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

Video Protests Continue in Ferguson, Spread to Other US Cities

Missouri officials say deployment of more than 2,000 National Guard soldiers helps curb second night of rampant arson and looting in Midwestern town More

Video Ebola, Crackdown on Illegals Hit Business in Guangzhou

Chinese city has largest community of Africans in Asia More

Video Legendary Lebanese Actress, Singer Sabah Dies at 87

Music and film diva, affectionately called 'Sabbouha' by millions of her fans, performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, Royal Albert Hall in London, Olympia in Paris, Sydney Opera House in Sydney More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Changei
X
November 24, 2014 10:09 PM
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Mali Attempts to Shut Down Ebola Transmission Chain

Senegal and Nigeria were able to stop small Ebola outbreaks by closely monitoring those who had contact with the sick person and quickly isolating anyone with symptoms. Mali is now scrambling to do the same. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Mali on what the country is doing to shut down the chain of transmission.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid