The violent confrontations around government buildings in the main cities of eastern Ukraine escalated on Tuesday with pro-Russian protesters demanding independence from Kiev, attacking Ukrainian police sent to retake the regional government headquarters and the Ukrainian security service claiming that in Luhansk separatists had taken 60 people hostage. The Ukrainian government says it is facing Russian-directed “terror” while talk is heard from Moscow about impending “civil war” in Ukraine, which could serve as a justification for a second invasion.
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Until Tuesday, it was still unclear whether the overtaking of government centers in northeast Ukraine in recent days was part of ongoing riots or the beginning of a new operation building up to another Russian military intervention on Ukrainian soil. But a statement by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov indicated the second option was more than likely. Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that Russia wants to see representatives of the three regions where the recent violence has occurred represented in multilateral talks in which the Russians plan to demand that Ukraine introduce a federal system. Backing up Lavrov, the foreign ministry issued a statement calling on Ukraine to cease its “military preparations” to quell the separatists since these may “lead to civil war.”
The implicit threat was clear: If the ensuing violence would mark, in Russia's eye, the outburst of a civil war that puts the Russian minorities in Ukraine at risk, Russia could claim that it has the right to step in and deploy troops to "restore order." The Kremlin’s news agency ITAR-TASS, in a report on the unrest, pointed out the Russian parliament’s decision early last month which sanctioned President Vladimir Putin to use armed force to protect Russian ethnic minorities living anywhere in Ukraine (and not just in Crimea which has already been annexed).
Six weeks ago, Russia announced a major military exercise near the Ukrainian border. The exercise ended weeks ago but a large part of the participating units, numbering around 40,000 troops are still stationed near the border, just across from the region currently affected by violence. To these can be added 25,000 Russian troops across the border in Crimea. In addition there are growing signs that at least some of the masked men taking over the government buildings are not local insurgents and could likely have been sent by Russia. Among the indications: the fact that a group mistakenly seized the opera house instead of the city hall of Kharkiv, and the arrest by Ukrainian security of a Russian intelligence officer alleged to have been coordinating the takeovers.
Is this a replay of the Crimean invasion? Are the Russian tanks and paratroopers on the border waiting for orders from the Kremlin to attack under the guise of peacekeeping?
Military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) believe that could well be the case. According to a statement put out by the OSCE Tuesday, the Russian buildup “has a character that appears designed to intimidate and/or conduct short-notice, sustained, offensive military operations into Ukraine.” Another sign, according to the OSCE, is that the units on the border seem to be packing anti-aircraft artillery. The OSCE also points to the fact that Russian forces are still being deployed even while Russian conscripts are scheduled to be discharged, arguing that this “suggests that this is not an exercise.”
The heads of NATO along with senior American officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have also warned over the past two days of Russian intentions to invade Ukraine. This week Washington sent a guided missile destroyer to the Black Sea in order to “reassure allies in the region.” Only two weeks ago, the Pentagon and NATO had concluded that Russia was beginning to scale down its troops on the border and that Putin would make do with annexing Crimea. Now the assessment is that he intends to achieve more.
The recent developments prove that Putin continues to dictate events. After not acting in the weeks following annexation, he is now in a position to take advantage of the unrest in eastern Ukraine, at a time of his choosing, or he can wait for the results, if any, of the negotiations which the United States and the European Union are trying to kickstart between Russia and Ukraine.
The Kremlin does not recognize the legitimacy of the interim government in Kiev and will in all likelihood continue to undermine it and try to influence the presidential election scheduled for May 25. On Monday one of the
Russian television channels broadcast footage of elite Ukrainian soldiers it claimed were on their way to fight the demonstrators in Donetsk, though there was no corroboration as to when and where the footage was taken. It is very likely however that it was broadcast to serve the Russian narrative of “civil war” about to break out.
Events Tuesday in the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev also strengthened Russian claims of anarchy there. Two members of the extreme nationalist party Svoboda assaulted a member of the Communist party who was criticizing the police response to the pro-Russian demonstrators and a melee broke out. Svoboda is part of the coalition which took power in late March, opposing Russia. But Western intelligence organizations believed that it has been infiltrated by Russia’s secret services using its members to create “provocations” further weakening the pro-Western government and justifying Russian intervention.