Ukraine: The Empire strikes back
By Roman Sohn
Two months ago the Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, warned his EU colleagues that after the Olympic Games in Sochi are over Russia intends to actively intrude in Ukrainian affairs.
Did he have intelligence about Russia’s plan to invade Ukraine?
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The operation of the scale unfolding in Crimea must have taken several weeks to prepare.
But as things quietened down in Ukraine over the past week and the transitional government slowly gained control over the country, few gave credibility to such warnings. A Russian incursion seemed unlikely due to the lack of turmoil in Ukraine which could have given it a pre-text.
There have been very few reports of protests against the new government since Ukraine’s former leader, Viktor Yanukovych, fell from power on 22 February. A small anti-EuroMaidan rally in Kharkiv on 23 February gathered less than 2,000 people.
Most of Ukraine was instead mourning the victims of Yanukovych’s brutal attempt to keep power. Videos of the vanity and decadence of his private mansions, and those of other key figures in his regime, also grabbed people’s attention.
And so, it begins
Meanwhile, back on 14 February, Vladislav Surkov, an advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the Russian-occupied Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, quietly visited Crimea to meet local politicians. It is not known what they discussed.
On 20 February, there was another low-key visit, this time by Vladimir Konstantinov, the speaker of Crimea’s devolved parliament, to Moscow.
The official reason for his trip was to meet Serhey Naryshkin, the speaker of the Russian Duma, to discuss a literature festival and a memorial to World War II victims.
It is a strange reason given the context: 100 people had just been killed in Kiev at the peak of the Yanukovych crisis.
For his part, Andriy Senchenko, a Ukrainian MP from Crimea, has said that, several months ago, Konstantinov asked the legislature’s legal department to collect all the documents relating to Russia’s transfer of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.
Senchenko noted that Konstantinov also has a construction business which is at risk of going bust because it cannot repay its loans to Russian banks.
The true nature of the meeting came to light when Konstantinov made a public statement saying Russia should reverse the 1954 decision.
The next day, on 21 February, Russia moved 16 armoured personnel carriers from their base in Sevastopol. It continued unauthorised troop movements on 22 February.
On 23 February, the Russian Block party in Crimea organised a mass rally in Sevastopol, the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. People carrying Russian flags declared that they do not obey the new government in Kiev (which had not yet been formed). They demanded that Sevastopol should be run by a “people’s mayor” and put forward Aleksey Tchalyi, a Russian passport-holdng businessman, for the role. The city created a "co-ordinating council" under Tchalyi which took charge of all municipal executive powers.
At the same time, three BTR-80 armoured vehicles moved from the Sevastopol base in the direction of another big Crimean city: Khersones.
On 25 February in Simferopol, the capital city of the Crimean autonomous region, pro-Russian Cossack organisations installed a Russian tri-color on the building of the Crimean legislature.
The next day, nearly 10,000 Crimean Tatars came to the legislature in protest against separatism. Very small scale clashes took place between them and their opponents.
In the meantime, the Russian Marine Corps continued their deployment towards Simferopol by sending out 10 more armoured vehicles. In Moscow, Putin ordered the Russian ministry of defence to test the combat readiness of the Central and Western military regions bordering Ukraine. His defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, quickly reported that the military maneuvers will involve 150,000 troops, 880 tanks, 90 aircraft and 80 naval vessels.
Later the same night, the building of the Crimean legislature in Simferopol was occupied by 50 unidentified gunmen, who barricaded the building and installed machine guns at the front entrance.
They did not issue any statements. But they let in Konstantinov and the members of the presidium of the Crimean legislature, while denying entry to officials of its executive office.
On 27 February, while still besieged by gunmen and in violation of all due process, an unclear number of Crimean MPs voted to conduct a referendum on independence and to dismiss the cabinet of ministers. They also appointed Serhey Aksionov, the leader of the tellingly named Russian Unity movement, as Crimea’s new prime minister.
The government in Kiev dismissed the moves as “unconstitutional.” It noted that in the 1990s Aksionov was a member of an organised crime group in Crimea called “Goblin.” Both Kiev and the international community urged caution and told Russia to pull back.
