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There is no best-location Oscar. But if there was, as the makers of Prometheus, Game of Thrones and Thor have recently found, it would surely go to Iceland
• Iceland’s film locations – in pictures
The sun has yet to rise but the morning light is already illuminating the reasons why Iceland is renowned for its landscape. I’m standing on a helipad in the south-eastern town of Höfn: with its harbour behind me, I can see snow-covered mountains separated by four icy tongues, each part of the enormous Vatnajökull glacier.
A few lights glow yellow-orange in windows but the main colours are sky blue, a sliver of pink around the clouds and the dark-brown mass of mountains yet to reveal their rugged detail. I’m not waiting for a helicopter; this just seemed like a good place to take in the view … sort of. The wind speed is more than 40mph – that’s an eight (fresh gale) according to Mr Beaufort’s scale – and, as I frame a photograph, the wind inflates the hood of my parka and personal lift-off feels imminent.
Despite the conditions, the drama of this view makes it easy to understand why Iceland has, in recent years, become almost as popular with filmmakers as it is with tourists. And I’m here to explore the locations that have tempted Hollywood producers.
Drawn by epic vistas and tax breaks that let producers recoup 20% of costs, recent movies shot in the country include The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Prometheus, Oblivion, and Thor: The Dark World. Later this year, audiences will see Iceland in Darren Aronofsky’s biblical drama Noah (UK release 4 April) and Interstellar, the hotly anticipated sci-fi adventure from Batman director Christopher Nolan. There’s the small screen, too, most notably in the highly successful swords-and-skullduggery TV series Game of Thrones.
Today I’m planning a road trip from Höfn to the scenic coastal town of Vík, via the glacial lagoon of Jökulsárlón. The drive is along Iceland’s ring road, also known as Route 1, which celebrates its 40th birthday this year. In the absence of any rail network, this 832-mile circuit is the only way too see the entire country, providing access to its cities and towns, as well as its natural wonders.
Driving west, I pass spots that stand in for Afghanistan and the Himalayas in Walter Mitty. Film-makers often want Iceland for its otherworldly qualities, or remoteness, but the Ben Stiller-directed film delivers a first, for Hollywood, in making Iceland integral to the story (rather than, say, a role as a rocky alien planet). The views are staggering – volcanoes, black sands, glaciers and coast stimulate the senses almost to the point of overwhelming them. I pull over several times, grabbing a camera. The idea of film-makers doing the same thing pops into my head and I assume they must pull emergency stops every few minutes, and shout: “We must film here!”
Because of this it takes me longer than planned to reach the blue-coloured icebergs floating on Jökulsárlón. With its crystal-clear ice fragments along the shore and mountains in the background, this place is a favourite with film-makers; its most famous on-screen moment being the car chase on ice in the Bond film Die Another Day. The vista is made even more impressive by the “behind the scenes” stories I hear from Thor Kjartansson, a location manger for Truenorth, one of the production services companies that helps get film crews where they need to be.
Two days earlier I had met Thor at Reykjavik’s Grillmarkaðurinn. Over dinner at this stylish, unstuffy restaurant, he told me how engineers dammed the lake at the point it meets the sea, to help freeze it for the ambitious Bond shoot and, despite the ingenuity, how close the chase came to being moved to Alaska. The lake didn’t freeze to a safe depth for filming until just days before shooting.
However, it’s the theme of Iceland’s accessibility that matters most to Thor.
“We can get crews to remote places like we did in Oblivion,” he says. “But a lot of the other locations are just off Route 1. There are also plenty of activities you can do while you’re there. You can pick up a snowmobile tour that takes in the waterfall of Skógafoss or go glacial hiking and there are boat tours at Jökulsárlón.”
Back in the car, I continue along the ring road, but, as this is a film-based article, let’s have a flashback to yesterday …
I’m sheltering in Halldorskaffi, a café-restaurant in Vík. A tasty sandwich of local lamb, fries and a Diet Coke (£13) are helping me feel a little better about the drive from Reykjavik. Mist and rain meant the journey was less than spectacular. The murk is now so bad I almost miss the fact that I’m driving alongside Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano whose eruption paralysed international airspace in 2010. Fortunately, the gloom lifts to ensure that a visit to Skógafoss, seen in Thor: The Dark World, delivers enough awe to keep me outside in the rain and spray.
