Ukraine’s new prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, warned that his country was “at the brink of disaster” as Russian troops continued to move into the Crimea and the government in Kiev called up the military reserves in preparation to defend the country from the Russian invasion.
In the Crimean town of Perevalne, several hundred soldiers wearing no insignia but arriving in trucks bearing Russian license plates surrounded a Ukrainian military base. Ukrainian soldiers stood behind a tank at the base’s gate in a standoff with the foreign troops.
No shots have been fired — yet.
According to this CNN report, two other bases were also targeted by what a Ukrainian defense ministry spokesperson said were Russian troops:
Amid signs of Russian military intervention in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, Russian generals led their troops to three bases in the region Sunday demanding Ukrainian forces surrender and hand over their weapons, Vladislav Seleznyov, spokesman for the Crimean Media Center of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, told CNN.
Speaking by phone, he said Russian troops had blocked access to the bases, but added “there is no open confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian military forces in Crimea” and that Ukrainian troops continue to protect and serve Ukraine.
“This is a red alert. This is actually a declaration of war in our country,” Yatsenyuk said.
Speaking in a televised address from the parliament building in Kiev, Yatsenyuk called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to “pull back the military and stick to international obligations.”
“We are on the brink of disaster,” he said.
In Brussels, Belgium, NATO ambassadors were scheduled to hold an emergency meeting on Ukraine.
“What Russia is doing now in Ukraine violates the principles of the U.N. charter,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters.
“Russia must stop its military activities and threats,” Rasmussen said, adding, “we support Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. … We support the rights of the people of Ukraine to determine their own future without outside interference.”
Noble words that are no doubt falling on deaf ears in Moscow.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s acting defense minister, Ihor Tenyuh, told a closed-door session of parliament that the country does not have the military force to resist Russia in the Crimea.
But the Ukrainian military has only a token force in the autonomous region — a lightly armed brigade of about 3,500 people, equipped with artillery and light weapons but none of the country’s advanced battle tanks, said Igor Sutyagin, a Russian military expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London. The forces also have only one air squadron of SU-27 fighters deployed at the air base near Belbek.
A senior NATO official said that Ukraine’s small naval fleet, which was originally part of the Black Sea Fleet, had been boxed in by Russian warships.
The Russian takeover of Crimea was relatively easy, in part because the Ukrainian military was careful not to respond to a provocation that would excuse any larger intervention. The military — which has seen its top leader change constantly with the political situation — has also made a point of staying out of the internal political conflict in Ukraine.
The question is, just how far is Vladimir Putin willing to go with this adventure? If Putin is satisfied with securing the Crimea, it is likely that Ukraine will make a stink at the UN, but won’t go to war to save the region.
All bets are off, however, if Putin gins up another excuse about ethnic Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the pro-Moscow eastern provinces being mistreated and uses that pretext to slice off a large part of Ukraine. It is doubtful that Kiev would stand by and meekly accept a Russian-imposed partition of its country.
Should Putin worry about the Ukrainian military?:
Ukraine had no realistic contingency plan for a Russian takeover of Crimea, given the size of the Russian forces legitimately based there, said Mr. Sutyagin, the military analyst. But he also said that he doubted that Russian forces would intervene elsewhere in Ukraine, because Russian forces would be too stretched to control much territory and even in the largely pro-Russia east, Ukrainian forces would be expected to fight back, aided by self-defense militias and partisans.
Matthew Clements, editor of Jane’s Intelligence Review, said that while the Ukrainian military was largely underfunded, “in a major land war, it would be fighting on reasonable terms,” and was “far more capable than the Georgian Army.” Any major conflict with Ukraine, he said, “would also expose a lot of key weaknesses in the Russian Army.”
Steven Pifer, a former American ambassador to Ukraine now at the Brookings Institution, said that if Russian forces tried to move into eastern Ukraine, “there will be some Ukrainian units that will resist, and a flood of people from western Ukraine saying, ‘This is my chance to be my grandfather and fight the Communists.’ ”
Still, owing to its legacy of Soviet bases to support any ground war to the west, the military is poorly positioned to counter an attack from the east, according to Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a military research institution in Moscow. The thin military presence in the east complicates any response if Russia chooses, for instance, to back pro-Russian activists who have reportedly seized administrative buildings in Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine.
As Putin grows bolder, Russian rhetoric about the Kiev government gets more exaggerated and hysterical:
In what appeared to be an illustration of the growing schism between the two world powers, U.S. President Barack Obama and Putin spoke for 90 minutes, with each expressing his concern over the mounting crisis, according to separate statements released by their governments.
According to the Kremlin, Putin told Obama that Russia reserves the right to defend its interests in the Crimea region and the Russian-speaking people who live there.
The Russian government said in a statement that, in reply to U.S. concerns over the possibility of the use of Russian armed forces in Ukraine, Putin “drew his attention to the provocative and criminal actions on the part of ultranationalists who are in fact being supported by the current authorities in Kiev.”
Some Russian officials have referred to the government in Kiev as “fascists” — a term bound to stir Russian passions as it recalls the 20 million dead lost while fighting Hitler in World War II.
It won’t take much to start a war in the Crimea. And it appears that at this point, the decision to go to war or not will largely rest with Vladimir Putin.