When will we know the Russians have invaded Ukraine? We won’t. Unlike the summer of 2008 when paratroop brigades crossed the border into Georgia’s sovereign territory under the pretext of aiding the Ossetian minority, marines of the Russian Black Sea Fleet are already stationed on Ukrainian soil. The agreement between the two countries not only allows warships to be based at the port of Sevastopol, but also for Russian military vehicles to traverse the Crimean peninsula.
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Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov did call upon the Kremlin not to allow its forces to leave the naval base, but an armored convoy had already travelled the 80 kilometers between Sevastopol and the regional capital Simferopol, stopping outside the town at a traffic police checkpoint. As it is, the Russians do not recognize Turchynov and his interim government. With perfect timing, Russian television broadcast Thursday morning the first statement by deposed president Viktor Yanukovych since he fled Kiev last weekend. The mystery of his whereabouts is over: He succeeded somehow in crossing over to Russia, which has given him sanctuary and from there he is questioning the legitimacy of those who currently – barely – hold power.
While the armored cars waited outside Simferopol, inside the town 120 armed men, their faces covered and no identifying signs on their dark uniforms, had since the early hours occupied the regional parliament building, the Russian flag flying on its roof. They haven’t released a statement or identified themselves. Some claim they are Russian marines, but that has not been confirmed in any way.
Meanwhile, everything remains deniable. Russian President Vladimir Putin has committed himself to nothing. He continues to hold all the cards. The armed men could leave, clinging to their anonymity, or identify themselves as Ukrainian citizens concerned for their country’s “democracy.”
Turchynov may have given an order to his army to reestablish control of governmental buildings in Simferopol, but they are surrounded by thousands of civilians, ethnic Russians flying their homeland’s flags, and the army won’t try and force its way through. The new government which just came to power in the wake of a bloodbath will not risk a second one; especially not as it would provide Putin with the perfect excuse to intervene.
Putin can decide the timetable and he has no reason to hurry. There are enough Russian troops in Crimea and reinforcements on high alert on the borders. He can choose his moment, and allow the Russian majority in Crimea to do much of the work for him in a snap referendum on returning their region to Mother Russia.
The timing may be determined by the situation on the ground in Moscow more than the streets of Kiev and Simferopol. Russia’s opposition is weak and divided, still reeling from the violent suppression of protests outside a Moscow courthouse this week, where no less than 450 protestors, including rising leader Alexei Navalny, were arrested. But the events of recent weeks in Kiev, as much as those three years ago in Cairo and Tunis, proved that even without an established opposition and recognized leader, hundreds of thousands are prepared to stream into the squares once they scent an opportunity to rid themselves of an autocratic leader.
Such a dynamic doesn’t seem yet to exist in Russia, despite the example across the border, but will Putin risk it? The situation in Ukraine has created the perfect storm for him. He can fulfill the Russian desire to reclaim the peninsula – which historically was always part of Russia – and perhaps other parts of eastern Ukraine. It should be an easy war of annexation. Beyond diplomatic protests, the Western powers led by the United States, which couldn’t even launch one missile attack on Syria following the use of chemical weapons against civilians, would never go to war with Russia on behalf of a torn country, a significant part of which supports becoming part of Russia anyway. The Ukrainian army, which held back at the last moment from intervening in the internal political crisis, will probably not put up much of a fight. Many of its soldiers and officers treat the Russians as their closest comrades.
But advancing in Ukraine is not without risk for Putin. The West’s only weapons are sanctions, and the Russian economy after the massive expenditure of over $50 billion on the Sochi Olympics is increasingly fragile. Putin has other interests also, such as safeguarding his ally in Damascus who is facing intensifying attacks by rebels being trained in Jordan and equipped with Saudi-financed advanced weaponry.
Russia has increased its support of the Assad government recently; can he win on both fronts simultaneously? Is Putin willing to sacrifice his Syrian base to keep his hold on Ukraine? He doesn’t have to decide right now. The elections for a new Ukrainian government are scheduled to take place in three months, and he can continue to dictate the agenda and timetable. His troops are already in place.