Then it’s on to Dyrhólaey, Iceland’s most southerly point, less than four miles from the Route 1 turn off. Under a narrow cliff stands a 115m-high arch of black rock, big enough for a boat to pass through. And, as far as Darren Aronofsky is concerned, that boat could be an ark: Noah’s. His “flood epic”, starring Russell Crowe, features Dyrhólaey, and the nearby sea stacks of Reynisdrangar, which can be seen off the coast. That is, if you can see any of it, and I’m struggling to. The irony of the weather, turning more biblical by the minute, is not lost on me.
The big reveal here is that I’m doing a drive that takes five hours without stops and on both driving days the light only lasts from 10am-4pm. I’m still two hours from Höfn when it gets dark. The rain turns torrential and the wind that will provide comedic overtones tomorrow whips up and pushes insistently at the car. I hog the middle of the road. There is almost no traffic and no lights, just reflectors on roadside poles, and I am on my own.
I make it to Hotel Höfn, but my fingernails have created indentations on the steering wheel. Over salt cod with ratatouille and a baked potato (£20), followed by a you’ve-earned-this treat of chocolate brownie and vanilla ice cream (£8.80), my nerves untangle.
With the storm preventing further exploration, I chat to the hotel’s co-owner, Gísli Mar Vilhjálmsson. We talk about how Hollywood arrivals have boosted business, as most shoots are outside high season. The prospect of accommodating them during summer has him shaking his head, though. He says “his” stretch of Iceland (Skaftafell to Hvalnes, roughly 100 miles) has only 800 rooms – “maybe a maximum of 1,600 beds” – and that’s in the context of the Icelandic population of 320,000 plus 600,000 visitors a year.
Gísli also has a warning: maybe the storm will stick around tomorrow. This could affect my plans. He tells me to keep checking a website that’s essential for drivers in Iceland. This gives updates (between 7am and 10pm) on road conditions. But morning comes and the storm has subsided enough to give me a view of the mountains from the helipad and to ensure I’ll get back for my flight … cue wibbly-wobbly dissolve to the present.
The flight to Akureyri, in the north of Iceland, takes half an hour. It’s snowing when I land and this town – Iceland’s second “city” – looks beautiful and welcoming, with its mix of hotels, hostels, late-night coffee shops, bars and restaurants. I check in at Hotel Nordurland – Scandi-style minimalism and a dash of home comforts – and get a recommendation for dinner. Rub23, just off the town’s main street, offers a tasty twist on sushi, using local seafood. I also venture across the road to Brugghúsbarinn, a bar that sells beers from local microbrewery Kaldi. As snow flutters past the window, my notebook says tomorrow is time to go “beyond the wall” on a day-long tour of Game of Thrones filming locations.
At 9am, Jon Thor Benediktsson from The Traveling (sic) Viking is waiting. It is still dark but his minibus is warmed up and ready to visit the land of the “free folk” at Lake Mývatn. The drive there takes us on a captivating incline with views of mountains and craters and then to the spectacular Goðafoss (waterfall of the gods), a location you’ll see in the show’s fourth season. Goðafoss is linked to Iceland’s conversion to Christianity in 999AD and, while that stuff is legend, the reality is a powerful waterfall evoking a sense of wonder.
Jon was a guide to the crew on Game of Thrones and he picks out specific locations around the lake. He also has an iPad and is able to play video clips while you’re parked; one is of a passageway between rocks where the “spearwife” Ygritte is seen taking Jon Snow’s sword. Later, we drive to Grjótagjá, a cave with a thermal spring inside. This was used for an intimate scene between Ygritte and Jon Snow. He doesn’t show that clip, although he does take me to the geothermal pools at Mývatn Nature Baths for a dip.
As I relax in the hot water, I think about the benefits to Iceland of increased tourism, and how the rise in numbers will mean change. The Icelandic government has a 2020 policy which includes details about the development of tourism and creating the infrastructure to cope with it. Promoting winter tourism is on the agenda because it looks like the best way to spread the number of visitors. Many are positive about the prospects for extending the season and believe there are enough attractions to draw people all year round.
