Russian president Vladimir Putin’s strategy in Ukraine has become clear enough over the past two weeks: pro-Russian agitators are essentially seizing eastern Ukrainian cities for him, under the protection of a huge Russian military force that threatens to roll across the border if the Ukrainian government does anything about it. Supposedly today will be the day the Ukrainians call Putin’s bluff… and we find out whether or not Putin has been bluffing.
Fox News reports that operations are already said to be under way:
???Overnight, an antiterrorist operation began in the north of Donetsk. But it will be phased, responsible and balanced. The purpose of the actions, I stress once again, is to protect the citizens of Ukraine,??? Turchynov told Ukraine???s parliament, according to Interfax.
“The plans of the Russian Federation were and remain brutal. They want not only for Donbass (Donetsk region), but for the whole south and east of Ukraine to be engulfed by fire,” Turchynov continued. The aim of the operation is to “defend the citizens of Ukraine, to stop terror, stop crime and stop attempts to tear our country into pieces,” he said.
Over the past 10 days, more than a dozen government offices in 10 eastern Ukraine cities have been taken over by pro-Russian forces, with most of the seizures following the same pattern. Aggressive gangs, sometimes carrying firearms and wearing military fatigues, storm the buildings. The Ukrainian flag is replaced with a Russian one.
The insurgents are demanding broader autonomy and closer ties with Russia. The central government has so far been unable to rein in the separatists, as many of the local security forces have switched to their side.
There are claims that out-of-uniform Russian special forces troops are already mingling with the “demonstrators” in these cities. If true, it will make government efforts to reclaim control from the separatists even more difficult, and possibly bloody. That would be all the provocation Russia needs to sweep into eastern Ukraine and “protect ethnic Russians.”
There have already been fatalities in the city of Slovyansk – during a gun battle between Ukrainian special forces and pro-Russian insurgents who occupied a police station – plus assaults on two pro-Russian politicians in Kiev. This led Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev to declare Ukraine on the “brink of civil war” – a brink Russia has been working to push them towards. Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, said the unrest in eastern Ukraine had “the telltale signs of Moscow’s involvement,” describing the protests as “professional and coordinated.” UN human rights investigators say they found “credible allegations of harassment, arbitrary arrests, and torture targeting activists and journalists who did not support” the referendum for Crimean independence from Ukraine. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, with the support of foreign ministers in Britain and Germany, called on Russia to “stop destabilizing the situation and make it clear it does not support the violent actions of pro-Russian separatists.”
The Ukrainians are asking for UN peacekeeping troops to restore order in their cities and hold the Russians at bay, but since Russia has a security council veto, that’s not going to happen. Putin’s slow-mo invasion strategy has the Western world in checkmate – there’s talk of “isolating” Russia, but at the moment it’s the Ukrainian government that’s isolated, in the eastern region of their own country. There was an unpleasant phone call between Putin and President Obama last night, and the Europeans are talking about tougher sanctions against Russia – something that would hurt the entire country, not just a handful of Putin’s top henchmen. (I think every Russian official hit by sanctions so far has been male, but just to be on the safe side, maybe I should refer to them as “persons of hench.”)
But that sort of sanctions regime would hurt the jittery economies of the Western world as well. It’s a risk that British foreign secretary William Hague says his country is willing to take, but it may take some diplomatic effort to stiffen the entire European Union with such resolve. Meanwhile, it’s Ukraine versus the “separatists,” with the massive Russian bear hanging on the edge of the ring, waiting to tag in.