The Russian payment demand and loss of the discount would accelerate Ukraine’s financial crisis. The country is almost broke and seeking emergency credit from the International Monetary Fund.
The tensions barely touched everyday life in Simferopol, the regional capital of Crimea, or anywhere on the peninsula. Children played on swings a few blocks from the parliament building, and most of the city’s stores were open. Couples walked hand-in-hand through parks. Crimea’s airports - civilian and military - were closed to air traffic, but trains and cars were moving to and from the Ukrainian mainland.
“Things are normal,” said Olga Saldovskaia, who was walking through town with her son and grandson. While she doesn’t like having gunmen in the streets, like many people in this overwhelmingly ethnic Russian city, she also found their presence reassuring.
“If anyone tries to hurt the people here, they will protect us,” said Saldovskaia. She said she sympathized with the pro-democracy protesters in Kiev, but also worries that turmoil in the capital could lead to violence against ethnic Russians. She added, though, that she definitely doesn’t want Crimea to become part of Russia.
“Russia is not just all flowers and candy,” she said.
Moscow has remained silent on claims that Russian troops are already in control of much of the peninsula, saying any troop movements are within agreed-upon rules governing the semi-autonomous Ukrainian region.
Meanwhile, flights remained halted at Simferopol’s airport. Dozens of armed men in military uniforms without markings patrolled the area. They didn’t stop or search people leaving or entering the airport, and refused to talk to journalists.
AP journalists crossing into Crimea from mainland Ukraine were briefly stopped at a checkpoint manned by troops in unmarked camouflage uniforms as well officers in uniforms of the Berkut, the feared riot police that cracked down on anti-Yanukovych protesters before he fled the capital a week ago.
Vladimir Isachenkov reported from Moscow. AP reporters Karl Ritter and David McHugh in Kiev, and Julia Subbotovska in Simferopol, contributed to this report.