Sunday, March 2, 2014

Ukraine Loses Grip on Crimea, Prepares for Open War with Russia; Role of Far Right in New Kiev Regime Unclear

The Russian Federation and the Republic of Ukraine seem to have passed the point of no return and are on the brink of open war this morning (March 2nd) in a conflict that began with a months-long street-politics movement that removed the elected but corrupt and authoritarian pro-Kremlin president last week and is becoming a face-to-face military struggle over Crimea, a predominantly-Russian autonomous region in Ukraine that was part of Russia until 1954.

Duma Gives Putin Green Light for Military Intervention in Ukraine
The Duma, Russia’s parliament, on March 1st resoundingly met President Vladimir Putin’s request for authorization to use military force to intervene in Ukraine, and Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, responded by ordering Ukrainian troops, including reservists, to “full combat readiness” and has called the Russian moves “a declaration of war.”

The Ukrainian and United States governments are unequivocal in describing the events in Crimea as a Russian invasion.  The U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, referred to “the Russian Federation’s invasion and occupation of Ukrainian territory.”  Russia’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, denies that such a thing has occurred.

Putin told Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations secretary general, and the U.S. president, Barack Obama, by telephone on March 2nd that he reserved the right to protect Russian-speakers and Russian interests if things became violent in Ukraine, including Crimea.  In the 90-minute-long conversation, Obama was able to threaten Russia with no more than “costs,” “risks,” and diplomatic isolation.

“Try and stop me” ...

It is hard for the U.S. or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to offer credible warnings, however, since both stood by and did nothing in 2008 when Putin invaded the Republic of Georgia, which was and is, like Ukraine, a NATO “partner” but not one of the full members of the alliance, among whom there is a mutual-defense pact.  In those events, Putin split off and established as “independent” puppet states two separatist regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in an often cited parallel to this week’s events.  Nor can America speak to Putin with much moral authority: the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 in a naked act of aggression on even flimsier pretexts than Russia is using now.  At least the Russian majority in Crimea—unlike Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction”—actually exist.

An equal amount of doublethink, to be sure, operates in the Kremlin.  In Russia, as per new legislation passed last year (as reported on at the time in this blog), it is illegal to advocate any kind of “separatism.”  To actually enable, let alone advocate, Crimean separatism in Ukraine, one must adopt—as Putin very nearly has—the line that Crimea is not actually part of Ukraine, perhaps that Ukraine itself is actually part of Russia.  (Russia formally, on paper, recognizes Crimea as part of sovereign Ukraine, but it remembers that that is only because Nikita Khrushchev, reputedly while drunk, transferred it from Soviet Russia to Soviet Ukraine with a stroke of the pen in 1954.  It has a Russian ethnic majority and is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.)

“I think I’ll slam back a few more of these and then swap some oblasts around just for shit and giggles."
Despite the precedent of inaction on Georgia, the interim Ukrainian government on March 1st appealed to the NATO with “a request to consider all options to defend the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.”  The North Atlantic Council, which governs NATO, is meeting today (March 2nd) to address the situation.  The Ukrainian parliament has also requested international help in securing their nuclear facilities.  (Like Kazakhstan, Ukraine ended up with some nuclear weapons in its territory after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991.)

Meanwhile, on the ground in Crimea itself ...

Russian Military, Mercenaries Control Crimea
Late last week, unidentified armed Russian-speaking men wearing no insignia took control of the Crimean parliament building and other government offices in Simferopol and also took control of the peninsula’s two major airports, while a Russian naval ship blockaded the harbor.  There was speculation as to the actual identities of these forces; they were clearly not an ad hoc mob, like ones that have been confronting protestors in Ukrainian cities for weeks now.  Some observers describe the occupying force as a military contracting security organization (i.e., mercenaries) operating under the orders of the Russian ministry of the interior, but it is also clear that they are being transported in vehicles bearing the plates of the Russian military associated with the leased military base in Sevastopol where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based.  The Ukrainian government says about 6,000 “additional” Russian troops are now in Crimea.

Russian irregulars patrol Crimea’s airports.
Russian authorities in Crimea are reportedly distributing Russian passports to members of the Berkut, the dreaded élite anti-riot police force under the command of the recently ousted pro-Kremlin Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, which the post-Yanukovych interim government has disbanded but which still seems to be involved in keeping order in Crimea.  There are other reports of Russian passports being distributed to ethnic Russians.  This was also a strategy used in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the run-up to the South Ossetia War in 2008.

