Here is a disturbing thought: What if Vladimir V. Putin no longer has power to prevent bloodshed in Ukraine, even if he wants to?
The idea first crossed my mind during a chat this week at a checkpoint on the main road from Simferopol to Sevastopol in Crimea.
The checkpoint guard was like a warlord from central casting: an impressively dense beard, long black hair and fur hat. On his sleeve, a badge with a golden death’s head.
But it turned out the guard, Bratislav, had a good sense of humor. He was Serbian and a member of the Chetniks, a nationalist paramilitary, he told us. He and four comrades had been called in a few days ago from Kosovo by pro-secession “Cossacks from the Don,” he said, pointing to the half-dozen grim men behind him wielding batons and Kalashnikovs while checking other incoming cars.
They had all gathered in Crimea “to protect the Russian brothers from the fascists” who, he said, wanted to take over the Black Sea peninsula. “We’re no war dogs,” the 39-year-old Bratislav insisted. “We want peace. We are just making sure nobody brings in weapons or explosives.”
Yet Bratislav mentioned another danger that worried him greatly: that other mercenaries like him might not remain so calm. Pulling a Samsung tablet from his army trousers, he showed us a website on which fighters like himself exchanged their travel plans.
Friends of his from all over the world believed that, in Ukraine, they could “fight America,” which they believe is conspiring to pull Ukraine away from Russia. He told those friends to stay away, but they were coming regardless.
As Bratislav put the tablet back into his pocket, he made a forecast based on his personal past. “I tell you: Ukraine is becoming the next Yugoslavia. Only bigger.”
When I mentioned the Yugoslavia scenario to Crimeans, people with more civilian credentials, many of them agreed — including the Orthodox bishop of Simferopol, Klyment. He feared that the Balkan wars may be “nothing” compared with what lies ahead in Crimea, with its volatile ethnic mix, and possibly even mainland Ukraine.
Perhaps this is just the anxiety of the moment. But there are worrying parallels.
Just like when Yugoslavia fell apart, the people of Crimea today are being forced to choose national allegiances. Although it was clear from the start that the so-called referendum on Sunday could only lead to a union with Russia, the passion with which pro-Russians and pro-Ukrainians have been arguing for their positions has surprised both sides.
The referendum has been a catalyst for disintegration. Different cultural and ethnic identities that used to coexist peacefully already appear to be mutual threats. In the eyes of many of the 60 percent of the Crimeans who identify as Russians, it’s the Ukrainian-speaking Crimeans (roughly 40 percent of the population) who keep messing up their lives. After 20 years of, as they see it, experiments with democracy that only led to chaos, they want to return to the strong and ordering hand of Moscow. People who topple Lenin statues, they say, must hate Russian identity as a whole.
The pro-Ukrainians hit back, saying people who demean the Kiev protesters as fascists reveal their Communism-tainted authoritarian mind-set.
The rift runs through families and workplaces. Western-minded children are aghast at fathers who join pro-Russia militias. What we are witnessing in Crimea — as well as in Eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russians have started calling for their own referendums — is nothing less than the emergence of two nations within one state.
Completing the Balkan parallel is a group that fears that Russian control may usher in outright oppression, just as the Bosnians feared Serb rule. In Crimea it is the Tatars, a Muslim ethnic group that suffered deportation and mass murder under Stalin. They, too, like Bratislav the Chetnik, claim they want to maintain peace. But can they guarantee it? What about false friends from the realm of jihad, who might view defending their brother’s Crimean homeland a worthy cause?
The best man to put this question to is probably Fazil Amzayev, the head of the media office of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Ukraine. Banned in most countries of the world, Hizb ut-Tahrir is a political organization that dreams of a global caliphate, denounces democracy and calls for theocracies in states with a Muslim majority.
A Crimean Tatar who grew up in Uzbekistan, Mr. Amzayez met me in a tearoom in the town of Bakhchysarai, a Tatar stronghold southwest of Simferopol. The 32-year-old wore a leather jacket, had a well-trimmed mustache and spoke fluent English.
No, he said, he couldn’t rule out the possibility that jihadis might be attracted to Crimea should Russia start to “systematically” suppress Muslims.
For the time being, Mr. Amzayev maintained, Hizb ut-Tahrir is doing everything to discourage fundamentalists from inciting violence, including the “thousands” of members his organization allegedly has in Ukraine. “We don’t want a caliphate here in Crimea,” he assured me, “we want peace.”
But he shares Bratislav’s anxiety: that the mere impression that Muslims are under attack may be enough to draw hotheads to Crimea. “The danger is there. If it happens, not even Putin will be able to control the situation.”
Chetniks. Cossacks. Fascists. Zombies. Jihadis. Was this part of Mr. Putin’s plan to enlarge his empire?
With such a cast of characters, the Kremlin’s would-be strongman resembles Goethe’s foolhardy sorcerer’s apprentice. Like the apprentice, Mr. Putin has mistaken himself for a sorcerer. But unlike the apprentice, whose master eventually intervenes, Mr. Putin has no one to rein in the deteriorating situation he has created in Crimea.
Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.