Russia takes over Crimea; indicates it may not stop there

By bne IntelliNews March 2, 2014

Graham Stack in Balaklava, Crimea -

Without firing a shot, Russian troops have occupied a series of areas across Crimea to neutralise potential points of military opposition to a newly installed pro-Russian government on Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula, while Crimea's new government moved up a referendum to March 30 on whether the peninsula will remain part of Ukraine. In response, Ukraine has put its armed forces on full alert and warned Russia that military intervention will lead to war, as worries grow the Kremlin will decide to escalate things further by sending troops to predominantly ethnic Russian regions of eastern Ukraine.

Russia's Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, on March 1 agreed to an appeal by President Putin to allow deployment of Russian forces on the territory of Ukraine, in a move that could end peace in Europe. The appeal referred to "the extraordinary situation that has developed in Ukraine and the threat to citizens of the Russian Federation, our compatriots, the personnel of the military contingent of the Russian Federation Armed Forces deployed on the territory of Ukraine".

Putin appealed for use of Russian armed forces in Ukraine "until the social and political situation in that country is normalised." According to the Kremlin, the "extraordinary situation" derives from the recent ousting of president Viktor Yanukovych after weeks of violent protests that culminated in scores of protestors' dying at the hands of government forces.

The newly appointed prime minister of Crimea, Serhiy Aksionov, appealed March 1 for Russia to dispatch armed forces, in what seemed a carefully scripted scenario. "Understanding my responsibility for the people's lives and security, I am appealing to Russian President Vladimir Putin to provide assistance in ensuring peace and accord on the territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea," Aksionov said in his appeal, as quoted by newswires.

Aksionov was only appointed to the post of prime minister February 27 by Crimea's parliament after it had been occupied by a masked group of armed men, believed linked to Russia. Askionov heads the "Russian Unity" party that advocates Crimea's return to Russia.

Aksionov also issued a statement March 1 subordinating to himself all Ukrainian law-enforcement and military and security structures on the Crimean peninsula, including the Ukrainian fleet. And indicating the quickening pace of events that may indicate a Kremlin master plan at work, he moved up to March 30 the date of a referendum on whether Crimea should become independent, join Russia or remain in Ukraine, according to Russian TV reports. The referendum was previously slated for May 25, the date of Ukraine's pre-term presidential elections.

In a 90-minute telephone conversation, US President Barack Obama told Putin that Russia was flouting international law by sending troops to Ukraine and urged him to pull his forces back to their bases in Crimea.

The Kremlin said in a statement that in the call President Putin "underlined that there are real threats to the life and health of Russian citizens and compatriots on Ukrainian territory." The statement went on to say that Putin indicated Russia might send its troops not only to the Crimea but also to predominantly ethnic Russian regions of eastern Ukraine. "Vladimir Putin emphasized that, in the case of a further spread in violence in eastern regions (of Ukraine) and Crimea, Russia maintains the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population that lives there," the Kremlin statement said.

Balaklavas in Balaklava

Meanwhile, troops without insignia, but carried in Russian army vehicles and believed to be marines from the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, were already moving throughout Crimea. Ukraine Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk put the number of Russian forces on the move at 6,000 in a statement. The Russian troop deployment appeared to cut off the few possible points of resistance by Ukrainian forces to the new pro-Russian administration. Russian troops appear to have taken over or blocked the airports at Simferopol and Sevastopol, the headquarters of national telecommunications provider Ukrtelecom, a Ukrainian air defence base near the coastal city of Evtaporia, and a border guard base at the port of Balaklava near Sevastopol.

According to Interfax, Russian forces were disarming their Ukrainian counterparts across the peninsula, apparently encountering no resistance. Interfax, quoting a source in Ukraine's ministry of defence, said that in the evening of March 1 Russian forces had disarmed a Ukrainian unit in Sudak guarding radar facilities. The report also detailed that presumably Russian "negotiators" had arrived overnight at Ukrainian military bases across the peninsula to persuade the forces to lay down their arms, and switch sides, in which case they would enjoy a good salary and social insurance package. Russian forces are paid five to ten times more than their Ukrainiann counterparts.

Masked activist groups bearing pro-Russian St George ribbons have also occupied government buildings in the Crimean capital Simferopol, pro-Ukraine media outlets, and are apparently blocking the motorway leading from the Ukraine mainland to the peninsula. No casualties have been reported yet.

In the picturesque port of Balaklava, by Sevastopol, a Russian convoy negotiated disarmament of a unit of the Ukrainian coast guards. Around ten army trucks full of troops, five armoured personnel carriers with mounted machine guns and around 40 troops in Balaklavas with Kalashnikovs sealed off the street outside the base of the Ukrainian state coast guard, part of the state border guards. Surreally, the standoff took place by a billboard feting the state border as "sacred and inviolate," while a street sign pointed to a "museum complex of the Cold War."

Outside, a mostly pro-Russian crowd of around 100 stood and chanted pro-Russian slogans and waved the Russian flag, calling on the border guards to open their gates. Local media reports identified the Russian troops as the 810th marine brigade of the Russian Black Sea fleet, which is located in Sevastopol. Some of the protestors wore "Russian Bloc" armbands, a local pro-Russian organisation.

