SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine – Crimea’s embattled ethnic Tatar minority demanded that the U.S. flex its military muscle to stop Russian forces from overrunning the southern Ukrainian region.
“The Sixth Fleet should be here. We should see it,” Ali Hamzin, 55, the
nominal foreign minister of the Crimean Tatar community, said in an interview. “Today, only the U.S. can preserve the territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine.”
President Barack Obama’s threat to boycott the G8 summit of industrial nations in Sochi if Russia doesn’t withdraw its troops was “pathetic,” Hamzin said. Obama spoke with President Vladimir Putin on the phone for 90 minutes on Saturday as Russian forces were fanning out across the Crimean peninsula.
“Putin will kiss Obama’s hands and feet for that reaction,” said Hamzin, who is in charge of foreign relations for the Crimean Tatar council, or Mejlis, the Tatar community’s representative body. “The aggressor must be stopped by aggressive, forceful means.”
He pointed to an agreement concluded after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, when Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons in return for guarantees of its international borders by Russia, the U.S. and Great Britain.
Now that Russia has broken the agreement, Hamzin said, the West is obligated to hold up its end of the deal.
Crimea’s Tatars, who number 300,000 and make up about 14% of the region’s population, largely oppose the Russian intervention. Now they fear collective punishment for their loyalty to the provisional government in Kiev that has been too weak to defend Crimea.
The last time that armed conflict came to Crimea — during World War II — Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin scapegoated the Tatars as traitors and exiled them to Central Asia in cattle cars. The Crimean Tatars didn’t give up their hope for justice, however, and were among the nonviolent national liberation movements that helped bring about the demise of the Soviet Union.
Hamzin, an engineer who was born in the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan, was among the 1,500 Crimean Tatars who held an unprecedented protest on Red Square in 1987 that forced the Kremlin to allow their gradual return to their homeland.
The U.S. government supported dissident movements inside the Soviet Union in an effort to undermine the communist regime. Hamzin said that he saw Ronald Reagan as “the father of our nation” and admired both George Bushes for their resolve. He was less charitable about Obama.
“America is our traditional ally that always did everything possible for the Crimean Tatar people in the darkest days of the Soviet empire,” Hamzin said. “America needs to make its choice today. Either it’s a great democracy or a country that just uses democracy as a tool.”
Hamzin’s sharp words stood in sharp contrast to the soft-spoken appeals by the head of the Crimean Tatar community, Refat Chubarov. He has been telling his people to remain calm and not let themselves be provoked.
“We’re not talking about interethnic conflict in Crimea, but the geopolitical ambitions of Russia,” Hamzin said. In Crimea, the three main ethnic groups — Russians, Ukrainians and Tatars — live side by side in peace.
Hamzin said he was concerned that Putin would unleash irregular forces, such as Cossacks and Chechens, on the Crimean Tatars.
In Russia’s five-day war with Georgia in 2008, similar irregular formations, wearing white armbands and looted uniforms, ransacked Georgian villages while regular Russian Army units fulfilled military objectives.
Ninety-nine percent of the Crimean Tatar population is not ready to fight, Hamzin said. “We have no weapons, except hunting or sporting guns.”
It’s up to the U.S. and its Western allies to come to the aid of Ukraine and its Crimean Tatar minority, Hamzin said.
“This isn’t about fighting as much as making clear to Russia that its only option is to stop this aggression,” he said. “The defeat of Ukraine would mean the bankruptcy of Western values. That’s why you should be interested in Ukraine prevailing.”