Last week’s theatrical crisis in Ukraine has quickly transformed itself into a restaging of the Crimean War of 1853-56, when Russia fought the Ottoman Empire and its European allies over control of the strategic peninsula that juts into the Black Sea. Only this time, light operatic moments are popping up in the repeat performance, as Washington has joined London and NATO to castigate Russia with pointed words but no hint of bayonets.
“Russia has engaged in a military act of aggression against another country,” Secretary of State John Kerry declared.
“The sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine has been violated,” UK Foreign Minister William Hague said.
“I have convened the North Atlantic Council today because of Russia’s military action in Ukraine,” NATO Secretary General Fogh Rasmussen said, “and because of President (Vladimir) Putin’s threat against this sovereign nation.”
These ominous words followed Russia’s decision to secure its Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol and to accede to the Crimean leadership’s request to restore “calm” in the region by deploying troops in the region.
The government of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea is said to be preparing a referendum on declaring independence from Ukraine in the same manner that voters in Scotland and Catalonia are to decide on independence from their traditional states later this year. Russia engineered a similar diplomatic feat after the Georgia crisis of 2008, when South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia chose Russian allegiance.
There is reportedly no resistance by local Ukrainian military units to Russian intervention. Crimea has named the former Ukrainian navy commander Rear Adm. Denis Berezovsky (whom Kiev condemns as a traitor) as the head of the newly born Crimean navy.
In sum, Crimea is moving smoothly toward siding with the Russian Federation against the European Union and the United States. The Second Crimean War appears decided in Moscow’s favor without a shot fired and before Washington, London or Brussels can find novel modifiers of condemnation.
Russian victory in Crimea especially rocks the U.S., the EU and NATO because more than half of Ukraine — including the rich, industrialized cities of Kharkiv, Donetsk, Odessa, Mariupol and Melitopol — is highly sympathetic to the Kremlin. Kharkiv has seen mass demonstrations against the “illegitimate” Kiev government. Russian speakers have stormed and occupied government facilities in Donetsk, where the City Council has denounced the Kiev government and called for a referendum “on the region’s status.”
Even more troubling for the western powers, Moscow’s deft style of popular annexation can easily be reproduced anywhere in eastern and southern Ukraine, wherever Russian sympathies dominate.
The day after ousted President Viktor Yanukovich fled Kiev, I am told, Crimea’s leaders agreed to secede from Ukraine and reawaken Crimea’s historical union with Russia. Soon thereafter, popular Russian parliamentarians arrived in Crimea to cheering Russian speakers waving Russian flags. Feverish crowds gathered outside the Crimean parliament, displaying signs that praised Moscow. Teams of agents from the Russian Ministry of the Interior arrived to register thousands of Crimean citizens who wanted Russian citizenship. Passports were provided on the spot, despite Ukrainian’s prohibition on dual citizenship. Overnight, fierce-looking soldiers without identifying badges appeared mysteriously at the airport for Simferopol, the Crimean capital. Soon 13 giant Russian military transports deployed at least 2,000 Russian troops around the city. The flagship of the Ukrainian fleet, Hetman Sahaidachniy, refused to obey operational commands from Kiev and asked to go over to the Russian side.
Across Russia, a week after Yanukovich’s flight sowed chaos, there were tens of thousands of patriots demonstrating in sympathy for their “compatriots” in Ukraine.
Putin topped the public relations blitz by telling German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Russia intervened to protect Ukraine from the “threat of ultranationalists” — no doubt pointing to the fascist factions in Kiev such as Svoboda and the Right Sector. Also, Moscow reports the Crimean Tatars are forming “self-defense units” that Kremlin-controlled media have linked to the homicidal jihadists from the Emirate of the Caucasus.
The Russian president has used taut diplomacy throughout the crisis. U.S. President Barack Obama telephoned Putin to heatedly discuss the Crimean events for 90 minutes on Sunday. However, my sources tell me that the important telephone conversations these last days are between the German-speaking Putin and the Russian-speaking Merkel. Putin has assured Merkel that Russia aims to avoid a fragmented Ukraine and that restoring a legitimately elected government in Kiev is the way forward.
A week ago, the EU brokered an agreement that called for Ukrainian elections as early as May 25. A handful of candidates aspire to the presidency, including the Washington-favored Fatherland Party’s interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and the Berlin-favored Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Report Party’s Vitaly Klitschko, a former champion boxer.
Moscow judges that the factions in Kiev cannot work together and that the nation’s instability will deepen. It is not incidental that the Kremlin’s conversations with controversial former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who recently traveled from Germany to Moscow for consultations, are likely to encourage the very backstabbing that weakens the interim government.
Moscow holds that the strongest Ukrainian party remains Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, which is now banned from parliament. The Party of Regions is unlikely to rehabilitate Yanukovich and needs a new candidate. It is thought that a Russian-speaking Orthodox-faithful former military man would suit the Kremlin.
Ukraine’s resolution is not likely to be tidy. The Kremlin has all the strategic advantages of Crimea and none of the financial responsibilities of Kiev. While there is excited talk in some G-8 capitals that more must be done to punish Moscow, Berlin has indicated it opposes sanctions.
In a moment of sublime irony, Moscow sent the unpaid Ukrainian energy bill of 1.5 billion euros to Brussels. It was a useful reminder to Washington and London of who has already won the second Crimean war.