Armed men on Friday stormed two airports in the Crimean Peninsula, an autonomous ethnic Russian stronghold in Ukraine, the day after another group of men seized Crimea’s regional parliament and replaced the Ukrainian flag with a Russian one.
The incidents, which come two days after Russia staged provocative military drills along its borders with Ukraine and placed 150,000 troops on high alert, have sparked a firestorm of paranoia, from Kiev to Washington, that Russia is plotting to reclaim the peninsula given to Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1954 — a symbolic gift that officially became part of the country after the communist bloc collapsed in 1991.
“I can only describe this as a military invasion and occupation,” Ukraine’s new interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said on Friday, implying that the armed men who seized the airports were Russian and that rumored military intervention had already begun.
The last thing Russia wants is an unstable southwestern neighbor, and even the cleanest Russian operation in Crimea could unravel the peace in Ukraine. However fragile Kiev’s newly formed interim government, hard-line nationalist elements among them would not stand to see Ukraine’s territorial integrity violated by Russia and would undoubtedly push to deploy its large, NATO-trained military.
The worst case scenario for Russian intervention in Crimea is that it sparks a chain reaction of unrest across former Soviet states caught — like Ukraine — between Russia and the West, luring Western powers into the fold.
If an isolated war broke out in Crimea, the U.S. and its NATO allies would initially be reluctant to get involved — as they were in Georgia in 2008, analysts say. The countries that make up NATO are cash strapped and war weary, disinclined to engage on the battlefield with a nuclear power like Russia. Europe gets 30 percent of its natural gas from Russia — by way of a pipeline through Ukraine — so avoiding regional conflict is also an economic imperative.
“If Russia acts, this is what they may be banking on,” said Forbrig. “But the picture is different if you see separatism spreading and if there’s a serious threat of Ukraine being split up.”
“Both Ukraine and Russia have a strong incentive to not let this happen,” said Kimberly Marten, a Russia and Eurasia expert at Columbia University. “If you have Ukraine break into pieces, then other countries that have held together will have a strong incentive to look at their own arrangements. It could be the flare that leads to massive violence and conflict not only in Ukraine but elsewhere in the post-Soviet space.”
Others have noted that overt irredentism in Crimea could backfire on Russia at home, where China might cite the interests of a massive ethnic Chinese population in eastern Siberia as grounds for reclaiming the area’s water, mineral resources and fertile farmland.
“Down the road, as demographic pressures mount and Russian resources beckon, a Russian doctrine of the ethnic adjustments of Russian borders could provide Beijing with a useful model,” Timothy Snyder wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.
These and other calculated fears seem enough to deter Russian military action, for now. But as Ukraine has demonstrated over the past week, things can change quickly.
Ukrainian security forces and Euromaidan activists have been good about reining in unnecessary violence against pro-Russian protesters thus far, but an isolated attack on an ethnic Russian could stir things up and force Russia to intervene. If that happens, “it would be very difficult for Russia to stand back and not do anything,” said Marten.
That possibility strikes fear into Ukraine’s new leaders. A prolonged Russian-backed breakaway effort by Crimea would pose a serious obstacle in Ukraine’s path toward European integration, the underpinnings of its recent revolution.
In that event, Forbrig suggests Ukraine might have to look beyond Crimea and not lose sight of the broader goals demonstrators fought and in some cases lost their lives for in Independence Square.
“Ukraine should look to Georgia, where (the breakaway regions of) South Ossetia and Abkhazia have not prevented the government from forging a strong path and ties to the West,” said Forbrig. “If Ukraine allows Crimea to be a stumbling block for any reform or for closer relations with Europe, then they’re basically doing exactly what Russia intended.”