A line of unarmed border guard officers guarded the gates. Some civilians, apparently veterans of the border guard unit and relatives of serving men, had earlier stood between the border guards and the Russian forces, and later acted as intermediaries. When a bne reporter approached the gates to talk to the group, soldiers removed him politely. Individuals in the crowd who appeared to have inside information said the purpose of the operation was to disarm the base, and that the base commanders had already left by ship to Odesa.

Despite the presence of a heavily armed troop contingent, there was little tension in the air, since the border guards are locals from Sevastopol and the Russian troops count as locals. "They all know each other," said Svetlana Kalinenko, 43. Three Orthodox priests also stood among the Russian unit and sung prayers. Cars waving Russian flags drove by and hooted horns.

The protestors gave largely similar answers when questioned on the events, and expressed suspicion of western journalists. "They [the Russian troops] are here so as to prevent provocations," said Andrei Nebolaev, 49, a local resident. "We want to live in peace. Here is everything peaceful, no one's throwing Molotovs, it is in Kyiv that there is violence," 35-year-old Sergei Dorokin told bne. "Everything is fine. We don't want people from Maidan here. They are fascists and we want peace. Why does your country believe that the authorities in Kyiv are legitimate?" Evgenny Bondarenko, 55, asked. "We want an independent state, perhaps with the rest of the south and east of Ukraine, in the best case we want to join Russia," said Piotr Yurichuk, 48.

Locals in Balaklava away from the demonstration also supported these views. "Of course Crimea should be part of Russia," said Maria Berezovskaya, 17, a high school student, in excellent English.

One dissenting opinion, however, was roundly mobbed by the crowd: Edik, a 37-year-old reserve officer in the Ukrainian navy, which is also based in Sevastopol, who declined to give his last name, said: "This is a foreign military intervention... Why are there armed troops on our streets? If this is protection, from whom exactly are they protecting us?" Edik was manhandled away from the demonstrations as he expressed his views. "This is a free country, I am allowed to be here," he complained. "Judas," protestors shouted at him.

Overnight, the Russian troops moved from Balaklava.

Crimean impasse

The standoff at Balaklava encapsulates Russia's Crimean game plan.

Firstly, co-opt a local population deeply alienated by recent events in Kyiv that - rightly or wrong - they perceive from a diametrically different perspective than do the triumphant and grieving citizens of central and west Ukraine, and western audiences. In Crimea, the Euromaidan movement is viewed through the prism of Russian history and propaganda as a violent and illegal movement that directly threatens them. Excluding Crimea's Tatar population - roughly 12% of Crimea's 2.2m inhabitant - Crimeans are broadly supportive of pro-Russian views, ranging from greater language rights to "returning" to Russia, reversing Soviet boss Nikita Khrushchev's decision in 1954 to transfer the peninsula from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Secondly, have local pro-Russian activist groups actively support the actions of Russian troops, apparently in coordination with the Russian forces, and even imitate aspects of the Euromaidan self-defence units.

Thirdly, Russian forces move from their base in Sevastopol to close down the few perceived potential flashpoints of resistance to the pro-Russian authorities in Crimea, encountering little resistance.

And fourthly, rely on apparent passivity of local Ukrainian law enforcement, security and military structures, which have absented themselves from such standoffs as in Balaklava, where a police patrol car drove by as if nothing was happening. Local Ukrainian army and security units since 2004 have been composed exclusively of locals, meaning they likely harbour similar pro-Russian sentiment as the general population. Given that Ukrainian army personnel are poorly paid and the army is starved of cash needed for motor fuel, little local resistance from the military was expected.

Kyiv, however, seems certain to try to win back control over the peninsula - given the heady mixture of triumph and trauma that is Kyiv politics following the collapse of the Yankovych government on February 23. Leading investigative journalist Dmitro Gnap encapsulates the mood in Kyiv when he announced on Facebook his immediate readiness to serve his country in the armed forces.

Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, put the Ukrainian military on full combat alert in the evening of March 1, calling Russia's moves an "invasion". Also, newly appointed secretary of the Security Council, Andriy Parubyi (who was "commander" of the Euromaidan protest camp and co-founder of the Svoboda nationalist party in the 1990s) declared the national mobilization of the reserves (ie. everyone who has done military service, this is obligatory). "The conscription offices are open," he announced on Facebook.

"This is war," said Oleh Tiahnibok, head of Ukraine's nationalist Svoboda party, in an address to the nation.

Close allies of Ukraine, Latvia and Lithuania, who share a similarly traumatic experience of incorporation in the Soviet Union, have invoked Nato article 4 in response to the Crimean emergency, obligating Nato to hold an emergency council meeting, for only the fourth time in its history. "The decision by the Russian Federation to sanction the use of armed forces in the territory of Ukraine is a gross violation of international law and a direct interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state," Latvia's president Andris Berzins said in a statement. "In our hearts and minds we are together with the Ukrainian people!" Other East European countries with Russia-related historical traumas are likely to follow suit.

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