Crimean people celebrate 'liberation' as Russian soldiers arrive in Balaclava
Russian troops receive a big welcome as they roll into Crimean port town
When a convoy of Russian military vehicles unloaded dozens of armed troops into the sleepy Crimean port town of Balaclava on Saturday, residents thronged around them honking car horns, snapping pictures and waving Russian flags.
Although the Russian-speaking servicemen bore no insignia, their vehicles had Russian military plates.
There was no doubt among residents they were deployed from the nearby Russian camp to take up position outside a Ukrainian border guard base. Ludmila Marchenko, a retired teacher, burst into applause when asked about the masked soldiers with automatic rifles on guard nearby.
"At first we were in shock, now we see it as a liberation," the 66-year-old said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin won approval from his parliament on Saturday for military action in Ukraine to protect Russian citizens. Moscow says it has not yet decided whether to send troops. But clearly it has already acted in Balaclava.
Those residents who felt foreboding as they watched the armoured vehicles roll in mostly hung back in the crowd. "This is a mess. This is an invasion. I think this is an act of aggression by Russia," said Dmitry Bessonov, 55, a retired miner from Donetsk.
Such voices may be in the minority. Ethnic Russians, who are in the majority in the Crimean peninsula, have been angered by nationalist rhetoric from the protesters who toppled pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych after months of demonstrations in Kiev's main square, known as the Maidan.
"They made a big mistake when they stood on Maidan and said they wanted to ban the Russian language ... We don't want to be second-class citizens," said Marchenko's brother Vitaly, a civilian sailor.
"I am not against a united Ukraine ... Yes, our president was not great. Yes, there was corruption and theft, but we don't want to live under these conditions. We are just sick of these speeches by fascists and neo-fascists."
The sight of Russian boots on the ground in Balaclava, which lies on the outskirts of Sevastopol - home to the Black Sea Fleet - is nothing unusual to residents.
They quickly adapted to the presence of more than 100 armed men parked along the main strip of the bay popular with tourists.
The masked soldiers barked at reporters to "move back", refusing to identify themselves, but stood congenially shoulder -to-shoulder with residents who posed for photographs.
In a bizarre carnival-like scene, Russian Orthodox priests chanted prayers, while a wedding party drove by loudly honking their car horns.
"It is a great joy for us," said Vladimir Tikhonov, 53, an electrician. "I want this to be Russian land - and it will be."
Valentina Magomedova, an accountant, said people regretted a decision by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, himself a Ukrainian, to transfer the Crimea from Russia to Soviet Ukraine in 1954.
"The new authorities (in Kiev) are not legitimate. We trust Putin. We love Russia," she said.
"We were part of Russia and we are still sorry that Khrushchev gave us away."
While most residents had no love for Kiev's new leaders, some were worried by the dangers of the situation and wary of Russia's designs.
Confronting the silent soldiers, one man vented his frustration, yelling at them: "What are you doing here? Get lost."
Russia's military presence
Russian-Georgian tensions over Tbilisi's pro-Western orientation culminated in a brief war in August 2008.
Before that, Russia had trained and equipped troops in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It also set up paramilitary forces that were involved in armed provocations against Georgian security and civilians to provoke a military response.
Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili launched a big push on August 8, 2008, against South Ossetian forces that were shelling ethnic Georgian villages in the region, and this was used by Russia as a pretext to invade and occupy swathes of the Georgian territory.
In autumn 2008, Russia recognised both secessionist territories as independent states and set up military bases there, but withdrew from the rest of Georgia.
In the past several months, Russian border guards have stepped up installation of barbed wire fences along the boundary between South Ossetia and adjacent regions of Georgia. The move sparked condemnation from Tbilisi, EU leaders, and US President Barack Obama.
Moldova's Russian-speaking separatist region broke free of Chisinau after a brief civil war in 1991-1992 that cost 700 lives.
Russia sent it 3,000 troops there as peacekeepers to enforced a ceasefire. They
are still stationed in the largely lawless region despite Moldova's calls for them to withdraw.
The separatist pro-Russian government is not recognised internationally and is opposed by largely Romanian-speaking Moldova in a frozen conflict.
Russia has not met long-standing pledges to withdraw its soldiers from Moldova, which it committed to do in 1999.
Russia already had troops in Tajikistan when its civil war blew up in 1992. Moscow cast its role as peacekeeping and protecting refugees, but backed president Emomali Rakhmonov against the pro-Islamic opposition.
Rakhmonov forces won in 1993 after a devastating conflict in which 150,000 people died.
Russia operates a military base in the strategic nation bordering Afghanistan and has a long-term agreement to station troops there.