Of course, it would be tempting to see this in a mercenary sense – Iceland’s financial troubles, and the frustrations connected to the ash cloud, are not in a distant past. But it seems implausible to suggest that any country would limit its tourist season, especially when it has such natural attributes and diversity.
For anyone who has enjoyed the movies and TV series shot in Iceland, the chance to visit these dramatic, natural film sets is an unmissable experience. And, even if you’re not a fan of the productions made here, the fact that Hollywood investment is helping draw attention to such beautiful yet accessible locations is something to be grateful for.
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West Germany star and club president could face 10 years in jail after admitting tax evasion to the tune of €3m
This year could see both the crowning glory and the low point of Uli Hoeness’s career. Bayern Munich, the football club that has employed him since 1970 – first as player, then as general manager, and now as president – is enjoying its most successful spell in decades.
Bayern lead the Bundesliga by a street and could be crowned the champions of Europe for a second successive season – all with no small thanks to one of the last old-fashioned patriarchs in European football, who insists on running one of the most professional outfits in world sport with the atmosphere of a family business.
But there is a real possibility that Hoeness may have to watch his team lift their next trophy from prison. In January last year, the 62-year-old admitted evading taxes to the tune of €3.2m (£2.6m). For years, he had made large profits in stock market speculations and squirrelled away his profits in a secret Swiss bank account.
By choosing to go public, he has opted for what German law calls “voluntary disclosure”: evaders can avoid trial by correctly detailing the taxes they have skipped and paying them back with 6% interest. There would be shame and schadenfreude, yet Hoeness felt safe from ending up behind bars.
However, last November the court summons arrived after all – the Bayern president admitted he was surprised. Hoeness will now have to justify himself over four days this week in front of a court in Munich. The maximum prison sentence for serious tax fraud is 10 years.
The signs are not promising for the former West German international striker. Rupert Heindl, who will preside over the trial, has been dubbed Judge Merciless for his reputed aversion to the kind of deals often reached in trials involving big business. Recently Heindl handed a three-year jail sentence to a 75-year-old pensioner.
Bayern’s fans seem to have already pardoned their president. When Hoeness tendered his resignation at the club’s annual meeting, they chanted his name until he wept. But on Monday the titles and trophies that Bayern have amassed on Hoeness’s watch are likely to count for little – not least because the trial against him has already attained symbolic character.
Since Hoeness disclosed his affairs last January, a string of celebrities from all fields of German public life have followed suit. Last month Alice Schwarzer, a high-profile feminist, disclosed that she had for years wired money to an account in Switzerland without paying any tax. Shortly after, Berlin’s culture secretary, André Schmitz, a Social Democrat, had to resign because of another Swiss account, about the same time, the treasurer of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, Helmut Linssen, was found to have hidden money via a shell company in the Bahamas. Theo Sommer, a former editor of influential weekly Die Zeit, was sentenced for tax evasion in January.
More than 26,000 German tax evaders opted for voluntary disclosure in 2013. In Bavaria alone, the figure has quadrupled since 2012. As recently as 2010, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development criticised Germany for being too lax in its pursuit of tax dodgers. So how has the country managed to raise its game?
Alpine tax havens first came under the spotlight in 2009, when the former boss of Deutsche Post, Klaus Zumwinkel, got a suspended jail sentence and a €1m fine after the authorities had bought CDs from whistleblowers that contained names of those suspected of evading tax via investments in Liechtenstein.
The very fear that tax authorities could get their hands on further CDs has worked wonders since, said economist Markus Henn of the Tax Justice Network. “Voluntary disclosure is a nice idea in principle, but it only really works if there is some threat that the evasion may be uncovered in another way. And the CDs just did the job.”
A key factor was the collapse of a deal between Germany and Switzerland in November 2012, after much opposition from the German Social Democrats, the Green party and the leftwing Die Linke. The deal would have given high-profile tax evaders a chance to disclose their crimes anonymously; Hoeness has hinted that he only chose to go public after the Swiss deal collapsed.
Further factors have made life harder for tax dodgers: Swiss banks such as Crédit Suisse and UBS now put pressure on their clients to make sure they pay the appropriate tax on their deposits. The German government has closed a number of loopholes.
