As I wrote yesterday, Crimea is now owned by the Kremlin, at least de facto, and there’s little to be done in the short term to change that. Certainly the appearance of Russian minefields on the “border” between Crimea and Ukraine today indicates the new reality of the situation we face. As I write, amid reports of Russian troop movements in Crimea, Putin may be readying his next gamble, a move into Eastern Ukraine. His lack of fear of Western retaliation is showing, which cannot be construed as a good sign.
How can the West deter further Russian aggression? I gave strong hints in my previous piece but I’ve been asked to provide more, so here it goes, an off-the-cuff analysis of what needs to be done, soon. In the realm of conventional deterrence, some small things have already happened, including the movement of limited numbers of USAF fighters to Poland and the Baltics; this measure, though temporary, is wise. It should be followed by permanent stationing of USAF fighters in the region, in frontline NATO countries: the numbers need not be large, as qualitatively our edge over the Russian Air Force is considerable. At a minimum, the placement of ground-based anti-missile units (i.e. Aegis Ashore) in Eastern Europe ought to expedited. The joint training focus of U.S. European Command (EUCOM) needs to shift at once from light/SOF-type forces with a COIN focus (i.e. related to the soon-to-end ISAF mission in Afghanistan) to heavier, more conventional forces aimed at rapid response to Russian aggression.
However, deterrence is not to be found in any major U.S. redeployment of forces on a permanent basis into Europe. EUCOM’s conventional drawdown has already happened and, in terms of crisis response, flexibility is more important than anything, and moves in recent years to establish surge-friendly bases in Eastern Europe proved wise and need to be expanded upon. While it would be wise to commence regular NATO naval patrols in the Baltic and the Black Sea, as was common in the Cold War, as a deterrent message to Moscow, it is not necessary to recreate major U.S. Army bases in Europe in Cold War fashion.
Moreover, it is imperative that European NATO members bear their share of this new burden. For too long, too many European partners have slashed their own defense spending, understanding that Big Uncle Sam would always be there for them; despite repeated warnings from the Pentagon, these trends have continued and, with too-few honorable exceptions, our European NATO partners have refused to pay their own way in collective defense. Cynical Americans are uncharitable, but hardly wrong, to term this free-loading on the American taxpayer.
Therefore, as we reinvigorate NATO, thanks to Putin’s misconduct, it is high time to reassess membership in the Atlantic Alliance. Members are supposed to spend two percent of GDP on defense, but very few actually do. Henceforth this must be a strict requirement. Existing members are expected to do so, and will be held to this. If you do not commit two percent of your GDP on defense, after three years, you will be expelled from the Alliance. Period. If you want protection, you must be part of the team. Needless to add, there should be no discussion of adding any new members to NATO until the Alliance sorts out who can be relied upon to participate in collective defense, and who cannot.
“New” NATO members are particularly egregious in this regard, and among them only Poland and Estonia spend what they are supposed to on defense. For the others, considerable funds were expended on the high cost of NATO accession, and after attaining membership in the world’s most exclusive military club, most have slashed funding and, de facto, coasted on U.S. defense and dollars. This must end, particularly because these are some of the very countries that the United States could soon find itself going to war for to defend them from rapacious Russia.
That said, quite a few long-standing NATO members are nearly as cynical, and many seem content to treat their NATO commitments less than seriously – though of course they all still expect their “slice” of “top” Alliance jobs in Brussels. As many have noted, cushy, 9-to-5 NATO staffing positions have only increased as field forces have shriveled up: another waste of funds that ought to be examined rigorously. The dramatic decline, really collapse, of Britain’s once-proud military since 2010 is noteworthy here, and the Cameron government has provided a perfect how-not-to guide to managing defense resources.
All the same, America is not without blame in all this, as emphasis on “the needs of the Alliance” – often meaning “the needs of America’s losing war in Afghanistan” – has meant that NATO countries for more than a decade have focused scarce defense funds on items and programs to support ISAF, not territorial defense in Europe. As a result, there is a long list of New-NATO members whose militaries are adept at small-scale, often SOF-flavored, programs that were relevant in Afghanistan, but which provide little value in deterring Russia close to home. This, too, must change at once, and NATO’s primary mission must again become deterring Moscow’s moves westward.
