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

Ebola Death Toll Nears 5,000 as Virus Advances

West Africa bears heaviest burden; Mali toddler’s death raises new fears More

Jordan’s Battle With Islamic State Militants Carries Domestic Risks

Despite Western concerns that IS militants are preparing a Jordanian offensive, analysts call the kingdom's solid intel a strong deterrent More

Asian-Americans Assume Office in Record Numbers

Steadily deepening engagement in local politics pays off for politicians like Chinese-American Judy Chu More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
October 25, 2014 4:21 PM
Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukraine

Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Comanche Chief Quanah Parker’s Century-Old House Falling Apart

One of the most fascinating people in U.S. history was Quanah Parker, the last chief of the American Indian tribe, the Comanche. He was the son of a Comanche warrior and a white woman who had been captured by the Indians. Parker was a fierce warrior until 1875 when he led his people to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and took on a new, peaceful life. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Cache, Oklahoma, Quanah’s image remains strong among his people, but part of his heritage is in danger of disappearing.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.

All About America

AppleAndroid