In the past, tax dodgers often waited to declare their guilt until they had received a warning of a pending investigation, but since the law was changed in 2011 an official warning means that it’s already too late to own up. Tax evaders now also have to make available information on their entire assets, rather than just specific accounts.
The courts have refused to reveal details of the charges against Hoeness, but there is speculation he had failed to keep up with changes in the law. In February, the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung claimed that the sums Hoeness had failed to pay were higher than previously reported: €3.5m rather than €3.2m.
By the time his tax affairs became public last February, Hoeness was already more than just a football president – he was a public authority respected for his success and straightforward style. He was seen as close to chancellor Angela Merkel, and there was speculation he would make the leap into politics.
“Can our country learn from Uli Hoeness?” asked Der Spiegel only a week before his arrest. “What he has achieved with FC Bayern, Merkel needs to achieve with the federal republic and then with the whole of Europe.” After the scandal broke, the chancellor was one of the first to distance herself.
Whatever the outcome of this week’s trial, Hoeness’s career as the shining model for German success is well and truly over.
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The Ukrainian foreign ministers says that Ukraine will not give up on Crimea as Russian troops and their supporters extend their control in CrimeaConal Urquhart
Deputy prime minister says Crimea is in different category from rest of Ukraine, and Russia has ‘pronounced imprint’ there
Britain believes Crimea is in a different category to the rest of Ukraine and could be afforded special treatment if Vladimir Putin abandons his “KGB mentality”, according to Nick Clegg.
In an interview with the Guardian, the deputy prime minister acknowledged that Russia had a “very pronounced imprint” on the peninsula, a sign of how Britain and the rest of the EU acknowledge that Moscow will play a central role in determining the constitutional future of Crimea.
The Liberal Democrat leader called on Putin to embark on a “civilised discussion” with Kiev as he threw his weight behind the interim Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who said on Friday that the civilised world would not recognise a referendum on 16 March that is designed to return Crimea to Russia. The Black Sea peninsula has been part of Ukraine since Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Kiev in 1954, then a simple transfer within the Soviet Union.
Clegg argued that pressing ahead with a referendum condemned by Kiev as unconstitutional would simply inflame tensions. This suggests that continuing Russian support for the referendum would trigger the first set of EU sanctions due to be introduced if Moscow declines to open a dialogue with Ukraine.
Clegg was highly critical of Putin’s behaviour towards Ukraine, seen in Moscow as central to Russian interests. “I think Putin’s reaction is very revealing. It’s as if he’s been in a sort of deep freeze since the cold war and hasn’t moved with the times,” Clegg said. “He gives every appearance of applying a KGB mentality rooted in the cold war to new realities in 21st-century Europe. To regard closer ties between Ukraine and a non-military organisation like the European Union as the equivalent to American tanks on your lawn at the height of the cold war suggests to me that we’re dealing with a man who’s applying yesterday’s divisions and arguments to today’s problems.”
At the same time, Clegg sent conciliatory signals to Moscow when he acknowledged Russia’s special links to Crimea, not least the fact that its Black Sea fleet is based in Crimea. He said: “Crimea already has a semi-autonomous status within Ukraine and clearly has a different history to other parts of Ukraine and has a very pronounced Russian imprint on it, not least because of the presence of the Russian Black Sea naval operation. So it is already in a different category and I don’t think anyone wants to deny that.
“No one is somehow suggesting that Crimea should be treated exactly the same as other parts of Ukraine given that it hasn’t been treated like that in the past by the Ukrainians themselves.”
David Cameron is to hold talks with Angela Merkel about Ukraine over dinner in Hanover on Sunday night amid clear signs that Moscow is rebuffing the EU’s attempts to encourage a dialogue with Kiev. The prime minister and German chancellor are expected to discuss the Russian attitude towards the planned Crimean referendum and Russia’s decision on Friday once again to block observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe from entering Crimea.
Merkel and Cameron may indicate that the EU may embark on the second phase of punishment – travel bans and asset freezes – after the leaders of both houses of the Russian parliament said on Friday they would support a vote by Crimea to join the Russian Federation. Kiev tried to reassert its authority over Crimea, which has been under effective Russian control since the weekend, when the interim Ukrainian president, Oleksandr Turchynov, signed a decree cancelling the planned referendum.
