Western leaders from President Barack Obama to Chancellor Angela Merkel are telling Russia not to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty. Vladimir Putin’s response as he prepares for military conflict: What about ours?
Putin’s been cautioning the U.S. and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization states for at least six years not to impede Russian interests in Ukraine, particularly in Crimea, where the Black Sea Fleet has been based since its founding by Catherine the Great in 1783 after the Ottoman Empire ceded the peninsula.
Putin told a closed NATO summit in Romania in 2008 that the military alliance was threatening Ukraine’s very existence by courting it as a member, according to a secret cable published by Wikileaks. Putin said Ukraine’s borders were “sewn together” after World War II and its claims to Crimea, which belonged to Russia until Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine in 1954, are legally dubious, Kurt Volker, the U.S. ambassador to NATO at the time, said in the cable.
Four months later, Putin demonstrated his willingness to back up words with actions by sending Russian troops to war against Georgia, another former Soviet state, over two Russian- speaking regions seeking independence.
Now, in Putin’s eyes, it’s the U.S. and the European Union who are pushing Ukraine to the brink of armed conflict by supporting the overthrow of Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych. Elected four years ago, Yanukovych was deposed by lawmakers on Feb. 22 after clashes with protesters in Kiev left at least 82 people dead, the worst violence the country has witnessed since the war. Russia’s Foreign Ministry called it a “coup” by “fascists” carried out at Russia’s expense.
What pushed Putin to ask Russia’s parliament for approval to use troops in Ukraine was a decision, unnoticed by much of the western media, made by Ukraine’s parliament the next day, according to Sergei Markov, a Kremlin adviser who’s now the director of the Institute for Political Studies in the Russian capital. That’s when lawmakers voted to overturn legislation making Russian an official state language.
Even though acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said he’d veto the change, the move created “major fears” in the mainly Russian-speaking eastern part of the country, Markov said by phone. In Ukraine, “the West is seeking to create an anti- Russia,” Markov said. “Putin doesn’t want to wait and see what happens, so he may engage in a small war now to protect Russia’s interests and avoid a big war in the future.”
In the wake of the Orange Revolution, which prevented Yanukovych from coming to power after rigged elections in 2004, pro-Russian forces, “with funding and direction from Moscow,” embarked upon a multiyear effort to stoke communal tensions in Crimea and “prevent Ukraine’s movement west into institutions like NATO and the EU,” according to another leaked cable from the U.S. State Department.
“They have done so by cynically fanning ethnic Russian chauvinism towards Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians, through manipulation of issues like the status of the Russian language, NATO, and an alleged Tatar threat to ‘Slavs,’” Sheila Gwaltney, then the No. 2 official at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, said in the 2006 cable.
Gwaltney is now the top U.S. official in Moscow, after the departure of Ambassador Michael McFaul last month. The U.S. Embassy’s press service in Moscow had no immediate comment when contacted by phone today.
Ukraine mobilized its army reserves yesterday and called for foreign observers in Crimea after Russian-speaking forces seized control of government buildings and airports. Russians comprise 59 percent of Crimea’s population of about 2 million, with 24 percent Ukrainian and 12 percent Tatar, 2001 census data show. Russians make up 17 percent of Ukraine’s total population of 45 million.
Russian-speaking gunmen arrived outside Ukraine’s infantry base in Privolnoye in Crimea yesterday, continuing a pattern of intimidation around key facilities that started last week. Before Yanukovych’s ouster, Russia had about 15,000 sailors and soldiers stationed permanently at bases that support the Black Sea Fleet in and around Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea.
Ukraine’s defense minister said Russia sent 6,000 more soldiers into Crimea within a 24-hour period over the weekend and that number is increasing “every hour” according to Yuriy Sergeyev, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations. The new government in Kiev said efforts to speak with Russia’s Foreign Ministry were ignored.
While Putin said over the weekend that Russia may take action if it sees unrest in other Russian-speaking regions in eastern Ukraine, the president hasn’t made that decision yet, his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said by phone.
The uprising coincided with the end of one of Putin’s greatest triumphs -- the Sochi Winter Olympics, where Russian athletes regained the glory of their Soviet predecessors by topping the medals table.
That success helped lift the former KGB colonel’s public approval rating to 67.7 percent on Feb. 23, a 7 percentage point increase from the previous month and the highest since May 2012, when he was inaugurated for a third time, according to a poll by the state-run All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion, known as VTsIOM. With the term extended to six years from four, Putin, first elected in 2000, may stay in power until 2024 if he runs and wins again in 2018.
Putin, 61, who once described the breakup of the Soviet Union as the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, was named “Person of the Year” in December by the Times of London for helping avert U.S. strikes against Syria. That effort “propelled the president back into the front ranks of effective world statesmen,” the Times said.
Putin is taking no chances with his legacy at home, where last week seven people were sentenced to as long as four years in prison for violence during a 2012 rally against him. His most vocal opponent, Alexey Navalny, was confined to his home and barred from using the Internet or speaking to the public for two months. Navalny was one of 600 protesters detained at two anti- Putin rallies on Feb. 24.
Russian state television stations, the most popular in the country, are in propaganda overdrive as the Kremlin seeks to rally the population behind Putin’s toughening stance on Ukraine, according to Katri Pynnoniemi, an analyst at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki.
“Sevastopol is a hero-city in Russia’s national consciousness and official Russian media is now exploiting that,” Pynnoniemi said by e-mail. “This is a legacy from Russia’s military victory over the Nazis and it’s being exploited in the Russian official parlance to de-legitimize Ukraine’s newly elected government.”
Sevastopol, a symbol of Russian heroism not unlike the Alamo for Americans, has been under siege by western forces before -- first by the British and the French during the Crimean War in the 1850s and then by Nazi forces in 1941-1942.
The road to revolution in Ukraine, which has endured three recessions since 2008, started in Kiev in November, when Yanukovych pulled out of a free-trade deal with the EU, opting instead for $15 billion of Russian aid and cheaper gas. The ousted leader, who is now in Russia, also pursued closer ties with Putin’s customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus.
Ukraine depends on Russia for 60 percent of its gas and is the main transit route for OAO Gazprom’s shipments to Europe, where the state-run company has a quarter of the market. Russia halted gas flows to Ukraine in 2006 and 2009 -- before Yanukovych’s presidency -- amid disputes over prices and volumes, leading to shortages throughout Europe.
The U.S., the U.K. and Canada responded to Russia’s move on Crimea by suspending preparations due to take place in Russia this week for a meeting of the Group of Eight industrial nations in June in Sochi, the Black Sea resort that hosted the Winter Olympics. The U.S. called on Russia to withdraw its forces to bases in Crimea, refrain from interfering elsewhere in Ukraine and conduct “direct engagement” with the new government. The U.K. said it won’t send government ministers to watch the Paralympics.
None of the rhetoric or action announced to date is likely to impress Putin, Amanda Paul, an analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussels, said in an interview.
“President Putin doesn’t really care what the rest of the world thinks about his foreign policy,” Paul said by phone. “Ukraine is a neighbor country that Russia views as indivisible from itself. Russia is prepared to go to any length to stop Ukraine’s deeper integration with Europe.”
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