In the last few days, Russian troops have invaded Ukraine. Putting it as a clear statement like that shows clearly how dangerous the situation has become. It hasn’t come as a dramatic crossing of the border, but as a steady trickle of uniformed men taking over government buildings and transport nodes in Crimea. On Friday the airports were taken over; yesterday there were soldiers with heavy machine gun outside the Crimean parliament. Today Russian soldiers have surrounded Ukrainian army bases. Events have been moving so fast that the media has had trouble keeping up, let alone Western politicians. So what’s going on in this ethnically Russian region of Crimea? What is the endgame for the Russians? And why on earth are they taking such a risk?
If you’re wondering what’s so special about Crimea, here is a good explanation of why it was this region that is the focus of Russian attention.
It’s hard to say what exactly is going on in Crimea at the moment, are events are moving so fast and in such confusing ways. Focussing on actual events would be fairly useless, as within 24 hours this post would be outdated, so I’ll focus on the why’s and how’s of the situation. But the situation as of today is that either Russian soldiers or Russian controlled militias are in control of Crimea to a good extent. The Russian parliament has given Putin the green light to use the army on the territory of Ukraine “until the normalisation of the socio-political situation in that country”. In other words, until Russia has got what it wants. But what does it want?
The main factor behind this is that Putin is angry. What he would most like is to go back to the deal set up between Yanukovich and the opposition last month. That deal however fell through immediately, and the opposition took advantage of that to take over the country. This completely removed any Russian influence on the government. Putin’s also furious with the EU and US for consistently supporting the protesters and that is a fair thing to be frustrated about. If a Russian politician had gone to New York to give a speech at Occupy Wall Street the US would have thought that was outrageous. But his response to this anger has been to jump straight to almost the most violent response he can take.
This response though has been both subtle and extremely transparent. Everyone thought that it was a possibility that the Russians would intervene in Crimea, which is why no one expected them to do it. It was almost too obvious. Every step they took was such an obvious next step towards invasion that nobody believed they’d actually do it. But at the same time the method of invasion has been subtle. Instead of sending in uniformed Russian troops, they used militias and Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms. This meant they could claim that the Crimeans were doing it themselves, in the same way protesters in Kyiv took over government buildings. The Russian government then continued to say that they were not involved, while doing exactly the opposite, meaning the West had no clue how to react. Only now are Russian soldiers becoming openly involved.
So what will happen now? It’s impossible to say. This is the most dangerous situation in Europe since the end of the Cold War, and if Russian soldiers cross into Eastern Ukraine things could very quickly get out of hand. It seems most likely that Russia is trying to destabilise Ukraine, to keep them weak and prevent a strong EU allied state being set up on their doorstep. But this just as well could be the beginning of a full invasion of Eastern Ukraine. No one knows for sure, maybe not even Putin.
The problem is that the Russian government is not acting in the way you’d expect a rational government to do. The relationship with the West is at the lowest point since the end of the Cold War and Russia has lost the goodwill of the world built up (at the cost of 50 billion dollars!) at Sochi. The risks of these actions are tremendous, and it’s hard to see what the gains are. But Putin seems to be acting out of a nationalist mindset in which the outside world’s opinion is unimportant, and strength is the only thing that matters. The new Ukrainian government, made up of a mix of revolutionaries and politicians, is lacking in strength and will have to work hard for unity. This makes it almost impossible to say what will happen in the next few days. But it’s highly unlikely that it will be anything good for anyone involved.
On Wednesday I will post with an update on the situation, and a look at how the West has reacted and what else it can do.