NIGHTWATCH: Russia & Crimea, Ukraine & the West

Cultural Intelligence, Peace Intelligence

Ukraine: In the past two days, events moved quickly again; this time in Crimea. The first reports of separatist actions indicated armed men without identifying insignia seized the airport at Simferopol, the regional capital. Russian news reports said Russian soldiers seized the airport that serves Sevastopol, the location of the Russian navy base.

These were followed by reports that armed men took over a television station. Finally, news services reported more than a dozen Russian IL-76 transport aircraft arriving at Simferopol and unloading about 2,000 Russian troops, apparently Spetznaz or airborne soldiers. Other reports said Russian naval forces also landed at Sevastopol.

During this Watch, Ukrainian web media reported the seizure of a Ukrainian air forces base. “The head of the Kirovske regional majlis, Ekrem Abdulvapov, has just reported over the phone the following: the Ukrainian air force base at Kirovske airfield has been captured by sixteen military trucks with soldiers. The trucks were escorted by 2-3 Hummer SUVs,” apparently acting as command vehicles.

Ukrainian authorities in Kyiv described Russian action in Crimea as a Russian invasion. Serhiy Kunitsyn, permanent representative of the (interim) Ukrainian president in Crimea, said, “Thirteen aircraft with troops are landing at Hvardiyske airfield, each with 150 people on board, do your maths,” he told the Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR.

Kunitsyn said he believes that a Russian armed invasion is on in Crimea, and that the military are controlling the entire “outside perimeter”.

Comment: There is always confusion during a transition period. What is clear is that the leaders in Kyiv no longer have control over Crimea and believe the Russians have committed aggression against Ukraine.

President Putin has made no public statement. Lower officials reported actions have been taken to protect Russian citizens and ethnic Russians. Official Russian media denied that Russian troops are involved in the takeover of civilian facilities in Crimea.

Meanwhile, President Yanukovych insisted, in a rambling press conference, that he is the President of Ukraine and will return again.

Special comment: What Western media have not reported is the description of events in Ukraine and Crimea by Russian speakers who live there and broadcast by Russian media. Russian state TV has portrayed Ukraine as a country in chaos. Reports have emphasized the vulnerability and fears of the Russian-speaking population, particularly in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

Some reports state that Ukrainian hooligans are burning the houses of Russian speakers. Others state that Ukrainian militias are marching to take over Crimea. Still others say the Ukraine regime in Kyiv intends to ban the use of the Russian language.

Protection of Russians and Russian speakers and supporters was the justification for Russian military intervention in Georgia in 2008.

Russian military preparations. On 26 February, a Russian news outlet published the following report to explain the increased military activity in western Russia.

“Warriors of the 31st Air-Assault Brigade have already been deployed to Novorossiysk, and from there they will head out to the Black Sea aboard an amphibious landing ship. Several groups of soldiers will be guarding strategic facilities belonging to Russia. As Rustoria has learned from its own source, for several weeks the guys have been in a state of full combat readiness for deployment to Ukraine. The ‘contractors’ will be serving there to provide security support until the situation is fully stabilized.”

“As an aside, the Ulyanovsk Air-Assault Brigade was included in the make-up of the UN “blue helmets” in April 2013, and acquired the status of peacekeeper. At this time it is the only Airborne Troops formation that is 100-percent manned with contract servicemen”

“Previously a separate GRU (Main Military Intelligence Directorate) Special Forces brigade was sent to the Crimea from Tolyatti. In addition, 11,000 landing force troops arrived from Sochi with the Black Sea Fleet squadron.”

Today at two o’clock (on 26 February) the troops of the Western Military District, units stationed on its territory, and the Central Military District’s 2nd Army, the Aerospace Defense Command, the Airborne Troops, Long-Range and Military-Transport aviation were suddenly raised on alert. Commander-in-Chief Vladimir Putin ordered a check of the troops’ readiness for operations to resolve crisis situations posing a threat to the country’s military security, as well as those of an anti-terrorist, medical and epidemiological, and technological character.”

Comment: The news report above indicates the Russians began moving special forces into Crimea before 26 February; followed by 11,000 Russian naval infantry; and followed by an air assault brigade. The 31st Air-Assault brigade is possibly the unit that flew today to Simferopol airport. These units reinforced the 25,000 military personnel normally based at Sevastopol.

This item makes it clear that armed men without insignia engaged in unusual activities in Crimea almost certainly are Russian soldiers.

There are several important points. The Russian concern to protect Russians in Crimea might seem contrived to Western audiences, but no Western news outlets have bothered to check out reports of Ukrainians burning Russian homes; the parliament planning to ban the Russian language; and militia movements against Russians.

They also have not interviewed Crimean Russians about their concerns, though anti-Russian Crimean Tatars seem to get interviewed. About 60% of Crimeans are reported to be Russians and 10% are Tatars.

In other words, the Western news narrative about freedom fighters and enlightened democrats in Kyiv is not the only narrative. The Russian version of the story depicts the new leaders of Ukraine as criminals, terrorists, neo-Nazis and Western agents, especially the new interim prime minister Yatsenyuk, who is an American favorite with almost no following in Ukraine, according to Forbes.

In the Western story line, Russian behavior is belligerent, unreasonable and irresponsible. In the Russian storyline, Russian soldiers are hastening to defend ethnic Russians from Ukrainian bullies and Western deception and betrayal. The Russian soldiers are preventing the spread of chaos and responding to an appeal for humanitarian assistance.

Secondly, the 26 February news item indicates President Putin needed less than a day after Yanukovych’s ouster to order substantial air, ground and naval forces to move to Crimea. President Putin acted with speed and confidence to protect Russian interests.

Readers following the Western media would be justified in wondering about the sudden, no-notice arrival of Russian soldiers in Crimea. It looks like unprovoked aggression. Readers following Russian media might wonder why it took the Russian leadership so long to take action to protect the Russians in Crimea.

A third point is that there has been no Ukrainian resistance to Russian military actions. A Russian military column apparently could move to capture Kyiv unopposed. Ukraine’s lack of response to the Russian military moves almost invites further encroachment.

Finally, Ukraine is a half-continent too far for the Western Europeans to do anything but talk. Ukrainians who thought the European Union states and the US would come to their rescue are destined for disappointment. In his press statement today, the US President did not say that instability in Ukraine affected US interests. Some analysts interpreted that omission as an American “green light” to the Russians to do what they consider appropriate.

Russia-Ukraine: President Vladimir Putin has instructed the government to continue contacts with Ukrainian partners to develop trade and economic ties, hold consultations with foreign partners, including the International Monetary Fund, in order to provide financial assistance to Ukraine and to deal with the issue of providing humanitarian assistance in response to the request from Crimea, Putin’s spokesman Dmitriy Peskov said.

“Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed Russian government to continue contacts with its partners in Kyiv regarding the development of trade and economic ties between the Russian Federation and Ukraine,” Peskov said.

“In addition to this, bearing in mind the request of the Crimean leadership to provide humanitarian assistance, the president of the Russian Federation instructed the government of the Russian Federation to deal with this issue, including through Russia’s regions,” the spokesman said.

Comment: President Putin appears content to let the West shoulder the economic burdens of a virtually bankrupt western Ukraine, while Russia asserts hegemony over the eastern part and Crimea.

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