But on 28 February, Russia continued its military buildup on the peninsula by flying in 12 Mi-24 attack helicopters and five Il-76 Russian military transport planes. More units were also deployed on the ground.
In a short time all strategic assets, including airports, were under the complete control of Russian marines. It is estimated that there are 26,000 Russian troops in Crimea at this moment.
Putin gets go-ahead to invade
On 1 March, the Russian parliament officially authorised Putin to send his army into any part of Ukraine in order to “normalise [the] social and political situation” under the pretext that the lives of Russian citizens in Ukraine are somehow in danger.
The terms of its statement directly echoed Adolf Hitler’s decision to annex the Czech Sudetenland at the outbreak of World War II.
For its part, the Moscow Helsinki Group, a leading Russian NGO, has said it has official confirmation from the Russian general consulate in Crimea that not a single Russian citizen has been injured since the unrest in Ukraine broke out.
But Russian propaganda is telling a different version of reality to justify the aggression. Its media is pumping out news that the fall of Yanukovych represents an ethnic conflict between Russians and Ukrainians.
You are not going to hear on Russian TV that Ukrainians rebelled against the corruption of Yanukovych or his sudden reversal on EU integration.
Kremlin media is too busy saying that Ukraine’s new government are fascists who threaten the livelihood and cultural rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine.
People unfamiliar with the language and ethnic situation in Ukraine might even buy it - but the facts say precisely the opposite.
Ukrainian media and culture have been heavily dominated by the Russian language since the Soviet period, and even before, for a number of reasons that fall outside the scope of this article.
In Crimea itself, for instance, there live 800,000 Ukrainian speakers, who have just seven Ukrainian language schools.
This situation has caused tension in society because the Ukrainian majority feels that it is culturally oppressed. The balance improved after the Orange Revolution in 2004, when Ukrainian language speakers, for example, finally got the opportunity to watch movies at the cinema in Ukrainian.
But the pro-Russian Yanukovych repealed the new policies and instigated a new wave of cultural resovietisation and russification. His policies were simply not sustainable in a country where Ukrainian speakers make up 70 percent of the population.
For his part, the former Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, believes that after Ukrainians showed their determination to return to European integration, Putin is terrified of losing influence over other parts of the former USSR.
To preserve his position in the region, Putin is trying to create an arc of instability that includes frozen conflicts in Abkhazia, Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Transnistria.
The similarities of the Crimea operation to Russia’s operation in Georgia in 2008 are striking. Large scale military drills on the boarders; mass scale distribution of Russian passports; formation of local puppet governments; heavy propaganda; and military provocations.
The consulate in Simferopol is not even hiding that it is giving away Russian passports under simplified procedures. In a well publicised event, nine officers of the Berkut, the Ukrainian police squad that used force against protesters in Kiev, were awarded Russian nationality.
The Russian Federal Migration office also made an - unsubstantiated - statement that over 143,000 Ukrainian citizens made applications for Russian citizenship in the last two weeks. When Russian TV told the story, it showed bogus pictures of a queue of cars on Ukraine’s western border.
The Russian Orthodox Church also issued a charged comment that Ukrainians and Russians are the same divided nation which has to unite in “the body of one state.”
The provocations are not limited to Crimea.
Pro-Russian rallies also took part in four big cities - Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, and Odessa - in the east and south of Ukraine. However, the one-day rallies of 2,000 to 10,000 people fade in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of protesters that took to the streets of Kiev and other cities for three months.
Ukrainian journalists have uncovered that Russian citizens came to Ukraine specifically to take part in the pro-Russian protests.
A number of Russian websites placed ads inviting people to take part in “political tourism” to Ukraine to support pro-Russian groups. Ukraine has a visa-free pact with Russia: some 2,000 Russian citizens came by bus from the Belgorod oblast alone, others from Rostov-on-Don.
These protests are clearly designed to further destabilise the situation and to fuel Putin’s propaganda. Do they think this theater will convince the sane world that its actions are justified? Or is it purely for the Russian audience?
On 2 March we equally witnessed mass “anti-Putin” rallies in eastern Ukraine - in Zaporizhya, Kharkiv, Sumy, Odesa, Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson, Donetsk, Poltava, Mykolaiv. Some of them attracted more than 10,000 people.
The same day 250 people went to protest against Russian aggression in front of the ministry of defence in Moscow - 50 of them were detained. But just 200 protesters, mostly elderly people, came to the main square of Simferopol to support secession from Ukraine.
The government in Kiev, knowing too well how the Georgia war unfolded, is doing all in its power not to let armed clashes break out.
The Ukrainian fleet was ordered to withdraw from its naval base in Crimea. The Ukrainian army is being mobilised, but the standing orders are to avoid any direct confrontation with Russian troops. A likely next step might be closing the border with Russia.
The statement by the three former Ukrainian presidents - Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma, and Viktor Yushchenko - best reflects the position of Kiev officialdom.
It calls on the parties to the Budapest memorandum on security assurances, a Russia-UK-Ukraine-US pact from 1994, to honor their obligations to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
It also calls on all relevant international organisations to send their envoys immediately to Ukraine.
The statement encourages the interim government to promptly sign an association treaty with the EU and to renege the “Kharkiv Treaty” signed by Yanukovych and Putin in 2010, which extends the stationing of the Russian fleet in Crimea beyond the original end-date of 2017.
It is hard to envision any direct talks over Crimea between Ukraine and Russia at this time.
To any independent observer it is obvious that Russia did not have a single valid reason for military invasion. The Russian government is just exploiting the weakness of the transitional period in Ukraine by installing a puppet government in Ukraine’s only region of ethnic Russian dominance. Even here, this puppet government does not have popular support and would not survive without the presence of Russian troops.
The international community seems to realise the gravity of the Crimean conflict and the impact of Russia’s actions on the post-Cold-War peace architecture of Europe.
Unfortunately, no practical steps were taken in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Georgia to recalibrate international peace instruments to prepare them for the repeat of a similar scenario. Neither the UN Security Council, nor the OCSE, or Nato are prepared to face the new challenge.
For years, Russian bullying towards its neighbours went unpunished.
Analysts enumerate literally hundreds of recent episodes when Russia used either political, economic, energy, or military means to coerce neighboring countries to stay in the sphere of Russian influence.
Not even EU member states, especially the former Soviet Baltic states, are immune to Russian interference.
As the Georgian and Ukrainian examples prove, large ethnic Russian minorities, especially in Latvia and Estonia, could be manipulated to fabricate a casus belli. It is not certain that the terms of the Nato treaty, of which they are signatories, would give them automatic assistance if a conflict is fomented from within their territories.
In the case of Ukraine, the EU and US have no other option but to act firmly and responsibly.
One should recall that Ukraine in 1994, in the framework of the Budapest accord, became the first country in the world to voluntarily dismantle its nuclear arsenal. It is capable of renewing its nuclear potential within two to three years if it chooses to.
If the international community allows Russia to violate Budapest, it will send a terrible signal to other nuclear threshold states or potential signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The absence of a firm international reaction could easily see Russia’s plan to cause a new “frozen” conflict turn into a hot conflict which draws in Ukraine’s neighbours. Ukrainians feel too strongly about national unity to let Crimea slip back into the Russian empire.
The international community should consider targeted or, perhaps, even economic sanctions to contain the Russian regime. Not only for the sake of Ukraine - Russian people also deserve a chance of democracy.
The Russian regime must feel isolation in the main international fora - the G8, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, the UN Security Council, and the Council of Europe.
The deployment of Nato war ships to the Black sea might also cool some heads in the Kremlin.
Tens of millions of Ukrainians want to break free from the sphere of Russian influence, which comes, in a package, together with abuse of human rights, an assault on democracy and widespread corruption.
The Russian regime does not want Ukrainians to transform their nation because the success of Ukraine would encourage the collapse of Russia’s own authoritarian regime.
As EU commissioner Stefan Fuele recently said: Eastern Europe cannot be transformed without using the most powerful instrument of change - enlargement.
It has to be acknowledged that only Ukrainian membership in Nato and the European Union would provide a needed counterbalance to Russia's aggressive behaviour in the region.
The writer is an activist and columnist in Ukraine, who frequently contributes to Ukrainska Pravda, an independent news agency