referendum is portrayed as choosing between separation from Ukraine and joining Russia, or staying in Ukraine and supporting "Nazism" – referring to right-wing nationalists who took part in Mr. Yanukovych's overthrow.)
Next week, Russia's parliament, the Duma, will meet to consider Crimea's application to join. It's expected the Duma will recommend that Mr. Putin accept Crimea – which was part of the Russian empire for 200 years before Nikita Khrushchev made a "gift" of it to then-Soviet Ukraine in 1954 – as the 90th member of the Russian Federation. After that, no one knows what will happen here.
Guiding his car through the checkpoint outside Sevastopol, taxi driver Roman Bacyevich says he welcomes the idea of Crimea being annexed to Russia. "I can't be worse than this," he said, laughing.
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