Effective deterrence is well within NATO’s grasp, as Russia’s conventional forces, despite considerable reinvestment now, remain a shadow of their Soviet-era selves. But so are NATO’s, and there’s not much time to waste. The West must get serious about defense again, or be prepared to be intimidated or worse by Putin’s Kremlin.
As I’ve said before, more-or-less overt Russian moves into Eastern Ukraine are more than possible, soon, and if that happens NATO will have a proxy war on its hands. Though it’s unlikely that NATO forces would be directly engaged against the Russians in Ukraine – allowing that all bets are off in the unlikely event that Russian forces move past Kyiv, into Western Ukraine – it can be expected that NATO would provide Ukraine with considerable military and intelligence assistance to defend the country against Moscow.
We need to act now, there is not much time to waste any longer … In my next segment, I will share my thoughts on how to employ Special War, potentially our real trump card, against Russia, and thereby deter Kremlin adventurism and aggression.
As I write, the Ukrainian region of Crimea is being absorbed by Russia, more or less openly. This represents a blatant challenge to the post-1991 European order, make no mistake, and so far Vladimir Putin is winning. After a sudden increase in Russian military personnel on the sensitive peninsula, more than 6,000 troops, mostly Special Operations Forces (SOF), Moscow has pulled out all the stops in waging what I have termed Special War: provocations, espionage, black and white propaganda, and the use of deniable SOF, often under false flag. None of this is new to the Russians, indeed it’s second-nature to the Kremlin, and Crimea today can best be viewed as one huge operation by Moscow’s powerful military intelligence, the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), which controls not just defense espionage matters but SOF too, what the Russians term SPETSNAZ.
The outcome in Crimea is no longer in doubt. The referendum on its status, whose vote tally is preordained, is scheduled for March 16; that President Obama and many Western leaders have noted this is illegal is all the more reason Moscow will do it. Western powers are spending much time and effort trying to undo the fait accompli in Crimea, to no effect now save posturing. What needs to be done is deterring the Kremlin’s next move, which is sure to come.
It is widely assumed that Putin’s next aggression will arrive in Eastern Ukraine, where there are large pockets of ethnic Russians, and where Moscow’s intelligence services have been playing their customary provocative games, laying the groundwork for full-scale Special War. Regrettably, I suspect the chances of a more-or-less overt Russian military move into Eastern Ukraine, to “protect” ethnic kin from “fascists,” are rising as Putin smells Western dithering in the face of his Crimean coup. Such an act will mean a full-scale war for Ukraine, which will soon involve NATO indirectly at least. Putin has the ability to seize much of Eastern Ukraine without much chance of defeat, but he may win himself a protracted conflict for which Russia is unready.
That said, there is no room for confident pleasantries yet of the sort we are seeing in the Western media: that the Kremlin is really losing, that Russia is on the ropes, that Putin is sowing the seeds of his eventual defeat. There is no doubt that Putin is lashing out in part due to Russia’s many weaknesses: economic, social, demographic, and political. Putin’s nostalgia for the Soviet Union – really, a deep longing for again having unquestioned Great Power status – is well known, but it needs to be recognized that over Crimea and Ukraine, Putin is acting simply in the manner of traditional Russian leaders: touchy about borders, at turns nakedly aggressive, desiring to have weak neighbors it can manipulate, worried about defending his land and people against myriad aggressors (some of them quite imaginary). Russia’s neighbors all know this pattern of conduct well, and are planning accordingly. Poland announced major defense reforms emphasizing territorial defense (i.e. defense against resurgent Russia) last fall, and now Sweden is following suit: there will be others.
To the surprise of no one actually acquainted with post-Cold War Europe, the collective response of European powers to the Crimean crisis has been underwhelming, to be kind. There has been no united front against Kremlin aggression as there is no common vision of what needs defending among members of the European Union (EU). While Eastern members properly feel an urgency about Russian moves, members further West seem less inclined to inconvenience themselves and their comfortable lives. The response in Germany, the most powerful EU country economically and politically, has been particularly repulsive where, thanks to underfunding and a lack of seriousness about defense matters, the Bundeswehr is incapable of offering much in terms of deterrence anyway, and the Kremlin’s buying off of much of Germany’s political elite has done the rest. Given German misdeeds in Poland and other Eastern European countries between 1939 and 1945, that are now threatened by Moscow, Berlin’s lackadaiscal response reveals moral, not just political, failings.