Clegg called on Putin to agree to the EU proposal for a contact group to oversee a dialogue between Kiev and Moscow. “It is now really for Russia to respond. I very much hope they will respond by now agreeing to enter into that contact group and for a civilised discussion to take place between the Ukrainian and Russian governments.”
Russia’s state-owned energy giant, Gazprom, which claims to be owed $1.8bn by Ukraine, escalated on Friday night tension with an aggressive statement from its chairman about the country’s latest missed payment. “We cannot supply gas for free. Either Ukraine clears the debt and pays for current deliveries, or there is a risk to return to the situation in early 2009,” said Alexei Miller in Moscow.
The reference to the last time Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine was seen as highly significant and sources close to the company admitted the statement was meant to be a “shot across the bows”.
Gazprom believes it has the legal right under its supply contract to terminate the deal. British gas suppliers are privately warning that any escalation of the standoff in Crimea that involved the Russians turning off the energy taps to Ukraine could hit UK householders.
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As Vladimir Putin rebuffs initial US-EU sanctions over occupation, France says assets may be seized if Moscow does not relent
Barack Obama and his European Union allies have unveiled a co-ordinated set of sanctions to punish Russia for occupying Crimea, imposing visa restrictions on individuals and sharpening rhetoric in what has rapidly degenerated into the worst east-west crisis since the cold war.
Early on Friday, France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said that if the first round of sanctions did not succeed, a second could follow, targeting Russian businesses and people close to Vladimir Putin. But the president rebuffed Washington’s warnings, saying Moscow could not ignore calls for help from Russian speakers in Ukraine.
Putin and Obama spoke for an hour on Thursday afternoon. According to the White House, the US president told Putin that newly announced sanctions, introduced in co-ordination with the UK, were a response to Russia’s “violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
“President Obama indicated that there is a way to resolve the situation diplomatically, which addresses the interests of Russia, the people of Ukraine, and the international community,” the White House said in a statement to reporters.
“As a part of that resolution, the governments of Ukraine and Russia would hold direct talks, facilitated by the international community; international monitors could ensure that the rights of all Ukrainians are protected, including ethnic Russians; Russian forces would return to their bases; and the international community would work together to support the Ukrainian people as they prepare for elections in May.”
In their first concrete response to Russia’s move to seize Crimea from Ukraine, Brussels and Washington warned of further sanctions, such as asset seizures, if Moscow did not relent.
“I am confident that we are moving forward together, united in our determination to oppose actions that violate international law,” Obama told reporters in Washington. “That includes standing up for the principle of state sovereignty.”
After an emergency EU summit in Brussels, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said: “We have experienced very much disappointment in recent days and we’re ready to act.”
The urgency was heightened after the Crimean parliament abruptly and unanimously voted to secede from Ukraine and reposition the Black Sea peninsula as part of Russia. It brought forward a referendum on secession to 16 March, but said such a vote would merely rubber-stamp its own decision. The sudden move elicited cries of protest from the new authorities in Kiev, and grave warnings from the west.
“The decision to hold a referendum in Crimea is illegal and not compatible with the Ukrainian constitution,” Merkel said.
The White House said its visa bans would affect an unspecified number of Russian and Ukrainian individuals immediately, with the threat of asset seizures and bans on doing business in the US hanging as a deterrent against further escalation in Ukraine. The EU agreed to suspend visa and investment talks with Russia and held out the prospect of a full-blown trade and economic conflict with Russia unless there was a diplomatic breakthrough.
“The solution to the crisis in Ukraine must be based on the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine,” said the EU summit statement. “It would be a matter of great regret if Russia continued to refuse to participate in a productive dialogue with the government of Ukraine.”
The EU said Moscow had to open negotiations with Kiev “within the next few days, and produce results within a limited timeframe”.
The EU and the US have struggled to co-ordinate a response to Russia’s boldest military venture since the 2008 war in Georgia because the stakes are very different for both parties. EU-Russia trade volumes, including vast gas imports and engineering exports, are 15 times the level of US-Russia trade. Washington has far less to lose from a trade war, and has hitherto talked tougher.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, speaking in Rome, denied a rift with the EU. “I do not believe there is a gap. There may be a difference of opinion about timing … that’s not unusual when you have as many countries as we do,” he told reporters at a news conference.
