It appears to me that Russia and Ukraine may be stepping back from their confrontation. The western press has not seen the real significance of the Ukrainian parliament’s firing of Ihor Tenyukh from the post of Defense Minister, and his replacement by Myhailo Koval, a general in the border service. This is not about Tenyukh’s incompetence in the face of Russian aggression. Tenyukh is a member of the Ukrainian nationalist party Svoboda, prominent in the Maidan movement, and strongly anti-Russian. He was one of four members of Svoboda to hold ministries in the eleven-person Ukrainian cabinet (I think I have “eleven” right), and his was the most important ministry held by that party. Koval, near as I can tell, is apolitical. Parliament’s vote to remove Tenyukh thus diminishes the role of extreme Ukrainian nationalists in the Kiev government, and one presumes Russia views it favorably.
On a more sinister note, the killing of the Far-Right Ukrainian nationalist leader Muzychko in a raid by Ukrainian police also points to a deliberate effort by the majority Batkivshchyna or “Fatherland” party to reduce the influence of the extreme nationalists. This seems to signal more readiness to negotiate with Russia, and perhaps to squelch activities of ultra-nationalists who could provoke violence in east Ukraine.
I have to walk back my prediction that Russia would go into east Ukraine. Sizable Russian forces are still moving up to the frontier, as reported by both NATO and Ukrainian sources, but Putin may decide not to go in. So far EU and US sanctions have mostly been slaps on the wrist (with the possible exception of excluding Russia from the G-8, making it the G-7), but a move into east Ukraine would provoke much more serious action.
Pro-Russian demonstrators have been very aggressive today in Donetsk, according to the Kiev paper Delo. They number in the thousands (as opposed to tens of thousands), according to the paper. They have
(1) Taken over the province prosecutor’s office, demanding the release from jail of the “self-proclaimed” pro-Russian governor Pavel Gubarev. Police withdrew from the office rather than defending it.
(2) Taken over the provincial headquarters of the Ukrainian Security Service.
(3) Seized the corporate headquarters of the Donbas Industrial Union, CEO of which is Sergei Tarut, recently appointed governor of the province by the new Kiev government.
The demonstrators are ripping up and stamping Ukrainian flags.
Pro-Russian demonstrators are also active in Kharkov, Lugansk, Zaporozhe, Dnepropetrovsk, Kirovgrad, and Nikolaev. Demonstrators in Lugansk are distributing “ballots” for a putative referendum on east Ukraine joining the Russian Federation.
Kiev’s Delo claims that last night at 1 am local time the Ukrainian Security Services detained a “reconnaissance group” of the Russian armed forces near Perekop. Perekop is outside the Crimea, in Kherson, just north of the Arabatskaia spit. The newspaper claims that the leader of the group was carrying a fake Ukrainian passport, and that the reconnaissance was aimed at anti-aircraft rocket units and a motorized brigade stationed in southern Kherson province (including around the city of Kakhovka).
This fits with the picture emerging of Russian military preparations to break out of Crimea to the north. The picture is painted by Ukrainian sources, which suggests it needs to be viewed with some skepticism. But put together with Putin’s conversation with Angel Merkel, in which he expressed “concern over tensions in south and southeast Ukraine” it does suggest that the Russians are at a minimum preparing an incursion into east Ukraine beyond the Crime as a contingency plan. I still expect such an incursion fairly soon.
Dmitry Tymchuk, who is a very partisan Ukrainian, but who *seems* to have access to good information about what is going on along the east Ukrainian frontier, reports Russian troop concentrations in east Ukraine (see earlier post). Commentors on Tymchuk’s latest post from that area report that after dark today four Russian helicopters flew over Melitopol (outside Crime, SE Ukraine) and that at 22:10 local time (3:00 pm EST) what was probably a Russian fighter aircraft flew over at low altitude. These would be clear violations of Ukrainian airspace.
Tymchuk also reports that during the day four batteries of theRussian “elite anti-aircraft division C-300” crossed into Crimea over the Kerch peninsula, along with supporting equipment. Russia continues to reinforce its units in the Crimea.
