* Ukraine's new leaders face challenge in Crimea
* Many ethnic Russians want more independence
* Some favour secession, form militias
By Alissa de Carbonnel
SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine, Feb 28 Flying the Russian
flag, men in combat fatigues wave down cars at a roadblock made
of plywood and tyres outside this port city in Ukraine's
southern region of Crimea that dates from Tsarist times.
They are ethnic Russians intent on defending Sevastopol
against people they regard as Ukrainian nationalists who they
fear may arrive from the capital Kiev to impose their rule after
ousting President Viktor Yanukovich.
"We don't want to be ruled by fascists," said Oleg Golovan,
a retired Russian military officer who is in charge of the
checkpoint about 20 km (12 miles) outside the city.
The leaders and protesters in Kiev who brought down
Yanukovich a week ago are heroes in the capital and the West,
and have been grudgingly accepted in mainly Russian-speaking
areas in the east.
In rimea, on the other hand, they are compared to the
nationalist militias sometimes accused of siding with Nazi
troops against Soviet forces during World War Two.
That perception has inflamed secessionist yearnings on the
Black Sea peninsula, the only region in Ukraine where ethnic
Russians are as majority.
In Sevastopol, where Russia's Black Sea fleet has a base,
residents speak unabashedly of wanting Crimea to return to
Russia's fold, 60 years after Soviet communist leader Nikita
Khrushchev gifted the territory to then Soviet Ukraine.
Crowds rally daily in front of city hall, and voted with
roars of approval this week for Russian citizen, Alexei Chaliy,
as their de facto mayor, chanting: "A Russian mayor for a
Many residents have long been indignant that Sevastopol was
deprived of the right to elect a mayor by the political centre
in Kiev, which had named the top city official since 1992.
Founded by Russia in the 18th century, the city of 350,000
was still directly under Moscow's authority until as late as
1978, almost a quarter of a century after Khrushchev's present
to his native Ukraine.
"Crimea has historically never belonged to Ukraine," said
Golovan, who is 48. "We want historical justice. This is an
exclusively Russian city. It was and will remain so."
A sign scrawled across the road block quotes a phrase
President Vladimir Putin once used to dismiss protesters in
Moscow demanding his exit from politics, comparing them to
chattering monkeys, termed Bandar-logs in Rudyard Kipling's
Jungle Book. It reads: "Bandar-Logs shan't pass."
Putin has done little to fuel hopes of secession by Crimea,
but Russia flexed its muscles by holding war games this week
near the border with Ukraine.
In a sign of the tension in Crimea, at least 20 men wearing
the uniform of Russia's Black Sea fleet and carrying automatic
rifles surrounded a Ukrainian border guard post in the Balaclava
district on Friday.
In a tense standoff, Ukrainian border police in helmets and
riot gear inside the border post kept the gate shut and metal
riot shields were placed behind the windows as protection.
A servicemen who identified himself as an officer of the
Black Sea Fleet told Reuters jokingly: "We are here for joint
military exercises, so as not to have a repeat of the Maidan,"
referring to the epicentre of the protest movement in Kiev.
Ukrainian officials laughed off this suggestion.
The new leadership in Kiev has accused the Kremlin of
commanding the armed groups in Crimea, some of whom have taken
control of the regional parliament, a military airfield and
Simferopol international airport. The Kremlin denied this.
Informal militias were formed as the protests in Kiev
gathered steam and Yanukovich's rule collapsed. Some are
Cossacks, the men on horseback who patrolled the Russian
empire's borders, and some fought for the Soviet Union in
At the checkpoint barring the way to Sevastopol, most were
residents of a nearby village.
The presence of Russia's fleet - whose lease was extended
until 2042 by Yanukovich in exchange for cheap Russian natural
gas - has long been a thorn in the side of some Ukrainians, who
think it preserves too close a relationship with Ukraine's
former Soviet masters.
Many of the base's 15,000 servicemen have settled in the
imperial-era, whitewashed port city since retiring. Locals
mostly see it as a guarantor of safety as well as an economic
lifeline in the winter months when there are few tourists.
Moscow has not responded directly to calls for secession,
but a number of Russian lawmakers have visited Crimea, and are
given a hero's welcome.
"If the people have a right to rise up in a revolt and
overthrow the authorities, why doesn't Sevastopol have a right
to do that?" firebrand Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky
said to cheers in Sevastopol.
"You will always have Russian gas. You will always have
millions of Russian tourists!," he said.
The crowd roared back: "Thank You!"
Not everyone among the ethnic Russians, however, favours
secession or admires Putin.
"We want to be fully autonomous ... We don't need the
current Ukrainian authorities, and we don't need Russia," said
Galina Dudina, 60, a pensioner who has been protesting outside
city hall since the weekend.
"Here people don't support Putin. Rather we think of
Russians as our brothers," said Maxim Lovinetsky, 23.