German officials also dismissed reports of divisions. “That is something I think that would make Putin very happy,” a senior official said. “He wants to divide us. The reality is that we are on the same page.”
The White House rejected criticism that sanctions risked escalating the crisis, insisting there remained a way for Russia to defuse the situation if it chose.
“While we take these steps I want to be clear that there is also a way to resolve this crisis that respects the interests of the Russian as well as the Ukrainian people,” said Obama, repeating calls for international monitors to be allowed into Crimea and other parts of Ukraine to ensure Russian interests were not threatened.
But Obama’s rhetoric was more combative than of late and he accused Russia of not just “violating sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the Ukraine but of “stealing the assets of the Ukrainian people”.
“In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders,” he added.
It was clear that the sharpening of the western response was a result of exasperation with Russia’s refusal to make concessions in negotiations in Paris on Wednesday, the first direct talks between Moscow and Washington on Ukraine, but also designed to put pressure on Putin to reverse course.
Representing the camp arguing for a hard line against Russia, Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, said he was pleased things were moving in the right direction. “It was a heated discussion,” he said.
Dalia Grybauskaite, the Lithuanian president, demanded action to counter Russia’s “open and brutal aggression”. She said: “Russia today is trying to rewrite the borders of Europe after world war two, that is what’s going on. If we allow this to happen, next will be somebody else.”
The Europeans and the Americans are focused on forcing Russia to open a dialogue with Ukraine. The acting Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, said Kiev was ready to talk to Moscow; it was ready for “co-operation, but not surrender”.
“Mr Putin, tear down this wall,” he said, echoing Ronald Reagan’s demand of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s. “Tear down this wall of intimidation, of military aggression.”
In another unexpectedly bold move, the EU decided to push ahead much faster than predicted with a political pact drawing Ukraine closer to Europe, the initial spark for the crisis last November when the deposed president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign the agreement.
Hitherto, the EU has said that Brussels would revive the pact only after elections scheduled for 25 May, once a new government was installed. Merkel and Tusk said the agreement would be split into political and trade sections. The political part could be signed “days or weeks” before the elections, Merkel pledged for the first time.
Additional reporting by Paul Lewis in Washington
Follow dispatches from Times correspondents and firsthand accounts of events on the ground posted on social networks by bloggers and journalists in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine.
President enjoying highest approval rating in two years, finds survey which also shows solid support for intervention in Crimea
While Vladimir Putin has faced condemnation from the west for his troops’ takeover of Ukraine‘s Crimean peninsula, at home the Russian president is enjoying his highest approval ratings in the past two years. Research also appears to confirm solid support for Russian intervention in Ukraine.
According to a survey conducted by the state-run pollster VTsIOM on 1-2 March, just as Russian forces were quietly taking control of key infrastructure in Crimea, 67.8% of respondents approved of Putin’s job performance.
Although the president regularly achieves approval ratings above 60%, this was his highest rating since May 2012. Researchers attributed this latest number to the political situation regarding Crimea and the Olympic and Paralympic Games, which respondents said were the two biggest news events that week.
In addition, 71% of respondents said Russia should more actively defend the interests of Russians in Crimea, while only 17% thought it would be better not to come into conflict with the Ukrainian authorities. These results were similar to those for the same question five years ago.
Masha Lipman, an analyst at Carnegie Moscow Centre, said the majority of Russians have viewed the change of regime in Kiev as a “rebellion by west Ukrainian fascist nationalists” – an opinion reflecting state television’s negative coverage. “I haven’t seen surveys about deploying troops but I think there will be widespread support especially since this is Crimea, and many Russians think it is Russia’s by right,” Lipman said.
State television – the main source of news for most Russians – has portrayed anti-Yanukovich protesters as nationalists and neo-Nazis from western Ukraine. It has played footage of protesters with swastika armbands and implied that Kiev is still in the throes of violent chaos even though the capital is relatively calm.