“Delo in Kiev reports:
In Crimea Russian troops continue attempts to “storm” remaining Ukrainian military posts, without use of firearms. In some areas snipers are stationed on top of buildings around Ukrainian posts and bases. Russians are demanding Ukrainian units lay down their arms and some are doing so.
Russian troops attempted to cross the Arabatskaia spit from Crimea into the Ukrainian province of Kherson but were blocked by Ukrainian forces including an air mobile battalion. Reports, however, seem to conflict, as many news outlets claim that Russian troops backed by armor and helicopter gunships seized an important natural gas distribution “plant” in the same area.
The combination of Russian troop movements along the east Ukrainian border with attempts to seize the crossings out of Crimea into the Ukrainian province of Kherson, which Tymchuk calls “the window into east Ukraine” suggest the threat of a Russian military offensive from the south and east aimed at cutting off Donetsk and Lugansk and Ukrainian forces stationed there from Ukraine to the west.
Russian paratroopers seized
The Kiev newspaper Delo reports Russian military assets concentrating along the southeast Ukrainian frontier, from the Sea of Azov to north of Lugansk. The reports come from a source called “Informational Resistance” (Informatsionnoe soprotivlenie), affiliated with the “Institute for Military and War Research” in Kiev. I couldn’t come up with more information on these groups. Dmitrii Timchuk, head of “Informational Resistance”, has a FB page. So I can’t vouch for the reliability of these reports, which claim that forty Russian military helicopters have flown into Millerovo (opposite Lugansk region), that troops in the region of Tarasova are moving towards the frontier, and that more troops are concentrating in various regions of Rostov province, including Taganrog.
These obviously could be routine movements or prophylactic measures. Hard to say whether they suggest a Russian military move into east Ukraine.
BBC and the newspaper Vechernii Kharkov (“Evening Kharkov”) report that two people are dead and several wounded in a fight in central Kharkov tonight. Gunshots were fired in the conflict between “pro-Russian activists” and Ukrainians. Ukrainian sources claim the Russians provoked things, but the reality is unclear from accounts. Meanwhile, both the pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian sides are organizing massive demonstrations in central Kharkiv for Sunday, March 16, the date of the Crimean referendum.
Chairman of the Polish Council of Ministers Donald Tusk says Polish intelligence sees signs that much larger Russian “provocations” than the attack on pro-Ukrainian activists in Donetsk last night are coming in E. Ukraine. More bad news.
According to official Russian news source rt.com, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is using the fighting in Donetsk yesterday to suggest that the Ukrainian government has lost control of east Ukraine. Ukrainian and international sources suggest that “pro-Russian activists” were the aggressors here, attacking a demonstration in favor of Ukrainian unity. This whole dog and pony show is very ominous. Russian leaders on the ground use their creatures to create a lawless situation, then use that situation as justification … for what? What comes next? It is hard to imagine that this game ends with anything less than a play for east Ukrainian autonomy or unification with the Russian federation.
As a historian I’m not supposed to prognosticate — that is a game we leave to the political scientists and the economists, who usually get things wrong. Too many variables in human affairs. However, I do think that there is a strong possibility that Russia’s ambitions in Crimea *and* east Ukraine have gone farther than most of us can imagine. On this coming Sunday and/or during the following week we may well see some or all of the following.
(1) Russian “victory” in the Crimean referendum, followed by full-on Russian assaults on remaining loyal Ukrainian military units in Crimea.
(2) Attacks by gangs of pro-Russian youth (“Russian activists”) on ethnic Ukrainians, particularly those participating in “Ukrainian Unity” demonstrations, in Crimea and in places like Donetsk and Lugansk in east Ukraine. The right word here would be “pogroms”.
(3) Demands by the pro-Russian “Party of the Regions” based in east Ukraine for a Crimean-style referendum in east Ukrainian provinces. Last I checked a congress of the PoR was to be held in Donetsk tomorrow. Don’t know if this will come off or not, but if it does, expect such a demand.