As the EU has been revealed to be a dilettante’s talk-shop outside economics, better suited to debates about cheese regulations than serious matters of statecraft, the burden must fall on NATO which, thanks to gross underinvestment in defense by nearly all European members, means that falls on the United States. There is no doubt that, in extremis, the United States would honor its Article 5 obligations and go to war to defend any NATO country directly threatened by Russian invasion. But what of countries threatened more indirectly by Special War à la russe - by subversion, terrorism, and violence by “self-defense militias” that the Kremlin swears it has nothing to do with? And what happens in a few years when the American military, already tired by a dozen years of failed wars in the Middle East and increasingly hollowed out by massive defense spending cuts, lacks sufficient power to deter Russia quickly and convincingly? These are the stuff of Eastern European NATO nightmares, and properly so.
Perhaps most unsettling is the manner in which Western observers fail to note what actually motivates Putin and his country. Let there be no mistake, Moscow’s nakedly nationalist chest-beating is widely popular among average Russians; its opponents represent a distinctly minority view that natives will cheerfully explain is foreign-controlled anyway. We hear much happy-talk about the “irrationality” of Kremlin conduct, that such aggression has no place in our current, advanced age, and that it all makes no economic sense anyway. Historians are aware that remarkably similar language was employed by Western pundits and statesmen in the late 1930s to explain away the increasingly aggressive behavior, including cheerful disregard for international norms, by another leader of a resurgent yet recently defeated power.
Russia was indeed a defeated power after 1991, and it nurses a deep sense of humiliation at the hands of the West and especially the United States. I have more than a little sympathy for this viewpoint, and there can no doubt that, in the 1990s, Washington, DC, paid far too little attention to Moscow’s views on much of anything, and we are now paying the price for that, repaid with onerous interest to the Kremlin. U.S. and NATO actions in the Balkans, at the expense of Russia’s troublesome old friend Serbia, have come back to haunt, and Moscow’s representatives now cannot contain their glee pointing out that, if NATO could unilaterally redraw the internationally recognized borders of Serbia in 1999, why cannot Russia to the same to Ukraine now? If the brief Georgia war of 2008 was payback for Kosovo – and it certainly was – what is playing out now over Ukraine is merely the next stage of Moscow’s revenge, for much higher stakes.
Revenge is a category not much discussed in college International Relations classes, but it is a prime motivator for Putin and his country now. Humiliating the United States and NATO is a major strategic aim for the Kremlin, and from their viewpoint an entirely rational – not to mention entirely delicious - one. While the Kremlin will not risk a major war with the West, which they know would be a disaster of vast proportions, they are quite happy to come close enough to show NATO and America to be the decadent weaklings that Putin and millions of Russians are quite confident that we are. To state the obvious, the risk of serious miscalculation, another historic Russian speciality in foreign affairs, is grave now.
But do not expect the Kremlin to back off yet, Putin and his retinue are enjoying this too much to stop now. Moscow has wanted to redraw the internal borders of the USSR, which do not reflect ethnic realities well, ever since 1991, and in this revanchist game Ukraine is the biggest prize of all. Simply put, Barack Obama is the first American president Moscow has felt they could pull this off against. This is painful to say, not least because this author – like many foreign policy watchers – was optimistic at the start that President Obama could undo the massive harm done to America’s international reputation by George W. Bush. Yet Moscow has taken a different view of all this from the outset, seeing weakness where others saw lawyerly consideration and American-style optimism.
This has been plain to see for some time. While Western Europe was celebrating Obama as something vaguely divine – his pre-victory speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and the award of the Nobel Peace Prize for having done nothing save not being President Bush, are fated to go down as two of the strangest happenings in modern foreign affairs – Russia was much less impressed. When Obama was first elected, Moscow pundits, including respected, level-headed ones, spoke as if America had lost its collective mind. Putin’s contempt for Obama has never been well disguised, and has only become more obvious with time, and many average Russians feel the same. Russian, like many Slavic languages, revels in countless put-downs implying weakness and effeminacy, and if you spend any time among Russians, even highly educated ones, you will hear the full range of them of them used to describe President Obama – lately, often with a laugh.
This was probably inevitable: how else did anyone expect the “former” KGB officer and judo master to look at the law professor and community organizer? Yet policies matter more, and over the last five years, Obama’s policies have gradually opened the door to a stronger, more assertive Russia in the world, above all the disaster over Syria which, as my colleague Tom Nichols and I noted several times last year, represented an opening beyond the Middle East that Putin was sure to take advantage of, and so he has.