Coverage of the Crimean parliament’s request to join the Russian Federation on Channel One showed mostly elderly protesters in Simferopol holding Russian flags and anti-EU and anti-American signs.
Originally a part of Russia, Crimea was given by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to Ukraine in 1954, but ethnic Russians continue to make up 59% of Crimea’s population of 2 million, according to 2001 census data.
Putin said in a televised press conference on Tuesday that Russia reserved the right to deploy troops to Crimea but maintained that the unmarked soldiers there were local self-defence forces.
International military experts, however, have said thousands of Russian troops have already been deployed in addition to those normally stationed at the Black Sea naval base Russia leases from Ukraine.
A Moscow entrepreneur, Yury Kazachkov, said he had watched the press conference and “absolutely agreed” with what Putin said. “If the Ukrainian nation appealed to us for help through their legally elected president, then we should support them. We have a legitimate reason to deploy troops,” he said. , referring to a letter the ousted president Viktor Yanukovych sent Putin this week asking for Russian troops to restore “law and order” to Ukraine.
Kazachkov also said he also saw the need to protect Russians in Crimea and stand up to anti-Russian policies by the new Kiev government.
But other Russians oppose intervention, including a Moscow engineer, Artyom Ivanov, who said Putin “thinking he’s a king” was a more likely motive for deployment than the official line, repeated by state media, that Russia needs to protect Russians in Crimea.
“The police and army of Ukraine should protect them. What are we doing there?” he said. “Recently I’ve seen so much propaganda that it kills my appetite.”
Obama imposes visa restrictions and signs order enabling further sanctions on Russian officials but critics claims US ‘lacks resolve’
Referendum on union with Russia on 16 March will ‘only ratify decision’, as Duma works on bill to make it easier for territories to join Russia
The de facto authorities of Crimea have announced that they consider the territory to be part of Russia after a swift vote in the local parliament.
The MPs said on Thursday morning that a referendum planned for 30 March – which was due to ask voters if they wanted more autonomy from Kiev – would now take place on 16 March, ask whether they wanted to join Russia, and only be a ratification of a decision that had already been taken.
The parliament also appealed to Moscow to assist its decision to seek union with Russia.
Russian MP Sergei Mironov said the Duma, Russia’s parliament, could consider the appeal from Crimea as early as next week. The Duma has already begun work on a bill that would make it easier for new territories to join Russia, clearly penned with one eye on events in Crimea. On Tuesday, the Russian president Vladimir Putin had said categorically that Russia was “not considering” joining Crimea to Russia.
At a press conference in the Crimean capital Simferopol, the deputy prime minister of the region, Rustam Temirgaliev, said the parliament voted by 78 votes to 0, with eight abstentions, to hold the referendum on 16 March. He said the decision, which also gave the go-ahead to the territory to begin preparations to join Russia, “comes into effect from the current moment”. The referendum would be held “only to confirm” the decision.
Temirgaliev said that as of Thursday, the only legal troops on Crimean soil were the Russian army.
“Any troops of a third country will be treated as illegal band formations, with all the consequences that entails,” he said.
Ukraine has a number of military bases in Crimea which have come under siege from armed local volunteers and the Russian army in recent days. Russia has denied its troops are involved in the region despite widespread evidence to the contrary. Ukrainian soldiers in the bases have come under pressure to defect to Russian or Crimean forces, but have mainly not done so.
With events moving quickly on the ground, the big question is whether the officer class starts to defect en masse, and whether Russia uses force if they do not.
In Kiev, Ukraine’s economy minister Pavlo Sheremeta said the referendum would be “illegitimate”, but in Simferopol, politicians said the referendum was now only a formality. Crimea has a large pro-Russian population, though many want more autonomy rather than actual union with Russia.
The Kremlin’s final goal in Crimea has been murky, with many analysts suggesting that Vladimir Putin would be satisfied with more autonomy or de facto independence for the region, but Thursday’s events appear to suggest that the decision has been taken to annex the region.
“We have a group of Russian specialists here working on introducing the Russian rouble to the region,” said Temirgaliev. He added that all Ukrainian state property in the region would be “nationalised”.
