A strange thing is happening in Crimea: Armed people wearing camouflage without insignia are quietly taking control of buildings and airports, and then saying they are not authorized to negotiate with anyone. This happened at the Crimean parliament and government buildings in the early hours of Feb. 27 and then again the following night at two airports, Belbek and Simferopol. Could it be a cynical, undeclared Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory?
Ukraine’s new interior minister, Arsen Avakov, a politician and movie producer without any police experience, thinks it is.
"I consider these activities as an armed invasion and an occupation, violating all international treaties and norms," Avakov wrote in a Facebook post, using all capital letters. "It is a direct provocation of bloodshed in the territory of a sovereign state."
Russia has given Avakov and others ample grounds for suspicion. In 2008, it crushed Georgia in a vicious military action that followed Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s botched attempt to reclaim control of the secessionist region of South Ossetia. Russia had handed out tens of thousands of passports in South Ossetia and another separatist region of Georgia, Abkhazia, prior to the conflict, which allowed it to claim it was protecting its citizens. After international mediators persuaded Russia’s then-president, Dmitri Medvedev, to pull back the troops, Moscow — and almost no one else — recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. Since then, Russia has poured more than $1 billion into South Ossetia alone, and though much of the money has been misused, the corrupt rulers of the secessionist regions are still firmly under Moscow’s protection.
So why wouldn’t Russia do it again in Ukraine? The country’s revolutionary government, established after the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych, is almost as unfriendly toward Russian President Vladimir Putin as Saakashvili was when he ran Georgia. In fact, Saakashvili is a frequent visitor to Kyiv, where he advises local politicians on how to deal with Putin. "The bad news is that Putin is going to do something in the Crimea," he told Ukraine’s Channel 5. "The good news is that you already know what he’s going to do there. He has tested it in our South Ossetia and Abkhazia."
Putin answered the "why not" question during a press conference on Dec. 19, 2013. "Nothing like the events in South Ossetia and Abkhazia is going on in the Crimea," he said. "Those territories had earlier declared independence and there was, unfortunately, a bloody regional inter-ethnic conflict." Putin claimed Russian peacekeepers and citizens in the area had been in danger and added, "Thank God, there is nothing like that happening in the Crimea and I hope it never will... We are not going to wave sabers and send in troops. That is total nonsense."
It is hard to imagine a more vehement denial. Putin does not need a war with Ukraine, which was Russia’s fifth biggest trading partner in 2013 with about 100 times the trade turnover that Russia had with Georgia. It is also a popular travel destination for Russians: In the first nine months of 2013, 8.2 million of them visited the neighbouring country. Ukrainians, for their part, are the single biggest group of foreign visitors to Russia, with 5.3 million of them crossing the border in the first nine months of 2013.
Georgia is as remote and strategically unimportant as Ukraine is prominent in Eastern Europe, where the nation of 46 million serves as a buffer between Russia and NATO countries to the West. The last thing Putin wants to do is ruin the geopolitical balance.
Answering persistent questions from Ukrainian reporters about a Russian invasion, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, pointed out that "This is not a zero-sum issue. Russia should also have an interest in Ukraine’s political stability, economic prosperity and future growth. And that is a principle that we have reaffirmed at the very highest levels of my government."
So what’s with the men in camouflage, who, Avakov wrote, "are not trying to conceal the fact that they belong to the armed forces of the Russian Federation"? They may well be Russian forces on a strictly unofficial mission: After all, Crimea serves as the base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. They may also be local militants. In Ukraine Friday, with police gone from the streets and all sorts of shadowy people joining or impersonating the victorious Self-Defence, which helped topple Yanukovych’s corrupt regime, wearing camouflage and carrying a gun is nothing special. Avakov himself has offered to include some of the paramilitaries in the new police force.
The new government has not yet had the time to establish full control of Ukrainian cities, especially in ethnically diverse Crimea, which has only a small Ukrainian population. Putin may well use this to strengthen his bargaining position in inevitable talks with the new Kiev government on everything from trade to the fate of the $15 billion aid program Russia started for Ukraine in December but suspended after Yanukovych’s fall. Even if Russia is stirring up trouble in Crimea, it will never officially admit it or send in regular troops as it did in Georgia. It will, however, do its best to throw Kiev off balance to make it more pliable.
Nor will Russia invite Crimea to secede from Ukraine. In the parliament building seized by the men in camouflage, the local legislators voted to hold a kind of independence referendum in May, but the question on the ballot is carefully formulated to stress that an independent Crimea is still part of Ukraine in accordance with "treaties and agreements."
Putin, as a much more experienced ruler than the likes of Avakov, is merely showing the new Ukrainian authorities that they should not take him, or Russia, lightly. Indeed, that would be a mistake. Ukrainians ought to listen more to Pyatt than to Saakashvili, avoid hysterics and start negotiating with Moscow.
Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View.