One of the strangest acts of war in history is under way, as Russian troops – wearing uniforms without insignia – saunter across the border and take control of airports in the semi-independent Crimean region of the Ukraine, thus far without firing a shot. Confronted about the slow-motion invasions, the Russian government shrugs and claims to be surprised by all those troops milling around. From an Associated Press report:
Armed forces were blocking the two main airports in the strategic peninsula of Crimea on Friday in what Ukraine’s new government described as a takeover by Russian forces, as the country asked the U.N. Security Council to intervene in the escalating conflict.
No violence was reported, and flights continued to operate at the airport serving Simferopol, the regional capital. It was not immediately clear whether the airport in Sevastopol, owned by the Ukrainian defense ministry, was open but there are no scheduled services to the facility.
Russia’s Black Sea fleet, which is based in the area, denied its forces were involved in seizing one of the airports, Interfax news agency reported, according to Reuters
The Russian foreign ministry refused a request for comment by The Associated Press while a spokesman for the Russian defense ministry also had no comment.
Nope, not us, say the Russians. This is a deadly serious matter, but it is very difficult to read this account of the airport occupation without a rueful chuckle:
At Simferopol airport, an Associated Press photographer saw military men armed with assault rifles Friday morning patrolling the airport. The men were wearing uniforms without any insignia. Most refused to talk to journalists. One of them, who identified himself only as Vladimir, said they were part of a “self-defense unit” that was making sure that no “fascists” would arrive from Kiev or elsewhere.
A Reuters eyewitness at the scene said the men were dressed in full battle gear and carrying assault rifles and machine guns. They were reportedly moving freely in an out of a control tower.
Chill out, everyone, Vladimir says he’s totally not with Russia or anything. Hey, anybody around here seen any fascists?
Some of the men involved in these takeovers have openly admitted to journalists they are Russian soldiers, while others claim to be part of a Crimean militia. Meanwhile, properly uniformed Russian forces (described in different accounts as either marines or paratroopers) from the Black Sea fleet have surrounded the Ukrainian Coast Guard base in Sevastopol, where the Russian fleet is based. These troops – whose movements the Russian government still officially denies – say they’re in position “to prevent any weapons at the base from being seized by extremists,” according to the Washington Post.
It turns out the crew that seized the Crimean parliament building yesterday were suspiciously well-armed with sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. At the very least, it seems likely this “Crimean People’s Brigade” is salted with a good number of Russian “advisers.”
The speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament called the lot of them “terrorists with automatic weapons, judged by our special services to be professional soldiers.” The New York Times tells us Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov gave the whole occupation about a million dislikes on Facebook:
In a post on his Facebook page, the interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said that units believed to be affiliated with the Russian military had blocked access to the [Belbek] airport overnight, with some Ukrainian military personnel and border guards inside. Mr. Avakov wrote that the men blocking the airport were also wearing camouflage uniforms with no identifying insignia, but he added, ???They do not hide their affiliation.???
Mr. Avakov said that the airport was not functioning but that ???There is no armed conflict yet.???
At the international airport, Mr. Avakov said, the Ukrainian authorities confronted the armed men and told them, ???You soldiers have no right to be located here.??? The uniformed men responded curtly, ???We do not have instructions to negotiate with you,??? he added.
???Tension is building,??? Mr. Avakov wrote on Facebook, adding: ???I regard what is happening as an armed invasion and occupation in violation of all international treaties and norms. This is a direct provoking of armed bloodshed on the territory of a sovereign state.???
Airport personnel are essentially ignoring the occupation forces, since as one official put it, “they’re walking around, but we, nor the police, can’t have any complaint against them because they’re not violating anything, they’re not touching anything.” I’ll bet they’re even picking up the subscription cards that fall out of the magazines they leaf through in the bookstores. Maybe the Russians should try describing the occupation as a stimulus program for the airport Cinnabon.
The strategy here might be pre-positioning forces to support a Crimean declaration of independence from Ukraine, at which point Russian president Vladimir Putin would begin reading all those non-intervention warnings he’s been getting for the past few days right back into the faces of NATO and the United Nations. A similar drama already played out in the South Ossetia region of Georgia.
The Crimean parliament announced yesterday that it would hold a referendum on independence May 25. Frankly, it could be very difficult for Ukraine to hang on to Crimea without an overall national alignment toward Russia, given the demographics of Crimea and the presence of vital Russian naval facilities. Russian media has been gleefully portraying the demonstrators in Kiev as lawless thugs, while ethnic Russian separatists in Crimea are describes as peaceful idealists in need of protection from fascist aggression.
Or maybe Putin is thinking even bigger, because he’s given shelter to deposed kleptocrat Viktor Yanukovych, who still describes himself as the legitimate head of state for the entire Ukraine, and announced on Friday morning that he opposes Crimean secession from “his” country. Yanukovych says he fled the country in fear of his life, and since Moscow still refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the new government, there’s always the chance they’re planning to help reinstall him (or someone comparably friendly to the Russian agenda, perhaps without looted millions tucked into Swiss bank accounts) in Kiev.
Speaking of which, the Associated Press reports that Swiss authorities have opened a money-laundering probe against Yanukovych and his son Aleksander, at least temporarily freezing their assets in Switzerland:
“Chief prosecutor Yves Bertossa and members of the financial police conducted a search in the morning of Feb. 27 at the premises of a company owned by Aleksander Yanukovych,” prosecutors said. Documents were seized, but the prosecutor said no further details of the investigation would be provided.
Separately, the nation’s governing Federal Council, which includes the president and six other ministers, said Friday it has decided to block all assets Yanukovych and his entourage might have in Switzerland, effective immediately.
Through the action, the Council said in a statement that it “wishes to avoid any risk of misappropriation of Ukrainian state assets.”
That might be the least of the Ukrainian state’s problems, by the end of this weekend.
Update: Russia has now formally admitted, contrary to its previous position, that armored units from the Black Sea fleet base have been deployed in Crimea, to protect naval facilities.
Update: Hapless Secretary of State John Kerry pops up to sing the praises of Russian “help” for the Ukrainian economy, burbling that Russia’s foreign minister says “they are prepared to be engaged and be involved in helping to deal with the economic transition that needs to take place at this point.” Not a good sign for the future independence of even western Ukraine.
BBC reporters claim to have seen “eight trucks with the black plates of the Russian army moving towards Simferopol,” while there are unconfirmed reports of Russian military helicopters moving through Crimean airspace. The “Crimean militia” story is getting harder to swallow.
Update: Phone, Internet, and air travel are now reportedly being cut to the cities annexed by mysterious guys named Vladimir who don’t have any insignia on their uniforms.
Update: Breaking news from AFP on Twitter at 2:45 Eastern time, Friday afternoon: “2,000 Russian soldiers land in “armed invasion’ of Crimea: Kiev official.”