News / Europe

For East Ukraine, Kremlin Alters Crimea Playbook

FILE - Pro-Russia armed men stand at an improvised checkpoint in Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, April 12, 2014.
FILE - Pro-Russia armed men stand at an improvised checkpoint in Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, April 12, 2014.
Reuters
There are important differences between Russia's intervention in Crimea and the events unfolding this week in eastern Ukraine which suggest Moscow has adapted its Crimea playbook and may be pursuing a different outcome.
 
Unlike the Black Sea peninsula, where thousands of Russian troops were already based at ex-Soviet naval facilities leased from Ukraine, there is little clear evidence of Moscow deploying significant forces on the ground in the east of the country.
 
In eastern towns where armed, pro-Russian rebels have seized public buildings and raised the Russian flag, some gunmen identify themselves to journalists as “Russians” - but that says little about citizenship in Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine.
 
They appear to be irregulars. If adept at barricading town halls, they lack the elite kit and well-drilled bearing of forces in Crimea - some of whom identified themselves to Ukrainian soldiers as Russian troops, despite Moscow's denials.
 
If Russia is playing a role on the ground in eastern Ukraine - something the Kremlin has again strenuously denied in the face of accusations from Kyiv and the West - it is more arm's length than it was in Crimea, and annexation may not be its objective.
 
Crimea, attached to the mainland only by narrow strips of land and home to an ethnic Russian majority, differed in being easy to seal off against Ukrainian reinforcements and in having a greater likelihood of support among local residents for Russia to take over. Unlike the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, Crimea was Russian in Soviet times, until given to Ukraine in 1954.
 
What hand Moscow has in the unrest in Ukraine is a crucial issue in a crisis that has sunk relations between Russia and the West to their lowest level since the Cold War ended in 1991.
 
A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that separatists were wearing Russian uniforms without insignia and that Washington was not yet sure who they were.
 
“It looks and feels a lot like Crimea in terms of their behavior and movements, but it's far from clear exactly who they are,” the official said. “We're far more concerned about their activities than their identities.”
 
Denials
 
As in Crimea, Russia says those taking up arms in Ukraine's industrial heartland are locals fearful of those who seized power in Kyiv - a government Moscow says includes “fascists” bent on oppressing Russian-speakers. It denies accusations of funding and coordinating protests using agents or, as one Ukrainian minister said, an elite unit of its special forces.
 
While such denials - and the removal of uniform insignia - cut little ice with critics of last month's operation in Crimea, where Russian troops could be seen driving out of their local bases and landing from assault ships, there does seem to be a Russian effort to avoid an obvious troop presence in the east.
 
Russia may want to avoid an overt presence, which unlike in Crimea could only be achieved by rolling over the frontier in a way that could provoke a clearer Western backlash.
 
The Kremlin may not want to annex that part of Ukraine - an objective that the geography and demographics of the east would make harder than in Crimea.
 
Kremlin-watchers say President Vladimir Putin may have a more modest objective - to force Kyiv and its Western backers to accept a new constitution that would give more autonomy to the eastern regions within Ukraine, and so prevent the country pulling out of Moscow's sphere of influence.
 
“Eastern Ukraine is completely different, both historically, and in terms of the do-ability of,” annexing the region, said Tony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Moscow. “It's much bigger, it's much less pro-Russian, it has no clear borders.
 
“It would be harder to take and harder to hold,” he told the BBC. “I am sure the Russians are not intending to do the same thing there.”
 
One Russian objective in intervening could be to influence a presidential election Ukraine is holding on May 25.
 
Undercover agents?
 
Western military experts say that, in eastern Ukraine, Russia may have opted for a more covert approach, using agents to organize local militias and direct them towards targets, then move on before their presence became public knowledge.
 
They would not need to bring in weapons across the border because rifles and ammunition could be taken from police stations and security headquarters which they occupy.
 
Russian state television last year publicized the creation of a special army undercover unit trained to adopt enemy uniform and operate in hostile territory with the aim of “destabilizing the situation, including via third parties.”
 
Two locations: Slovyansk in eastern Ukraine, and Simferopol in Crimea, illustrate differences in tactics being employed.
 
The headquarters of the autonomous Crimean regional government in Simferopol was taken over in February by men who stood out from local pro-Russian militias who made up the bulk of those involved in events. They did so for one reason above all: each man in the unit had identical equipment down to the smallest detail, including boots, body armor and knee-pads.
 
These men, it became apparent to those observing them, were soldiers from the Russian army.
 
