Crisis in Crimea: A Guide to Major Players

Image: Riot police gather to prevent clashing between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian activists during a rally in central Donetsk

Riot police gather to prevent clashing between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian activists during a rally in central Donetsk on March 5, 2014. Russia and Ukraine's foreign ministers arrived separately at the French foreign ministry on March 5, raising hopes of direct talks aimed at resolving the crisis in Crimea. ALEXANDER KHUDOTEPLY / AFP - Getty Images

The crisis in Ukraine, which began as a dispute over whether the country should accept financial help from Europe or Russia, spiraled into the ouster of a president and then the Russian invasion of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.

Russia insists it’s only protecting Russian speakers in Ukraine. The United States has demanded a pullback and imposed sanctions. And diplomats have met repeatedly to talk it out.

But the Crimean regional government deepened the drama this week by ordering a vote on whether the peninsula should stay part of Ukraine or become part of Russia.

Here’s a look at the major players in the crisis.

The West

Image: John Kerry, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel.
John Kerry, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel. AFP - Getty, Getty, EPA

Barack Obama, president of the United States. He has demanded that Russia pull its troops back to their barracks in Crimea and allow international monitors there, and has also imposed limited sanctions on Russians. “In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders,” he said this week.

John Kerry, U.S. secretary of state. He’s raced around the world this week meeting with other diplomats and trying to talk Russia into holding one-on-one talks with Ukraine. So far he has found little success, but he says the parties have indicated they’re willing to the resolve the crisis — somehow, at some point — through talking, not force.

Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany and possible key to a solution. She appears to have a warmer relationship with Putin than Obama does, and Germany depends heavily on Russia for energy. She’s pushed Putin toward a negotiated solution — though some analysts say she doesn’t stand much more chance than anyone else of persuading him.

The Russians

Image: Russia's President Vladimir Putin with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
Russia's President Vladimir Putin with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a signing ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, on December 17, 2013. ALEXANDER NEMENOV / AFP - Getty Images, file

Vladimir Putin, president of Russia and thorn in the side of the West. He insists he moved into Ukraine to protect the interests of ethnic Russians there, a charge Western analysts say is laughable, and said he reserves the right to use further force, though he called it a last resort. He says the ouster of Yanukovych was an illegitimate coup.

Sergey Lavrov, foreign minister of Russia and Putin’s top negotiator with the West. He met with Kerry three times this week, but he refused to meet with his counterpart from Ukraine. The negotiations took a step back Friday when Lavrov was quoted calling the U.S. sanctions “hasty and reckless” and saying they would “boomerang.”

The Ukrainians

Image: Viktor Yanukovych, Vitali Klitschko and Yulia Tymoshenko.
Viktor Yanukovych, Vitali Klitschko and Yulia Tymoshenko. AFP - Getty, Getty, EPA

In exile

Viktor Yanukovych, ousted president. He fled to Russia last month after angry protesters chased him out of Kiev. Crowds later descended on his opulent estate, complete with golf course and presidential sauna. Yanukovych held a news conference from Russia last week and vowed a comeback, but analysts say he’s probably finished.

In Kiev

Oleksandr Turchynov, former speaker of Parliament and acting president. He was named to the job the day after Yanukovych was run out of town. He has dismissed the planned referendum in Crimea as “a farce, a fake, a crime.” He was swept into office as a reformer, but analysts say he has little latitude to make policy.

Arseny Yatsenyuk, acting prime minister and former anti-Yanukovych firebrand. He is considered a technocrat who lacks charisma and probably won’t win the presidential election in May. He vowed in Brussels on Friday: “No one will give up Crimea to anyone.”

Yulia Tymoshenko, former prime minister and opposition hero. She was freed from jail during the protests in Kiev and delivered a dramatic rallying cry from her wheelchair to cheering crowds there. She leads the Fatherland party, which also includes Turchynov and Yatsenyuk, and could be the next president.

Vitali Klitschko, former heavyweight boxing champion and opposition leader. He’s 6 feet 7 inches tall and known as Dr. Ironfist for both his prowess in the ring and his Ph.D. He has kept a relatively low profile since the invasion of Crimea but is also considered a contender in the May presidential election.

In Crimea

Sergei Aksyonov, hastily named prime minister of the region after armed men seized government buildings. He heads Russian Unity, a pro-Moscow party in Crimea, where ethnic Russians make up 60 percent of the population. He has directly appealed to Putin for help protecting the “Crimean Autonomous Republic.”

The pro-Russia mobs, which have roiled Crimea. Militia trapped a United Nations envoy in a coffee shop in the city of Simferopol until he agreed to leave Crimea. And pro-Moscow demonstrators seized a government building in the critical eastern city of Donetsk and held it for three days before police retook the building.

The Tatars, the minority Muslims indigenous to Crimea. They were brutally ordered out of the peninsula under Stalin after World War II and only allowed to return in the 1980s. They are deeply suspicious of Russia and want the peninsula to remain under Ukrainian control.