All is far from lost. In his last year in office, President Jimmy Carter, shaken by Kremlin aggression, above all in Afghanistan, woke up to reality and took decisive action, raising defense spending and getting tough with the USSR in something like Special War, thereby setting the stage for victory in the Cold War a decade later, something which too few pundits have been willing to credit President Carter. Something similar can be done now, and ought to be. Deterrence, particularly in the realm of Special War, is the language that Putin speaks and understands well. This, plus bolstering NATO’s conventional defenses in the East, is entirely within our power and needs to be done urgently to forestall more Russian bad behavior.
Yet there are reasons to doubt this will happen soon enough, not least due to the basic dysfunction of this White House in foreign policy. This is not news, yet matters greatly now. Simply put, President Obama has surrounded himself with people who are not up to the challenge presented by the Kremlin over Ukraine and beyond. I’ve named some of them before, and don’t need to do so again. Most seriously, the consolidation of foreign policy decision-making in a few hands in this White House is without modern precedent and cancerous. It’s hardly a secret inside the Beltway that both the Departments of State and Defense, the former not exactly being a right-wing bastion, have been marginalized under Obama to a dangerous extent. In the recent scandal of Obama appointing campaign donors to ambassadorships when they seemed not to even know where the country in question was, I could not help but note that this really makes no difference, since all important foreign policy decisions are being made by a few, often young, staffers in the White House, outside the normal State Department chain.
A related factor here surely is that the United States has groomed a whole generation of foreign policy wonks-in-training who lack any real understanding of how the world actually works. These impressive-on-paper people – let it be noted they are legion in both parties – the under-45′s who are always graduates of the right schools and first-rate players of The Game in Washington, DC (which really comes down to cultivating the right mentors who will guide you to the proper think-tank until your party returns to power), are no match for the stone-cold killers of the Kremlin, led by the Chekist-in-Chief Putin. They have grown up in a world where unipolar American power has never been challenged, and while they can utter pleasant, Davos-ready platitudes about the whole range of bien pensant issues – global warming, emerging trends in micro-finance, gender matters on the Subcontinent, et al – they have quite literally nothing to say when old-school conventional threats emerge and enemies – yes, enemies: not rivals or merely misunderstood would-be partners – emerge from the darkness with conquest and killing on their minds.
In the present-day West, it’s commonplace to have a laugh at Vladimir Putin’s weirdly macho (and more than a little homoerotic) posturings, and I’ve done it too – how not, among the panoply of martial arts, bears, and countless shirtless adventures before the cameras? Yet in Russia they love this stuff, without a laugh-track. They are not yet as post-modern as we are, and they find reassurance in an old-school leader who talks about – and more importantly demonstrates – strength in a dangerous world. The first decade of the post-Soviet era was an economic, political, and social catastrophe for Russia, and Putin, whatever his faults, has been a pleasant change in the eyes of most Russians, which is why they back him through thick and thin. The Putin era will end someday, probably with Russia more isolated from the world than ever, but that coda may be some difficult decades off.
In the meantime, Western leaders must find the strength to resist Russian aggression through deterrence. Credibility must come first, as without it all our nuclear warheads, conventional forces, and economic leverage mean little and will not impress. NATO can deter Putin’s misdeeds, far beyond Ukraine, but that will require reinvestment in collective defense, not just cheap talk and expensive conferences. European NATO members have become accustomed to American leadership and gap-filling at all times, but they need to confront the reality that they must do more, and soon. Across the West, we need leaders who understand the stakes now and how to prevent war through strength and cunning. As is always the case in war, cold or hot, we need to become a little bit like our enemy to deter him. If our leaders cannot do that, get new leaders – and soon, as this game is real and the stakes are high.
[The author's comments are his alone and certainly not representative of any of his employers, past or present.]
This remarkable statement, in the form of an open letter, has appeared on the website of the Ukrainan Navy’s news website, Flot Ukrainyny; I am passing it on in toto, without comment, it speaks for itself:
An address by the command of the Sevastopol brigade of surface ships, and the crews of the Ukrainian Navy ships Slavutych and Ternopil to the international media:
We, sailors of the Ukrainian Navy, have listened attentively to the position and thoughts of the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, which he delivered during a news conference in Moscow on 4 March 2014.