(4) Entry of Russian military units into east Ukraine on the pretext of protecting local Russian populace from “Ukrainian fascists”. It is hard to say what levels of violence this will precipitate. The range could be from what we are seeing right now in Crimea up to full-scale warfare, with use of aircraft, artillery, and armor. If Ukrainian resist, they will probably do so in uncoordinated fashion, and attempt to withdraw behind the Dnepr. To the extent the Ukrainian military has any plan at all, it probably involves a withdrawal west to protect the approaches to Kiev and Lviv. I don’t think that the Russians would attempt to cross the Dnepr, and Russian units might remain much further east.
(5) In connection with all of these, large-scale bloodletting, hundreds to thousands of civilian casualties and tens of thousands of refugees fleeing in all directions. These last could become major problems for Moldovo, Romania, Poland, Belarus, and Russia itself.
We are faced by a real catastrophe. I teach my students that between 1914 and 1953 you just don’t want to be anywhere in the region bounded by the Volga to the east, the Elbe to the west, the Caucasus and Black Sea to the south, and the White Sea in the north. Let’s hope that the same does not become true of Ukraine for the early 21st century.
What evidence suggests this to me? First continuing Russian reinforcements of troops already in Crimea, along with military exercises on the Ukrainian frontiers.
Also, in Kharkov the okrug court has accepted a motion from the prosecutor’s office to ban a “referendum” on regional autonomy unilaterally declared by pro-Russian parties and set for March 16. It is hard to imagine what form such a non-governmental referendum would take place, but one is left to imagine a huge crowd in a public square raising their hands in support of “autonomy” or something of that sort. The pro-Russians are calling this a “veche”… the old-time (like, before 1400 or so) gathering of city inhabitants in the public square that would make “democratic” decisions in process involving a lot of shouting, fist-fights, and drunkenness.
Last night’s violence in Donetsk, in which at least three people died when pro-Russian activists attacked a demonstration in favor of Ukrainian unity, suggests that the Russian paramilitaries are ready to push the situation into full on civil war. It also suggests that police and security forces loyal to Ukraine do not have the power to control such violence, and certainly not if Russian military units (perhaps posing as local “self-defense forces” as in Crimea) advance into the region.
The US appears to be equivocating on military aid to Ukraine. The WSJ reported yesterday that the Pentagon had refused large-scale technical aid, but the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense today claims talks are still ongoing. The US military and NATO have to know that if conflict with Russia is imminent, any help consisting of new technology would be useless as time would be necessary for the Ukrainians to master that technology and integrate it into their forces. Items like aviation fuel, rations, and medical supplies could be useful. To me the equivocation of the US suggests real fear that a Ukraine-Russia war is imminent.
BBC just reported that talks between Kerry and his counterpart Sergei Lavrov were “not productive”.
None of this is good
BBC is reporting on a clash in the central square of Donetsk (east Ukraine) between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian crowds, in which one person died. Reports in the online version of the Kiev newspaper Delo
and the online news source Novosti Donbassa (Don Basin News) suggest that “pro-Russian activists” were the aggressors. According to these sources, the “activists” attacked a meeting (variously described as “anti-war” and “pro-Ukrainian unity”, on the square which was protected by a police cordon as well as a “self-defense” group. The activists showered the demonstrators with firecrackers, smoke bombs and eggs before breaking through the cordon, and savagely beating many of them. Some reports already claim three dead.
The total number of people in the square is being reported as around 2000 on both sides. This is large, but not overwhelmingly so. Again, one has the impression of a highly aggressive minority of “pro-Russian activists”/paramilitary provoking the violence. The readiness of the authorities in Russia to support this kind of thing, to further destabilize a very dangerous situation, is not hopeful, especially when put together with the new military exercises being staged on the Ukrainian frontier.
Few rational political observers believe that Putin is actually preparing an invasion/annexation of east Ukraine (as opposed to Crimea). There is some evidence, however, that he *is* doing so. Or that he is losing control of “pariotic” Russian hotheads he had hoped to use. If mass violence breaks out in east Ukraine, it will make Bosnia look like a picnic. One has to believe that these violent Russian “activists” are ready for some ethnic cleansing. All of this will be, in the end, on Putin’s head. There is *no* independent evidence of persecution of Russians in east Ukraine. There is plenty of evidence of aggressive violence perpetrated by the “activist” thugs.