Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Putin Mobilizes His Troops. Is He Bluffing?
It's just the thing that pro-Western Ukrainians have been fearing - but also anticipating. Russian president Vlad Putin has ordered combat units to mobilize, supposedly for a snap exercise. It appears the Russian force might include airborne troops.
With Kiev in control of the pro-West faction, the pro-Russian side is consolidating in Sebastopol, the traditional Soviet/Russian navy Black Sea base. They may give Putin all the justification he thinks he needs to send motorized units rolling into Ukraine.
The new mayor of Sebastopol has announced the formation of vigilante “self defence” units in an attempt to protect the ethnic Russian city of 340,000 from the perceived threat of “fascist” revolutionaries in Kiev.
Speaking to a crowd of several hundred outside the Black Sea port’s town hall Tuesday night, Alexei Chaliy called for volunteers for the vigilante groups, intended to counter those formed by the pro-European protesters who overthrew Viktor Yanukovych.
Separatist passions have been running high in Sebastopol, the most fiercely pro-Russian city in the majority-Russian peninsular. Many describe Mr Yanukovych’s eviction as an armed coup by far-right, anti-Russian and anti-Semitic groups, including the nationalist Svoboda party, led by Oleh Tyahnybok, and the Pravy Sektor paramilitary group.
People here say their worst fears were confirmed when the post-revolutionary Rada passed a law stripping Russia of its shared official status.
“A year ago Tyahnybok talked about the genocide of Russians. We must form civil defence units now,” said a 41-year-old linguistics professor who gave his name as Dmitry.
Stephen Harper is doing his bit to help the pro-European side, sending John Baird to Ukraine, resplendent in camo fatigues, a headband and an AK, to man the barricades and stare down Vlad Putin. No word yet on whether Steve remembered to buy Baird a return ticket.
Radio Free Europe, meanwhile, offers some useful insights into why Putin will take big risks to keep Ukraine in Russia's fold.
Russia, understanding that without Ukraine it would not be able to take its place in the wider arena of Europe and create a new, powerful structure that could counterbalance the United States and others (and this is Russia's goal), made the strategic decision to keep Ukraine in its embrace,' Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine's first post-Soviet president, tells RFE/RL's Russian .
Former U.S. Ambassador to Kyiv Steven Pifer speaks in similar terms: 'The Russian have very strong motivations. I think this is a big deal for Vladimir Putin. He wants to a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. A big part of that would be the customs union. If Ukraine is moving towards the European Union, there's a big hole in that sphere. And I think it's also important for Vladimir Putin, for his domestic political constituency. Pulling Ukraine back is popular at home. Losing Ukraine would not be popular.'
But Ukraine's importance for Russia is much more than merely one of popularity. Writing in 'The Independent' on February 23, Andrew Wilson, author of 'Ukraine's Orange Revolution,' argues that 'a real democracy in Ukraine is an existential threat to the entire that Vladimir Putin has built since 2000.'
Not only is authoritarian Russia unlikely to welcome an example of an overthrown kleptocracy in the post-Soviet space, Moscow also sees vital economic and interests in Ukraine. Its Black Sea Fleet is based at Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea; much of its natural-gas flows to Europe still pass through Ukrainian pipelines; and Russia's oligarchs have extensive and lucrative interests in the country, especially its eastern reaches.