Speaking to a Reuters journalist, the Russian president subtly displayed the skills of a diplomat in avoiding answering questions. But we are military people and, as it is known, we tend to speak and act directly, after diplomats exhaust their mutual arguments.
Proceeding from this, we think that we have the right to accuse the president of the Russian Federation of a baldfaced lie. A lie that concerns the direct participation of the Russian Armed Forces in the events which have been unfolding on the territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol over the last few days and today too.
The Ukrainian Navy warships Ternopil and Slavutych, which are moored in Sevastopol Bay, are currently blocked by warships and vessels of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and they are all carrying detachments of marines numbering up to a platoon. They are armed with automatic weapons and equipped accordingly.
Bearing in mind the remarks of Mr. Putin that such gear and equipment can be bought in any shop, we would like to seize the moment and ask which shop – as well as where one can purchase automatic weapons, pistols and grenade launchers in violation of Ukrainian legislation? We also would like to recall that no unit of the Ukrainian Armed Forces deployed in Crimea gave up even a single inch of the territory of their military bases or the weapons entrusted to them, let alone in such quantity, as all units remained faithful to the call of duty and their oath to the Ukrainian nation.
In response to all these insinuations, and the flows of mendacious information disseminated by dirty politicos and corrupt journalists, we – officers, warrant officers and sailors of the Ukrainian Navy – openly declare that we will honestly carry out our soldier’s duty till the end, we will defend our country and the Ukrainian people as we have been doing through all the years of independence, not for the sake of posts or salaries, but because this is our land and we cherish the lives of every person who lives on this land regardless of nationality.
Personnel of the brigade of surface ships,
4 March 2014
As I write, the Kremlin has won a seemingly bloodless victory by seizing Crimea without real resistance. As Europe panics and U.S. leadership seems to have no idea what to do about Vladimir Putin’s single-handed shredding of Europe’s post-Cold War rulebook, the next step is unclear. To be sure, if Putin moves forces into ethnically Russian areas of eastern Ukraine – as the Duma has “approved” and he told President Obama he reserves the right to – Europe will have a real war on its hands; it is already in its biggest crisis since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. But a wider war cannot be ruled out. At a minimum, the post-1991 assurances that Europe would be forever at peace, that “soft power” could conquer all, or nearly so, that the continent’s biggest problems would be arguments over EU agricultural subsidies, have been shattered for good.
It is time to face some unpleasant facts. History – and force – is back with a vengeance, thanks to Kremlin belligerence, as I predicted last fall. Unless Europe wants to confront endless intimidation and worse at the hands of a resurgent Russia, it must dispense with pleasing nonsense and address the pressing need to defend itself and its values. I am posting below, in toto, the most forthright explanation of the situation I have yet found, an op-ed by Mart Helme, the former Estonian ambassador to Russia (thanks to Estonian relatives who saw this and alerted me). Entitled, “Moscow only understands force and willingness to sacrifice human lives,” this is a bracing, no-holds-barred must-read for anyone who cherishes European values, as I do, and wants to see them survive, as old threats reappear with a vengeance.
Was Hitler done with the Anschluss? No. Neither will Russia be satisfied just with Ukraine. And after Ukraine, Russia can only have one target – the Baltic states.
Russia has occupied Crimea. Western countries, including Estonia, are confused and able to utter only outdated and increasingly embarrassing platitudes. Russia will not wait for EU foreign ministers to eventually convene for a meeting, but is making hay while the sun shines – it is moving new military units and equipment to Crimea, expanding the conflict to eastern and southern Ukraine, and using Victor Yanukovych, who has sought refuge in Russia, to question the legitimacy of the people who seized power in Kyiv, and to create a cover for its criminal activities.
At the same time, the West is prattling in the United Nations where Russia holds veto rights at the Security Council, and making noise in the OSCE where all decisions need a consensus, which Russia (or any of its vassals) will naturally not allow to happen, while letting the leaders of big countries issue comically toothless statements instead. And with each passing day, Moscow is adding to the hard facts which the so-called international community must face.
In a nutshell, Russia is fighting ruthlessly and brutally, and proving to all that the post-Cold War world has been replaced by the post-post-Cold War world in which Moscow no longer considers the current international order, law, and organizations competent to solve problems.
What is applicable then? From Moscow’s point of view, only force and the willingness to sacrifice human lives when force is applied.