In Slovyansk, where militants last week took control of buildings and skirmished with forces loyal to Kyiv, many of the gunmen also had matching uniforms and seemed well drilled.
 
Yet there were small differences; within one unit on the outskirts, one man had a knitted white sweater poking from under his camouflage tunic, some had elbow pads while others had pads on their knees, some flak jackets were black, others green.
 
Cossack patrols
 
Members of another unit, occupying the city council offices, were evasive about their identity. One said he was Russian and added: “We established order in Crimea and then we came here.”
 
But quite what he meant by “Russian” is unclear. A third or more of the 4.5 million people in the Donetsk region identify themselves as ethnically Russian, as opposed to Ukrainian. And most people in the east speak Russian as a first language.
 
As for his suggestion of having been in Crimea, that may be just another feint in the much wider information war being waged between Moscow, Kyiv and anxious neighbors looking on.
 
The Ukrainian state security service (SBU) issued what it said was an audio recording of a phone call among three men discussing the killing of an SBU officer near Slovyansk on Sunday. The three spoke in accents distinctive to Russia and their exchange suggested they had been involved in the incident.
 
Some armed men in Slovyansk identified themselves to reporters as Cossacks from the “Terek Wolf Hundred” - a name derived from a river in the Caucasus where their frontiersman ancestors guarded and expanded the empire for Russia's tsars.
 
Their descendants have provided freelance militia services to the modern Russian state - though others also took part in the overthrow of the Moscow-backed president in Kyiv.
 
Crimean Cossacks have played a prominent role in their own region backing the new, pro-Russian administration there. And in Donetsk, a spokesman for the separatist Donetsk People's Republic said Cossacks from Crimea were active in Slovyansk.
 
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Tuesday “Russia's hand is deeply engaged”. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted: “Ukraine is spreading lies that Russia is behind the actions in the southeast.”

You May Like

Sydney Hostage-taker Failed to Manipulate Social Media

Gunman forced captives to use personal Facebook, YouTube accounts to issue his demands; online community helped flag messages, urged others not to share them More

UN Seeks $8.4 Billion to Help War-Hit Syrians

Effort aimed at helping Syrians displaced within their own country and those who've fled to neighboring ones More

Who Are the Pakistani Taliban?

It's an umbrella group of militant organizations whose objective is enforcement of Sharia in Pakistan 'whether through peace or war' More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Will Pakistan School Shooting Galvanize Pakistan Against Extremism?i
X
Ayesha Tanzeem
December 17, 2014 11:54 AM
The attack on a military school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar left 141 dead, including 132 children. Strong statements of condemnation poured in from across the world. The country announced three days of mourning, and the leadership, both political and military, promised retribution. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem looks at how likely the Pakistani government is to clamp down on all extremist groups.
Video

Video Will Pakistan School Shooting Galvanize Pakistan Against Extremism?

The attack on a military school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar left 141 dead, including 132 children. Strong statements of condemnation poured in from across the world. The country announced three days of mourning, and the leadership, both political and military, promised retribution. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem looks at how likely the Pakistani government is to clamp down on all extremist groups.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.
Video

Video Turkey's Authoritarianism Dismays Western Allies

The Turkish government has been defiant in the face of criticism at home and abroad for its raids targeting opposition media. The European Union on Monday expressed dismay after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Brussels for criticizing his government's action. Turkey's bid to be considered for EU membership has been on hold while critics accuse the NATO ally of increasingly authoritarian rule. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video US-China Year in Review: Hong Kong to Climate Change

The United States is pushing for a code of conduct to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea as it works to improve commercial ties with Beijing. VOA State Department correspondent Scott Stearns reports on a year of U.S. policy toward China from Hong Kong to climate change.
Video

Video Japanese Leader’s Election Win Raises Potential for Conflict with Neighbors

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his allies easily won a two-thirds majority in parliament Sunday, even though the country has slipped into recession under his conservative policies. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Seoul, that the prime minister’s victory will empower him to continue economic reforms but also pursue a nationalist agenda that will likely increase tensions with Japan’s neighbors.
Video

Video Nuba Mountain Families Hide in Caves to Escape Aerial Bombings

Despite ongoing peace talks between Sudan's government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, or SPLM-N, daily aerial attacks continue in South Kordofan province’s Nuba Mountains. Adam Bailes was there and reports for VOA that government forces are targeting civilian areas, rather than military positions, with their daily bombardments.

All About America

AppleAndroid