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

    New EU Asylum Rules Could Boost Rightists

    New regulations will seek to correct EU failures in dealing with migrant crisis, most notably inability to get member states to absorb a total of 160,000 refugees

    More Political Turmoil Likely in Iraq as Iran Waits in the Wings

    Analysts warn that Tehran, even though it may not be engineering the Sadrist protests in Baghdad, is seeking to leverage its influence on its neighbor

    Forced Anal Testing Case to Appear Before Kenya Court

    Men challenge use of anal examinations to ‘prove homosexuality’; practice accomplishes nothing except to humiliate those subjected to them, according to Human Rights Watch

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Rulingi
    X
    May 03, 2016 5:16 PM
    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Ruling

    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Painting Captures President Lincoln Assassination Aftermath

    A newly restored painting captures the moments following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. It was recently unveiled at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where America’s 16th president was shot. It is the only known painting by an eyewitness that captures the horror of that fateful night. VOA’s Julie Taboh tells us more about the painting and what it took to restore it to its original condition.
    Video

    Video Elephant Summit Results in $5M in Pledges, Presidential Support

    Attended and supported by three African presidents, a three-day anti-poaching summit has concluded in Kenya, resulting in $5 million in pledges and a united message to the world that elephants are worth more alive than dead. The summit culminated at the Nairobi National Park with the largest ivory burn in history. VOA’s Jill Craig attended the summit and has this report about the outcomes.
    Video

    Video Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroad

    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Ethiopia’s Drought Takes Toll on Children

    Ethiopia is dealing with its worst drought in decades, thanks to El Nino weather patterns. An estimated 10 million people urgently need food aid. Six million of them are children, whose development may be compromised without sufficient help, Marthe van der Wolf reports for VOA from the Metahara district.
    Video

    Video Little Havana - a Slice of Cuban Culture in Florida

    Hispanic culture permeates everything in Miami’s Little Havana area: elderly men playing dominoes as they discuss politics, cigar rollers deep at work, or Cuban exiles talking with presidential candidates at a Cuban coffee window. With the recent rapprochement between Cuba and United States, one can only expect stronger ties between South Florida and Cuba.
    Video

    Video California Republicans Weigh Presidential Choices Amid Protests

    Republican presidential candidates have been wooing local party leaders in California, a state that could be decisive in selecting the party's nominee for U.S. president. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports delegates to the California party convention have been evaluating choices, while front-runner Donald Trump drew hundreds of raucous protesters Friday.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Football Team Helps War-Torn City Cope

    With the conflict still raging across much of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, between the rebel PKK and the Turkish state, many Kurds are trying to escape the turmoil by focusing on the success of their football team Amedspor in Diyarbakir. The club is increasingly becoming a symbol for Kurds, not only in Diyarbakir but beyond. Dorian Jones reports from southeast Turkey.
    Video

    Video ‘The Lights of Africa’ - Through the Eyes of 54 Artists

    An exhibition bringing together the work of 54 African artists, one from each country, is touring the continent after debuting at COP21 in Paris. Called "Lumières d'Afrique," the show centers on access to electricity and, more figuratively, ideas that enlighten. Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, the exhibition's first stop.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora