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A uniformed man believed to be a Russian soldier stands guard near a Ukrainian military base in the village of Perevalnoye, outside Simferopol, March 6, 2014.



Driving through Simferopol, we come across a small gathering of Communists waving hammer-and-sickle flags and standing next to a small red tent bearing the words "Ukraine's Choice."

Fittingly, it's in Lenin Square, one of the city's main gathering places, where a giant statue of a founding father of communism stands as the centrepiece. Today someone has affixed a small handwritten sign at the bottom: "Hands off our leader." It's a reference to other cities in Ukraine where statues of Lenin have been defaced or torn down during the recent uprising against pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who has been ousted.

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Inside the tent, a pair of women hand out literature for the referendum slated for March 16 on the future of Crimea. The pamphlets decry Crimea's fortunes within Ukraine – how more money flows to the capital, Kiev, than comes back and how the territory would be better off on its own or as part of Russia.

Practically no one here supports the new government in Kiev or membership in the European Union or the Maidan, as the protest movement against Mr. Yanukovych has been called. For these people, the Maidan was led by extremists who took control of the government illegally and kicked out the duly elected president. That message has been reinforced on billboards across the city that depict a helmet-clad Maidan protester wearing a gas mask and hurling a Molotov cocktail with the words "No to foreign interference."

The heroes here are Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian army, which has come to save Crimea from the Maidan fascists. "Russia guarantees our independence," says one of the demonstrators, Tanya Krotova, who adds that she adores Mr. Putin.

One woman shouts that Mr. Putin is a dictator – which is good because only a dictator can solve the problems facing Crimea. When approached by a reporter, she refuses to speak, telling a friend that the media are liars.

After a while, a group of people show up with a couple of Russian flags. The crowd gathers behind the flags and shouts: "Russia! Russia!"

Few doubt the outcome of the referendum, which will ask Crimeans whether they want to stay in Ukraine or join Russia. Crimea is largely Russian-speaking, and much of the population has an affinity for their eastern neighbour. The Crimean government has already asked Russia to take over the peninsula, over the objections of Kiev, and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has announced plans to ease citizenship requirements for people who live in former Soviet republics.

As the sun sets, the group picks up a flag and begins an impromptu march down a city street, continuing its pro-Russia chants. The march is warmly received, with several cars honking. "We are Russians," one man says. "Not Ukrainians."

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Sergey Mokrushin was at his desk in the newsroom of the Centre for Investigative Journalism in central Simferopol last Saturday when frantic calls started coming in from colleagues in Kiev.

They are coming to take over your office, the friends said in panicked voices, citing video they had just seen online. Suddenly, Mr. Mokrushin heard a crowd of people running up the stairs to the centre's third-floor office. Then there was the sound of breaking glass and shouting.

The men, about 50 in total, were part of a newly formed "self-defence" force – a pro-Russian group that has started patrolling streets and standing guard over Crimean government buildings. Their main duty lately has been to form lines in front of Russian soldiers, preventing anyone, particularly reporters, from getting too close. They abhor those who express support for Ukraine, calling most "provocateurs," and they've become more intolerant of independent media outlets like the centre, which gets most of its funding from the United States, Europe and Ukraine.

While Mr. Mokrushin and his colleagues cowered in another room behind a locked door, the men denounced the centre for not telling the truth and made a show of putting on their own press conference. They eventually left, and the newsroom went back to work, publishing critical articles on the centre's website and producing two television news programs.

That kind of harassment is becoming all too common in Crimea since the local government announced it was breaking off relations with Ukraine and seeking to join Russia. The government has shut down the largest independent television channel, Black Sea TV, which is owned by people close to the Fatherland Party, whose leader is Ukraine's new Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Black Sea, which also broadcast the centre's programs, has been replaced on the air by a Russian TV channel. And now, just about everyone in Crimea gets their news from either Russian or Crimean government television.

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"I am afraid for my life and the lives of my colleagues," said Mr. Mokrushin, who is 26. "But it won't stop us."

