* Crimea home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet
* Ethnic Russians are majority, many want secession
* U.S. says Russian intervention would be grave mistake
By Alessandra Prentice
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine, Feb 27 Waving the Russian
flag and chanting "Russia! Russia!", protesters in Crimea have
become the last major bastion of resistance to Ukraine's new
President Viktor Yanukovich's overthrow on Saturday has been
accepted across the vast country, even in his power base in the
Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine.
But Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula attached to the rest of
Ukraine by just a narrow strip of land, is alone so far in
challenging the new order.
As the only Ukrainian region with an ethnic Russian
majority, and a home to Russia's Black Sea fleet, the
strategically important territory is also now the focus of a
battle between Russia and the West over the future of Ukraine.
Tensions are mounting in the regional capital Simferopol as
separatists try to exploit the chaos after the changes in Kiev
to press demands for Russia to reclaim the territory which
Communist leader Nikita Khrushchev gifted in 1954 to the Soviet
Washington has warned Moscow not to send in tanks, an action
that could result in yet another war in a region that has been
fought over - and changed hands - many times in history.
But President Vladimir Putin flexed his muscles on
Wednesday, putting military forces in western Russia on alert
and saying Russia was acting to ensure the security of its
facilities in the Crimean port of Sevastopol.
The view from separatists in Crimea is that there has never
been a better time to appeal to Moscow for help than now.
"I crossed two oceans and four seas with the Russian navy,
and now I have fascists telling me what to do?" said Daniyel
Romanenko, a 73-year-old retired officer, portraying the new
Ukrainian leadership in the worst possible terms in a country
that was overrun by Nazi Germany in World War Two.
"We should be given the choice to unite at last with
Russia," he said at a rally in Sevastopol, wearing his uniform.
Crimea's balmy climate once made it a favoured holiday
destination for Russian tsars and Soviet leaders. Its
vineyards, orchards and the "green riviera" along its southern
coast make for some stunning scenery.
But even before the national parliament in Kiev stripped
Yanukovich of his powers on Saturday, after three months of
protests by largely pro-Europe demonstrators, there were rallies
in Crimea by worried ethnic Russians.
Although he was little loved in Moscow, Russia had backed
Yanukovich and his departure reduces the Kremlin's ability to
For the more than 1 million ethnic Russians in Crimea, it
increases uncertainty, and many want protection by Mother
Russia, with whom cultural and religious ties are strong.
Some are especially enraged that the new leaders have rolled
back laws to strengthen the importance of using the Ukrainian
language, which is not the mother tongue for many in Crimea, and
refuse to recognise them as Ukraine's leaders.
"We don't have a legitimate government so we have to look
out for ourselves," said Vladimir, a 37-year-old businessman.
Taking matters into their own hands, separatist-minded
protesters at a rally on Sunday voted to appoint Alexei Chaly, a
Russian businessman, as the de facto mayor of Sevastopol in a
show of hands.
The next day the presence of a large crowd on the streets
outside a meeting of the city administration ensured his
appointment could not be blocked.
The chaotic events, followed by more protests on Tuesday and
Wednesday, and more calls for secession, underline how difficult
the transition of power may be in Ukraine, especially in Crimea.
Rumours that protesters from Kiev's barricades might be on
their way from the capital to put down separatist moves have
prompted some Crimeans to create informal self-defence units.
Around 3,000 men have signed up in Sevastopol alone, with
military veterans and former members of the Berkut riot police
training the younger recruits, the organisers say.
In other parts of Ukraine, particularly Kiev, the Berkut is
despised as the force which fired on protesters.
"We need to protect ourselves from the armed criminals
coming to Crimea in masks to cause unrest. They've turned
Ukraine into a banana republic," said Gennady Basov, the leader
of the Russian Bloc party that represents ethnic Russians.
Unification with Russia is not the party's main aim, but it
believes that splitting Ukraine down the middle - between
Russian-speaking areas in the east and regions where Ukrainian
is predominant in the west - makes economic and cultural sense.
"Most of the economic strength of Ukraine is in the east -
that's where people actually work. In the west they just go to
Kiev to protest," Basov said, underlining ethnic Russians'
contempt for the protesters in Kiev, many of whom are from the
west of the country.
Such remarks show how the protests in Kiev, triggered by
Yanukovich's decision in November to spurn trade and political
deals with the European Union and rebuild ties with former
Soviet overlord Moscow, have widened divisions in Ukraine.
For some ethnic Russians in Crimea, it was the last straw.
Already connected to southern Ukraine by land that is only five
km (three miles) wide at some points, the region seems to them
to have less in common with the rest of the country than ever.
"The people don't understand this was a revolution against a
criminal government, they think it's all Western influence. To
them the people on the barricades are now greater enemies than
the corrupt government they overthrew," said Leonid Pylunskyy, a
regional deputy for the conservative Kurultai Rukh party.
Pylunskyy is the fourth generation of his family to call
Crimea home, but both his children participated in the Kiev
protests - his son on the barricades, his daughter providing
demonstrators with hot tea and sandwiches.
Barely an hour goes by without a new rumour of troops
massing or protesters on their way from Kiev to "restore order".
Putin himself stirred the pot by suddenly announcing a drill
that involved putting forces in the west and centre of Russia on
the alert. He may be sabre-rattling but is unpredictable and
brooding after apparently losing a geopolitical tussle with the
West over Ukraine which brought back memories of the Cold War.
Many Russians regard Ukraine as little more than a Russian
vassal. Opinion polls suggest a majority of Russians still view
Crimea, annexed by Russia in 1783, as a Russian territory.
But not all the peninsula's residents are pro-Russia or
against the new political situation, as was witnessed by
confrontations between rival protesters outside the regional
parliament in Simferopol on Wednesday.
The region is a patchwork of different ethnic groups and the
Tatars, now back in numbers after their ancestors were deported
to Central Asia or Russia's Urals region by Soviet dictator
Josef Stalin, dread the idea of integration with Russian.
"In 1783 we fell under the power of the Russian empire and
that's when all our sorrows began. The (Crimean ethnic) Russians
can look to Putin. We're sticking with Ukraine," Crimean Tatar
leader Refat Chubarov said in an interview.
Chubarov outlined what he saw as deliberate moves by the
ethnic Russians to fuel tension. "This is their plan: they've
stoked the fires in Sevastopol, now they want to light the fires
in Simferopol, so all Crimea burns," he said.
Civil war or a serious threat to ethnic Russians in Crimea
might, the logic goes, might bring in the Russian cavalry.
"I hope I'm wrong but Russia could well decide to deploy its
forces in Crimea," Chubarov said.
BATTLE LINES DRAWN
Rival groups of ethnic Tatars and ethnic Russians confronted
each other outside the regional parliament on Wednesday but
eventually dispersed after scuffles.
Conflict is hardly unusual for the people of Crimea.
It was inhabited or invaded by Scythians, Greeks, Goths,
Huns, Bulgars, Kazhars, Kipchaks, Turks and Mongols, and was
part of the Roman and Byzantine empires before it became part of
the Russian empire.
There were fierce battles on Crimea during World War Two,
when it was occupied by the Nazis, and during the Crimean War
which Russia lost to an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman
empire and Sardinia.
"We're used to being fought over. We've had the Turks,
British, Germans and now this," said Igor, a 26-year-old
businessman from Simferopol.