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March 10, 2014

Neighboring Nations Wary as Crimea Occupied by Pro-Russian Forces

by Arash Arabasadi

As the buildup of pro-Russian forces in the Crimea region of Ukraine continues, officials in Ukrainian capital Kyiv say that as many as 18,000 occupiers are in the region. The increasingly tense standoff in some ways is reminiscent of the 2008 conflict with Georgia, and other neighbors undoubtedly are taking notice.

The Ukrainian military released footage Sunday of its paratroopers returning from training. It is another escalation in an already tense Ukraine.
 
James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, said it’s time for the United States to send ground troops to the Polish-Ukrainian border to conduct military exercises.

"Ground troops to symbolize our willingness to defend our now nervous NATO allies in Eastern Europe,” he said. NATO allies like Poland.

Regional threat

Ryszard Schnepf, Poland’s ambassador to the United States, said pro-Russian aggression in Crimea threatens the entire region. “We consider the current situation [in Ukraine] as a direct threat to our sovereignty, and we can predict that after the situation from the Kremlin’s point of view is cleared, Moldova will be the next target, and possibly, other countries.”  

Other countries, like Georgia. In 2008, the former Soviet republic was caught in a standoff with Russian forces over the disputed regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia claims them both; Russia considers them independent states. Russian troops are still there.

Archil Gegeshidze, Georgia’s ambassador to the United States, said a lack of American action in 2008 set a precedent for the conflict in Ukraine. “Those events ... gave lessons to the major stakeholders in this case; in Ukraine’s case. What Russia learned from Georgia’s case is Russia can get away with its 19th Century methods because Russia was not forced to pay a political price for that.”

Gegeshidze said that despite an ongoing occupation, the government in Ukraine should tread lightly. “What the Ukrainian government needs now is to really show restraint; not to provoke Russia on heavier retaliation,” he said.

The Ukrainian army is a fighting force of roughly 130,000 troops -- no match for Russian forces. And with citizen demonstrations still dividing the country, Ukraine and its neighbors may have reason to worry.