We summarise yesterday’s events in Ukraine.
The crisis in Ukraine has escalated. War with Russia seems certain, although it is unclear how far any conflict may reach. The Federation Council, Russia’s upper house, has approved a request from Vladimir Putin to deploy Russian forces officially in Ukraine “until the normalisation of the socio-political situation in that country”. What follows are a few bullet points and comments summarising the situation as of Sunday morning.
1. Russia’s clampdown on the Crimean peninsula started as soon as Yanukovych had been ousted. Russia’s longstanding military presence in the region, the Black Sea Fleet, moved swiftly to secure strategic positions in Sevastopol, Simferopol and Balaklava. It appears to have entirely replaced local security forces in some places.
2. Naval reinforcements have started to arrive for parts of the Black Sea fleet. At least two warships reached Sevastopol some hours ago. Russian armour has been filmed moving near the city. Both these moves are incredibly provocative: they preceded Putin’s move to legitimise military intervention through the Duma.
3. Putin held a 90-minute conversation with Barack Obama. He reserved his right to move Russian forces deeper into Ukraine if necessary. This is a viable course of action: thousands of Russian troops have been flown into Crimea over the last few days, according to estimates. Airspace is closed to civilian traffic.
4. There have been clashes between Crimean Tatars and pro-Russian protesters. Tatar leader Refat Chubarov has warned Tatars not to get involved with resistance to Russian forces. “Literally hours remain before catastrophe,” he says.
5. Berkut (riot police) officers who fled after Yanukovych’s downfall have been issued Russian passports in Crimea. They could provide Russia with muscle to suppress resistance on the peninsula. They have already demonstrated their ruthlessness and willingness to use deadly force.
6. The fascist Right Sector in Kiev has called on its supporters to take up arms while insisting they are “against empire but not Russophobic”. It seems likely that Russia’s actions will boost the Right Sector, especially as the threat of invasion looms. This is a grim prospect for the left in Ukraine. In a bizarre statement made on Saturday, Right Sector’s Dmitry Yarosh called for uprisings in the Caucasus and appealed directly to Doku Umarov, perhaps Chechnya’s most notorious militant.
7. Pro-Russian militias are being formed in Crimea, openly backed by Moscow. Their organisers are claiming membership in the thousands, but this is impossible to verify.
8. There is a huge diversity of forces on the ground, sides to choose, and political aims at play here. One of the strangest stories must be that of a former Israeli soldier who led street fighting units against the government, often taking orders from antisemitic Svoboda members.
9. Ukraine’s interim president Oleksander Turchinov has met with military chiefs and placed Ukrainian forces on full combat alert. Russia’s military is obviously more powerful and experienced, but that does not guarantee the outcome of any war. Ground troops could encounter unexpectedly heavy resistance beyond the Crimean peninsula, although Russia has dealt ruthlessly with similar situations in the Caucasus. It is more likely that Russia will establish air superiority early on. That is what happened in the 2008 war with Georgia. Russia also might try an invasion by stealth. The bulk of forces required to do this are already present in Crimea, which is now under de facto Russian control.
10. The threat of war will exacerbate tensions in Ukraine and worsen the country’s economic problems, regardless of whether it breaks out or not. There is much potential for the far right to profit and the left to suffer. As armed conflict grows nearer, we must not focus on troop movements alone and let political developments pass by unnoticed.