Is the West willing to do that? That is extremely unlikely. It is one thing to mount military operations against Afghan poppy growers and quite another to accept the challenge of a nuclear power with the world’s largest territory and the richest deposits of natural resources, which feels cornered in a deepening confrontation with the West and is not going to surrender its habitats without a fight.
Moscow knows – and so does the West but it is not willing to admit it even to itself – that Western civilization in its decadence has reached the final stage of its degradation where only money and comfort count. Careerists and anglers, who are able to navigate the ship only in good weather, have risen to the top during decades of inert existence. They will lose their heads in a storm, and can only utter banalities and behave accordingly.
Oswald Spengler in his “The Decline of the West” predicted more than correctly that money will bring down Western democracy (that is exactly what has already happened), and then the power of money will be conquered by force. Europe, fighting for the rainbow flag and gender quotas, is a complete impotent in that respect; the United States, on the other hand, when considering intervening, is thinking about moves of a broader global game and must inevitably take into account that average Americans do not have a clue where someplace called Crimea is located. Moreover, the United States is tired of the problems of the rest of the world and wants to take a rest. And we do not know whether it intends to wake up and do something if a small country like Estonia screams for help at some point.
This is the essence of an existential question for a wider audience: Is the West (especially the United States) willing to start what would likely be a truly uncompromising fight in order to win Crimea, as well as the eastern and southern Ukraine back from Moscow? That is not likely. It is much more likely that the West will behave exactly the way it did in 1938 when Germany under the leadership of Adolf Hitler demanded that they have Czechoslovakia, the independence and territorial integrity of which had been guaranteed by the Soviet Union and France in the League of Nations.
At the time, the issue was left for Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to mediate, which resulted in Czechoslovakia being left to Hitler to tear apart. Was Hitler satisfied with that? No. Neither will Russia be satisfied with this. After Ukraine, Russia will only have one target – the Baltic states.
It is naive to maintain that the West can influence Russia by imposing sanctions and freezing funds of the ruling kleptocratic clique. Putin & Co. have transferred their assets to a safe place by now, and Russia can withstand a long economic blockade stoically because the average Russian, unlike Europeans and Americans, is able to survive on vodka and potatoes alone. But it is Germany which will be unable to stay in business without Russian raw materials.
In 2008, Russia tested the West by launching a military attack against Georgia. The West failed the test. According to the peace treaty, negotiated with the French president as a mediator, Russia should have withdrawn troops from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but we all know very well that Moscow has so far not done that. It is highly unlikely that Russia will leave Crimea now that it has been conquered; even moreso, considering that historically it has never been an organic part of Ukraine.
In fact, Ukraine has only one – bloody – option to regain control over Crimea (and other potentially separatist regions). That means mobilizing the armed forces and going against the aggressor with arms. Just like Yanukovych was brought down at a price of victims’ blood, Russia will retreat when it meets decisive armed resistance. Because Russia is not nearly as strong as it makes itself out to be.
The authorities currently in power in Kyiv with all their economic problems are probably too much Western puppets to do what they are obliged to do under the Ukrainian Constitution. Sacrificing a Crimea or a Donetsk means nothing for Western countries which are sprawling in their own comfort zone.
After all, Western leaders, brought up in the spirit of the 1960′s hippie ideology, are familiar with only one motto – “Make love, not war”. Russia is familiar with the lyrics of a different song: “A yesly zavtra voyna … ” – if there is war tomorrow.
It was a remarkable day in Ukraine, with Moscow-backed separatism becoming more plain to see especially in Crimea, coupled with the Kremlin’s surprise announcement of huge Russian military exercises beginning Friday for four days near the border with Ukraine. It’s difficult not to note that the force involved here, about 150,000 troops, is almost exactly the size of the U.S. force that invaded Iraq in March 2003. The revelation that a senior “former” GRU officer assisted with Yanukovych’s plans for mass repression in Ukraine has not calmed moods either.
Today, the Moscow daily Izvestiya, which is generally pro-Kremlin, ran a remarkable interview with a senior official in Crimea who describes the alarming conditions prevailing in that tumultuous region, reflecting the Moscow line that the recent revolution in Kyiv was a “coup.” This piece by Mariya Gorkovskaya and titled “The most pressing issue for Crimeans is where to get weapons,” follows in its entirety:
Outside the Supreme Council of Crimea in Simferopol, local residents staged a rally on 25 February. Several hundred people demanded that the people’s elected representatives should not become “accomplices in the criminal coup” in Kyiv and should not obey the decisions of the new authorities. Simferopol City Council head Aleksandr Mal’tsev has told Izvestiya how Cossacks and Afghan war veterans are defending Crimea against representatives of the new authorities and radicals.