Outside the parliament building in Simferopol, a group of around 100 people waved Russian flags and chanted as the Russian national anthem was played, as well as a new “Crimean anthem” that begins: “The island of Crimea is fighting for freedom” and continues with scornful words about “fascist bands” in Kiev and their western backers.
The proceedings were interrupted by two topless demonstrators from the protest group Femen, who charged the stage with “Stop Putin’s War” written on their torsos. They were beaten and screamed at by a crowd of elderly women before being dragged off by Cossack irregulars and taken away in a police van.
The crisis in Ukraine presents Europe with an opportunity to broker a solution and live up to its high ideals as a peacemaker
They say you have to learn from the mistakes of the past to be prepared for the future. So the west should not be surprised that, six years after the war in Georgia, Russia has returned to the use of military force in its near neighbourhood.
Putin’s playbook, “Frozen conflicts for beginners”, consists of the invasion of a sovereign country on false pretences, propping up Russophile regional authorities, making plans for a referendum on self-determination and scaremongering Russian speakers into thinking that they face an existential threat. This strategy has been rightly denounced as unacceptable and provocative and is rapidly turning Putin into an international pariah, only days after the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics where he spent tens of billions of dollars trying to bolster his global reputation. But if Putin has his way, the referendum due by the end of the month – under the watchful gaze of Russian troops – will be a forgone conclusion. Crimea will declare its allegiance to mother Russia.
This will be the pretext for Russia to install “peacekeepers” and the international community will soon find itself on the back foot. Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno Karabakh are further examples of this type of Russian geo-political strategy aimed at keeping neighbouring countries on a short leash and doing Moscow’s bidding. The case of Ukraine is no different, with the exception that it is Russia’s biggest neighbour and strategically it was supposed to form the core of Putin’s push for a parallel economic and political union to rival the EU (albeit stitched together under duress rather than free will).
The window of opportunity for the west to protect the democratic outpouring from “Maidan” is therefore small. Failure to show clear and decisive vision in the coming days would be to betray the courage and determination of those who stood up to Yanukovych’s corrupt and incompetent regime. Countless western politicians have visited Kiev since November last year to show support and solidarity for the people who want nothing more than to be better governed. Inability to turn our words into deeds when it is our turn to take action would be unforgiveable and a grave historical error.
EU heads of government are meeting today for an emergency summit on the evolving situation in Ukraine and will be expected to come up with a convincing game-plan. But what steps should the EU take now that the use of force against Russia has been all but ruled out?
First and foremost, the international community cannot allow a military incursion of a sovereign state, of the kind undertaken by Russia, to be rewarded. Any outcome must involve Russian forces being withdrawn to pre-conflict levels.
So far, western governments have been threatening to suspend co-operation on preparations for June’s G8 meeting to be hosted by Putin in Sochi, expanding the list of persona non grata and proposing asset freezes and trade sanctions. The regime in the Kremlin may show less inclination to consider the views of voters than western democracies, but it is not deaf to economic pressure, especially given the slide in the exchange rate of the rouble against the dollar and the potential loss of foreign direct investment as investors clamour to protect or sell their Russian-based assets. This is where EU and US soft power can be as effective (and less dangerous) than the blunt use of force and sabre rattling that characterised the cold war. However, we have to be prepared to see such threats through if we are to be credible in the eyes of the Kremlin.
Second, the EU urgently needs a political strategy and not just a diplomatic mediation effort. Putin has accepted the suggestion of participating in a contact group, possibly through the auspices of the UN or OSCE framework. The EU should show it is serious by appointing a senior politician with a strong mandate and toolkit to make a difference. A formula that offers explicit protection for the Russian-speaking community in Ukraine, including reinstating the recently repealed law that allows regional governments to make Russian a second official language, would seem a key element of any political solution.
Our ability to show there is substance behind the strong words coming from EU capitals will determine the course of events in the coming weeks, but it can also determine the future of relations between Russia and the EU. Are we going to relive a new version of the cold war and a re-invented USSR or reach an understanding about Russia’s faltering quest for a place in the new world order? The US under Obama has shown great reluctance to get involved in distant conflicts that are not perceived to be in the country’s vital strategic interest. So the EU is presented with an opportunity to step in and broker a solution and live up to its high ideals as a peacemaker and forum for conflict resolution. Is it up for the challenge?