WASHINGTON, March 1, 2014 — The eyes of the world are on Ukraine today. Every time you turn your head a major development has taken place, a threat is made, or chests are thumped.
In Simferopol, in Ukraine’s Crimea, militiamen have taken control of a government building and are currently holed up inside. After storming the building, they made provisions for an apparently lengthy stay, and raised the Russian flag over the building to let everyone know that things are spiraling out of control.
Russia would be all too happy to both squash any sort of rebellion in Ukraine and restore deposed president Viktor Yanukovych to power, but they may be content with assisting Crimea in declaring independence from the illegitimate (in their view) government in Kyiv. Either way, Putin has made his ability and willingness to act aggressively well known to the international community by holding war games just over the border from Ukraine.
After the gunmen seized the parliamentary building in Simferopol, the new authorities in Kyiv warned Russia against providing military assistance to Crimea or making moves of any sort. While that stance is expected and probably necessary, the new leaders of Ukraine can’t fail to notice that the troops which Russia has mobilized for their military exercises are of about the size and composition of the entire Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Roughly 150,000 Russian troops are scheduled to begin playing war from the borders of Ukraine to Kazakhstan. That is about one-sixth of Russia’s overall armed forces numbers.
Ukraine’s total armed forces number 150,000. If Russia invaded, however, some of those troops would probably find their loyalty tested and that number would shrink.
America’s stand on Ukraine is clear; we’re back to drawing lines in the sand.
The Obama Administration warned Russia not to get involved in Ukraine. This time it was Secretary of State John Kerry who made the statement, and not President Obama himself. The line in the sand is no firmer for that.
Ousted president Yanukovych has maintained from hiding that he is still the President of Ukraine. He declared at a press conference, “I am the legitimate head of the Ukrainian state elected in a free vote by Ukrainian voters.”
His behavior was not that of a legitimate president when he opened fire on his own people, reneged on promises, and fled the capital in disgrace. The decadence of his Kyiv estate — complete with private zoo, private boxing ring, private golf course, personalized vodka bottles, gold fixtures, and personal church — cast into doubt the idea that he was ever more than a kleptocrat. He says that he will fight to the end until the opposition honors the December election agreement.
This is probably not going to happen.
It appears now that Crimea’s Russians will be encouraged to declare independence, which will immediately be recognized by Russia and her allies. The EU will condemn the move and Russia’s interference in Ukraine’s politics, but aside from providing money to prop up the government in Kyiv, there is little that they will do. The west will look impotent, while countries from Cuba to Syria will observe Russian resolve.
President Obama will condemn events in Crimea and Russia’s role, but he will do so with no moral authority and with no international credibility. Russia has a better claim to act in Crimea than America has had in a number of its recent adventures — Crimea was Russian, it is mostly inhabited by Russians, it is the home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, and there’s no popular sentiment there to remain in Ukraine — and Obama’s credibility was shredded in Syria.
Crimea will go, and for the most part go peacefully. Eastern Ukraine is another matter, and unless the government in Kyiv can establish legitimacy, authority and respect, separatist sentiment in the east could lead to civil war. Weapons are already appearing in the hands of militia groups despite earlier claims that police and military munitions were being guarded. Various groups will begin asserting influence over regions across Ukraine, and lines will be drawn.
The strongest hand here is Putin’s, but that very strength could help clear Ukrainian minds and forge unity from internal strife. If the newly elected government can do more than talk, and can convince people that it deserves a chance to rule, Ukraine can avoid deepening violence. They can point to the 150,000 Russian troops staring at them from across the border and remind everyone that Russia has devoured Ukraine before and will do it again without a shred of regret.
Russia has for centuries seen Ukraine as “the borderlands” (the literal meaning of the word “Ukraine”), the best farmland in the Russian empire, and Ukrainians as troublesome little brothers who need the firm Russian hand to guide them. And Ukraine, the birthplace of Russian civilization and Slavic culture, has always resented it.
The partisans of western Ukraine fought against both Nazis and Soviets during World War II, and they continued to find against the Soviets until Stalin’s death in 1953. Ukrainian nationalists will arm and fight against Russians if they move beyond Crimea. The threat of civil war is very real in Ukraine. Restraint and good sense by both sides can prevent it, easily, but restraint and good sense are in increasingly short supply.
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