Q: What are the people who took part in the rally outside the Supreme Council of Crimea trying to achieve?
A: Crimeans are frightened. Many of those who gathered outside the Supreme Council have tried to go to the Maidan to support President Viktor Yanukovych. However, their buses were stopped in Kyiv and Cherkasy regions and burned, while they were brutally beaten by radicals in masks. One of the demonstrators was even shot in the thigh from a nonlethal weapon. Because of that, the atmosphere in Crimea is charged. People do not want the government to change. They are gathering outside administration buildings in order to express their views, and are doing so without masks or weapons. You see, even though no one supports Yanukovych anymore, we have elected him in a lawful election. And now we have to wait for the next time to vote. People living on the peninsula are afraid that there will be a repetition of what happened in Kyiv, but this time it will be against the local administration.
Q: Yesterday, Crimeans refused to disarm the local division of Berkut [special police], so under pressure from the crowd, acting Ukrainian Internal Affairs Minister Avakov had to abandon this idea….
A: Crimean Cossacks have taken upon themselves to defend Berkut. They have formed a live shield at the entrance to their base Cossacks, even though they are armed merely with whips, will not allow lustration or any persecution of our law-enforcement officers who were involved in the events in Kyiv. Of course, from a legal point of view, the Cossacks’ actions are illegal, but this is impossible to explain to the Cossacks, who do not recognize the coup d’etat.
Q: Apart from the Cossacks, who else in Crimea is getting organized in order to say “no” to what is happening in Ukraine?
A: Thanks to social networks, all kinds of people have been getting together to form vigilante groups and attend rallies. Cases involving Crimeans forming groups are becoming increasingly widespread. Groups of Afghan war veterans are on duty in Simferopol. Young people have formed their own groups. Crimean women are sending out information and answering calls at call centers. They were prompted to take to the streets in particular by the video of armed Right Sector radicals beating up people, which was distributed in the Internet. There are no clashes here yet. But in these conditions, the most pressing issue for Crimeans is where to get weapons if they come to us with weapons.
Q: Such sentiments cannot please the new authorities. Crimean people’s deputies have already reported cases of pressure from Kyiv. What do you know about this?
A: I cannot confirm this information, although I cannot deny it either. The Party of Regions, despite the latest developments, has huge influence in Crimea. That is why the country’s new leadership simply needs to take representatives of this territory under its control.
Q: Rumors are going around about preparations for a popular referendum on the question of Crimea seceding from Ukraine and becoming part of Russia….
A: There are no such proposals yet at legislative level or in statements by deputies. But in private conversations with Crimeans, you will often hear them say that either Kyiv should reckon with us or we would better become part of Russia. In any case, if the information about Russian deputies promising to organize the issuing of Russian passports to Crimeans using a simplified procedure proved correct, your missions would have to work round the clock.
Things are moving very fast in Ukraine today. President Yanukovych, after the bloodbath this week on the streets of Kyiv, has been thrown out of office by the parliament. The country is in turmoil, and in the east, centered on Kharkiv, the Moscow-backed Ukrainian Front that I informed you of three weeks ago, is arming the population and preparing for war.
And now the Russian Foreign Ministry has made its position clear in a new press release on its website – the new government in Kyiv is illegitimate and it’s the West’s fault. This is a remarkably rough diplomatic message. It cannot be construed as anything less than a threat to an independent Ukraine. The full text follows …
“About a telephone conversation between Russian Foreign Minister S.V. Lavrov and the foreign ministers of Germany, Poland and France”
On 22 February, separate telephone conversations took place between Russian Foreign Minister S.V. Lavrov and German Foreign Minister F.-W. Steinmeier, Polish Foreign Minister R. Sikorski and French Foreign Minister L. Fabius.
S.V. Lavrov expressed the most serious concern over the inability of those who signed the agreement in Kyiv on 21 February to agree. Not only did the opposition fail to honor any of its commitments, it is also putting forward new demands, taking its cue from the armed extremists and rioters whose actions pose a direct threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and constitutional order.
