Update: Ukraine has chosen sides, and things aren’t looking pretty. Since the time this piece was written Friday evening, Russia has admitted to the presence of its army in Crimea (to the tune of 16,000 troops), surrounded Ukrainian military posts on the peninsula, and has refused to remove its troops in an effort, it claims, to preserve democracy and protect the millions of Russians living in Crimea. Many Western governments have condemned Russia’s actions and threaten sanctions, including potential removal from the G-8 group of nations. Should Western powers decide to respond with more than just rhetoric, Russia’s place within the Security Council makes United Nations action impossible. This would force an intervention by an EU/US-led group (economically and politically) and/or NATO (militarily).
Note: This article was originally posted on February 28th, with the update on March 3rd. More updates will follow as the situation continues to develop.
Did you guys see that? No, seriously, did you? Because, if you blinked, I think you might have missed some of the most significant activity in the Eastern bloc since the fall of the USSR. We’ve heard first-hand the difficulties of life in Ukraine and now the Ukrainian revolution, which began with peaceful protests encouraging Ukrainian/European integration in November 2013, has turned progressively violent in recent days and is becoming an international clusterfuck that makes up the wet dreams of Model U.N. students everywhere.
After the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych last week, Ukraine’s new government was dealt a serious blow with reports that unidentified troops (bearing matching camouflage uniforms and automatic weapons) had entered the historically pro-Russian Ukrainian region of Crimea. These forces, who have refused to identify themselves, have secured the two airports in the region, established armed checkpoints on roads, and took control of Crimea’s parliamentary building. And, while these anonymous soldiers reek of Russian involvement, Russia’s government denies being involved in anything outside of the legal bounds of pre-existing agreements it has with Ukraine’s government.
Russia’s denial, while seemingly par for the course, raises a number of important questions that will come to define Eurasian politics for years to come: If Russia is telling the truth, then who are these heavily armed, well-organized soldiers? Who is their leader and what is their purpose for becoming involved? How did they have access to their not-insignificant equipment and logistical capabilities? And why come out of the shadows now, when the tensions in the country could have called for their appearance at any point over the past week? However, given the extremely pro-Russian actions of these anonymous forces (these forces just happen to be guarding the road that leads to the Russian naval base in Crimea, while hardline pro-Russian politicians now somehow populate the newly-formed Crimean government created by decree of these anonymous forces) it is fair for observers to take Russia’s proclamations of non-involvement with a grain of salt.
In addition, everything I’ve written of so far has ignored the increasing involvement of the Russian nationalist motorcycle gang known as the Night Wolves. When you think of the Night Wolves imagine Hells Angels, only if President Obama went on annual rides with them through disputed territories and awarded their leader (lovingly known as ‘The Surgeon’) with national medals. The leader of the gang, Alexander Zoldostanov, flew into Crimea on Friday, with plans for a Night Wolves ride along the Eastern border of Ukraine on Saturday.
Ostensibly, the purpose of the ride is to improve spirits and to deliver supplies to ethnic Russians in the Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine. Yet, upon landing, Zolostanov crushed any (faint) hope of limiting the violence by stating, “Wherever we are, wherever the Night Wolves are, that should be considered Russia.” I’m sure Ukraine’s current government would have a few points of contention with that statement. With significant records of the relationship between Vladimir Putin and ‘The Surgeon’ available for all to see, it is highly doubtful that the gang leader would take any action without the implied approval of the leader of Mother Russia.
All of this leaves Ukraine’s current leadership with little room to maneuver as it looks longingly towards Western governments to assist (economically, politically and militarily) with its transition to legitimate authority. However, Russia’s insistence on non-involvement with these rouge troops severely limits the legal remedies available to foreign powers. Economically, old and continuing woes within the US and Europe (remember Greece and Spain? Yep, they’re still there) leave little likelihood that Ukraine’s government will receive the Western bailout it desires while Ukraine’s recent checkered past with the IMF leaves that path very difficult to follow, as well. Not to mention Ukraine’s extreme reliance on Russian natural gas, which will surely dry up or increase in price should the new Ukrainian government deviate from Putin’s preferred route.
This is all to say that we are now entering territory that should be very familiar to anyone versed in international relations post-WWII. Whether it’s Georgia, Syria, or Edward Snowden (that international eavesdropping program could be pretty helpful right about now), the U.S. and Russia have shown a willingness to be directly at odds over some very important issues. This embrace of conflict between the two powers pushes the stakes in Ukraine ever higher and, like a number of countries had to do in the last half of the 20th century, Ukraine must quickly decide whose side it’s on.