Some journalists like Andrei Kanishcev, a well-known news photographer in Simferopol, have been roughed up. When he started taking pictures of a group of self-defence forces pushing and hitting a popular blogger, the group turned on him and hauled him off to a police station, where he was told the self-defence people were now in charge.

They took his flash card and let him go, but Mr. Kanishcev found the experience unsettling. He's famous in Simferopol for posting his pictures online and adding comments. Not any more. He's laying off photography for a while and won't be posting much online.

"I'm afraid," he said.


Colonel Yuli Mamchur has become something of a hero in Ukraine for an unlikely mission that failed.

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Two days ago, Col. Mamchur led his 300 troops up a hill to an airfield near Sevastopol that had been taken over by Russian soldiers. Unarmed and staring down the barrels of Russian machine guns, Col. Mamchur asked to have the airbase back. The Russians refused but after a five-hour standoff – and a pick-up game of soccer among the Ukrainians – they eventually agreed to allow a handful of Col. Mamchur's men on to the airfield to conduct joint patrols.

After marching his men back down the hill and into their barracks, Col. Mamchur seemed stunned by his expedition, saying he was truly afraid of the Russian soldiers when they arrived at the airfield last week and took control of the 45 jet fighters stationed there. Since then, he has received threats and intimidating phone calls, demanding that he and the soldiers join the Crimean army. They all refused and are now being hailed for their bravery across much of Ukraine outside Crimea.

Throughout Crimea, Ukrainian soldiers surrounded by Russian forces have refused to surrender or abandon their posts. The army's resilience has surprised many, considering that they are heavily outgunned and have conducted all of their resistance without lifting a rifle. They have also come under increasing pressure from the Crimean government, which wants to form its own military. If the men don't sign up, the government has said they will be arrested. And if they do, the government has promised better pay. So far, few have taken the offer.

In Bachisaray, south of Simferopol, a military commander at a base surrounded by Russian troops came out and politely told the Russians that he and his men would not let them in. A small crowd of well-wishers came out to support the Ukrainian soldiers, some bringing balloons and bags of fruit and candy.

In Yevpatoriya, west of Simferopol, Lieutenant-Colonel Sergey Matsjuk has parked a truck in front of the armoury on his anti-aircraft base, preventing 40 heavily armed Russian soldiers from gaining access to the 3,000 weapons inside.

"I know where the key is," he said with a sly smile. He too has faced threats and intimidation, but he won't give up, and none of his men have said they want to leave the Ukrainian army.

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"We will stay," he said.


The cab driver leans back and tells me that as soon as he drops me off he has an important errand to run. He's off to get a passport so he can get out of Simferopol as quickly as possible.

For many people in Crimea, particularly those in the minority Tatar community, the prospect of the territory joining Russia is unthinkable. Most have relatives who were deported from the peninsula by the Soviets after the Second World War for allegedly helping the Nazis. Thousands returned when Ukraine gained independence in the early 1990s, but they make up just 15 per cent of the population.

Several hundred have already left for western Ukraine or Istanbul. "Even today our people are calling us, asking where to go. To Turkey or to western Ukraine?" says Abduraman Egiz, a member of the Crimean Tatar people's council. "Most of them are afraid of the situation."

The Crimean government has tried to reassure the Tatars that all will be well, even if the peninsula joins Russia. And on Wednesday, the President of Tatarstan, which is part of Russia, came to convince his fellow Tatars that everything will be fine. He got a cool reception from many local Tatars who view Russia with contempt.

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Those who can't leave, like Rustem Mamutov, aren't taking any chances. He and his family take turns keeping watch over the house, fearing the pro-Russian self-defence forces could start turning on the Tatars because of their opposition to Russia.

The family used to run a jewellery shop but gave it up just before the turmoil in Crimea began last week. Now Mr. Mamutov is looking for work, hoping things will calm down before the tourist season starts.

"We have nowhere to go," he said.

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