The Russian Minister called emphatically on Germany, Poland and France, as countries who actively promoted and witnessed the signing of the agreement on 21 February, to use their influence over the opposition in order to ensure the agreement is implemented immediately and the disorderly roughnecks are restrained. It is time to stop misleading the international community and giving the impression that today’s Maidan represents the interests of the Ukrainian people.
F.-W. Steinmeier, R. Sikorski and L. Fabius shared the Russian side’s concern, recognized that the opposition had failed to honor their commitments and promised to take additional steps as a matter of urgency in order to ensure the implementation of the agreements that have been reached.
Today Ukraine’s beleaguered President Viktor Yanukovych returned to work after four days of “sick leave.” His country is spiraling into chaos. Kyiv’s writ no long carries in much of the West of country, which is something like open revolt against the Yanukovych government. While that government has promised some concessions to the diverse opposition, little has been achieved yet, while beatings and abductions of journalists and anti-regime activists continue. It is becoming increasingly difficult to see how this crisis can be resolved peacefully.
Some of this dirty work may be attributable to Moscow, as I’ve previously reported. What’s not in doubt is that Russian media over the last week has ramped up its anti-opposition rhetoric, with regular castigations of Ukrainians who dislike Yanukovych as “fascists” and worse. Some of this borders on hysteria. Kremlin-linked outlets in particular have been fanning the flames, resurrecting memories of the Second World War – of course with regular reminders that some Ukrainians, especially in the West, resisted Soviet rule mightily, indeed into the 1950s. Perhaps most alarming is the current of discussion in Moscow media that openly mentions civil war and the fragmentation of Ukraine into as many as five countries, a process that could not be achieved without major bloodshed.
What Russia’s enhanced political meddling in Ukraine looks like was revealed today in an article in the Moscow daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta which, to be clear, is the Kremlin’s official outlet. Maksim Makarychev’s report, titled “Divided. Who will conquer? A front is created in Ukraine to fight against EuroMaidan,” details the establishment of a new political grouping in Eastern Ukraine to back the Yanukovych government against the opposition, which the article slyly hints is in the pay of – unnamed, presumably Western – foreigners.
This new organization, called the Ukrainian Front (Украинский фронт), aims to “save” Ukraine from foreign meddling and revolution, and has just been established in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, under the “grassroots” auspices of Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions. Harking back to the Second World War and the Stalinist era, the article cites the stirring words of Mykhaylo Dobkin, one of Yanukovych’s top functionaries in Kharkiv and a prime mover behind the front’s establishment: ”After seventy years a new Ukrainian Front is starting to operate in Ukraine, the members of which will follow the example of our fathers and grandfathers and free our land, like in the 1940′s.”
According to Makarychev, “representatives from twenty Ukrainian regions gathered in Kharkiv: They all spoke about the need to put an end to the seizure of state buildings and to violence across the country. The new organization’s main priority is to free the state institutions that have already been seized.” Additionally, the Ukrainian Front seeks to crush the opposition with a “push for a referendum on completely abolishing deputies’ immunity and on cutting the number of parliamentary deputies by one-third.”
It seems Moscow is not pleased with its protege Yanukovych and his inability to crush the opposition, so it is forming a new grouping to “assist” the hardliners. Given that the appearance of the Ukrainian Front has been heralded with a birth announcement in the Kremlin’s official newspaper, Russian approval and support can be assumed.
Moreover, the embrace of Stalinist-era rhetoric by the Ukrainian Front indicates a great deal, and will serve as a needless irritant towards Ukrainians who detest Stalin and his murderous legacy. In a similar vein, Communist activists have unveiled a bust of Stalin in Western Ukraine, a provocation that is about as offensive to most locals there as a statue of Hitler would be in the rest of Europe. Of course, hailing Stalin’s victories in the 1940′s is of a piece with the current Kremlin vilification campaign against all Ukrainians who do not want their country to be subjugated by Russia, a nasty agitprop line that regrettably has Western supporters, not all of them unwitting dupes.
Now that the Ukrainian Front has entered the picture, with Moscow’s imprimatur, expect the situation in Ukraine to only get worse. It would be difficult to overstate the danger Ukraine and Europe are in at the moment thanks to intimidation, meddling and provocation by Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. European governments would be well advised to not permit naked Russian interference of a violent and coercive sort in Ukrainian politics: this cannot end well.