Russia moving into the Crimea?

If you take a look at the Parliament building in the Ukrainian Crimea this morning, you’ll see the Russian flag flying over it.  That’s because a gang of several dozen armed men – wearing “plain uniforms without designating marks,” according to the Washington Post – seized control of the building and ran up the Russian flag.  They appear to be separatists who want full independence from the Ukraine, although as of this morning they have issued no concrete demands.  At least one person appears to have died from a heart attack during all the excitement.  It’s an ominous portent of a rapidly deteriorating situation:

The takeover, in the regional capital of Simferopol, brings tensions in the Crimea to a new high, just hours after thousands of ethnic Russians there had protested against the new government in Kiev, while Crimean Tatars rallied in its support. It also came after Moscow ordered surprise military exercises in a district bordering Ukraine and put troops in the region on high alert.

The developments stoked concerns about divided loyalties in Ukraine and raised the question of Russian military intervention, which Secretary of State John F. Kerry said would be a “grave mistake.” Russia insisted that the exercises were routine.

John Kerry says it’s a grave mistake?  Oh, well, call the whole thing off then.  Maybe all those surprise Russian military exercises on the Ukrainian border, all those Russian air wings going on combat alert this morning, will mellow out rather than face the stern disapproval of the man who lost the Middle East.  The Russian defense minister said his air forces “must be ready to bomb unfamiliar testing grounds.”  The Ukraine waits breathlessly to learn what unfamiliar territory might be on the receiving end of all that “test” ordnance.

Warnings have also been issued from NATO, which declared it would support “Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, territorial integrity, democratic development, and the principle of the inviolability of borders.”  The UK Telegraph says about 150,000 Russian troops are currently poised to chillax in the area.

The Russians would probably agree with NATO about the importance of inviolable borders; they just have different ideas about where the inviolable border should be.  They paid a lot of money for deposed strongman Viktor Yanukovych to deliver the Ukraine intact as a Russian satellite.  That didn’t work out, so keeping the Crimea will probably be Vladimir Putin’s final fallback position, since the Russian Black Sea fleet is based there.

The Crimea also has complicated demographics that lean toward an alignment with Russia, over the objections of a very determined ethnic Tartar population.  The UK Telegraph has more details about the protests mentioned by the Washington Post:

A historical flashpoint, the autonomous eastern region of Crimea was part of Russia until 1954 and remains home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and a heavily ethnic Russian population who have been enraged by events in Kiev.

In the Crimean capital of Simferopol, supporters of Ukraine’s revolution and their pro-Russian opponents were today embroiled in a confrontation outside the regional assembly, where members were holding an emergency session to discuss the crisis gripping the country.

A crowd of several thousand people shouting pro and anti-revolutionary slogans have gathered outside the assembly, which pro-Russian protesters claim they are defending from the “fascists” who have taken power in the rest of the country. Small scuffles broke out as the two sides pushed and shoved each other, wielding pepper spray and batons. An elderly man reportedly died of a heart attack in the melee.

Pro-European demonstrators, most of them ethnic Tatars, rallied under a pale-blue flag, shouting: “Ukraine! Ukraine!” and the Maidan’s refrain of “down with the gang!”

The pro-Russian crowds, some of them cossacks in silk and lambswool hats, shouted back “Crimea is Russian!”.

But the head of the regional assembly rejected demands to discuss a possible split from Ukraine at today’s emergency session, saying such a move would be a “provocation”.

Earlier, Cossack protesters hung the Russian flag across the assembly’s facade, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency, calling on the government to ignore what they regard as illegal resolutions by the new authorities in Kiev.

The Tartars were run out of town by Stalin during World War II, accused of being Nazi collaborators, which went out of fashion after Stalin stopped being one.  The Tartars do not remember this experience with fondness, and don’t anticipate a bright future in the Crimea if all ties to the Ukrainian government are severed.

Russians in the Crimea – and in Moscow – have taken to referring to the new Kiev government as “fascists,” which is not a good sign, especially given that one of the Russians noted for using the term is Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.  Lavrov claims Russia will follow a policy of “non-intervention,” but it’s not hard to imagine they would be very supportive of a movement to break Crimea away from the post-Yanukovych government and either align or integrate it with Russia.  It wouldn’t take much in the way of provocation from Kiev towards the ethnic Russian population to set that process in motion.

The Ukrainian government, for their part  is said to be “alarmed” at developments in the Crimea, describing the men who seized the Parliament building as “criminals in military fatigues with automatic weapons.”  They also warned Russia that force movements within the Crimean borders would be “seen by us as military aggression.”

Reuters quotes Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski describing the seizure of the Parliament building as “a very dangerous game.”  In a press appearance, Sikorski added ominously: “This is a drastic step, and I’m warning those who did this and those who allowed them to do this, because this is how regional conflicts begin.”