The dreaded Berkut
In Crimea itself, the pro-Russian president of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, said that he himself was in control of all military and police in Crimea.  He also followed up an earlier promise of a referendum “on Crimea’s status” in May with a new promise for an explicit referendum on independence in only four weeks.  This follows the Crimean parliament’s refusal to recognize the newly installed pro-Western interim government in Kiev.

Sergei Aksyonov says he is now in charge of Crimea.
Local Crimean special forces presumably under Aksyonov’s command, armed with assault rifles, have established checkpoints on all roads connecting Crimea to the Ukrainian mainland and are flying Russian flags there.  According to the latest news reports, hundreds of Russian troops are headed from the leased Russian military bases in Sevastopol and headed to Simferopol, the Crimean capital.  Actual Russian military forces have, according to sources, been looting Ukrainian military facilities on the peninsula of their weapons.

The Crimean parliament building under Russian occupation
Also today (March 2nd) in Simferopol, according to Russian media, members of the Ukrainian military are abandoning their barracks and handing over their weapons to pro-Russian militias.  The Ukrainian ministry of defense denies that any of this is occurring.  To whatever extent it may actually be happening, it may be isolated responses to the reported recent statement by Ukraine’s acting minister of defense, Ihor Tenyuh, in a closed-door parliamentary meeting, to the effect that “Ukraine does not have the military force to resist Russia.”  At the very least, it is confirmed that Ukrainian forces are being ordered not to engage Russian troops directly until so ordered.

And just within the past hour or so, it has been reported that the new admiral in charge of Ukraine’s navy, Denis Berezovsky, who was appointed mere days ago, has pledged his allegiance not to Kiev but to the new pro-Russian regime in Crimea.  In a videotaped statement, he said, “I, Denis Berezovsky Denis, swear allegiance to the Crimean people and pledge to protect them, as required by military regulations.  I swear to take orders of Crimea and Sevastopol’s Supreme Commander” (i.e., Sergei Aksyonov).

Admiral Berezovsky has switched sides.
The Tatar Factor
The indigenous Crimean Tatars, who make up 12% of the peninsula’s population and are Turkic-speaking Muslims, have resolutely sided with the anti-Yanukovych and anti-Russian forces and support the interim government in Kiev.  Tatar leaders, who are guaranteed a certain number of seats in the Crimean parliament, claim that they have been barred from the chamber for the recent pro-Moscow resolutions there.  On February 28th, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, arrived in Kiev to meet with the chairman of the Mejlis (the mostly toothless “parliament”) of the Crimean Tatar People, Mustafa Abdülcemil.  The Mejlis does not recognize the new emergency governmental structures that Aksyonov has been setting up in Crimea.  This raises worries that Turkey may intervene militarily to defend the Tatars, a kindred ethnic group with deep historical ties, despite the fact that this would bring NATO (of which Turkey is a member) into direct confrontation with Russia.  Turkish government policy, though nominally democratic, is in the de facto control of its “deep state” military complex, which is always poised to stage a coup d’état if Turkish policies are not sufficiently jingoistic.

Role of Far-Rightists in New Ukrainian Government Unclear
The constant description of the new Ukrainian regime in Russian media and in most of the media available in the predominantly-Russian-speaking east and south of Ukraine is as “ultranationalists,” “Nazis,” “fascists,” and “Banderists.”  This last term refers to Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian ultranationalist who tried to form an independent Ukrainian state in opposition to Moscow as the Second World War was winding down.  Though he did accept help from Nazi Germany at times, Bandera was ultimately as despised by Adolf Hitler as he was by Josef Stalin, and many of his fellow ultranationalists died in Nazi concentration camps.  When Yanukovych was elected in 2010, the outgoing, anti-Moscow government declared Bandera a “hero of Ukraine,” an official designation that was rescinded after loud international condemnation, including by the European Parliament.  Russian national identity is fiercely bound up with what is considered its greatest moment, Stalin’s defeat of Hitler in what Russians refer to only as “the Great Patriotic War.”  Thus, it is easy to brand those who defy Moscow with anything like the anti-Stalin imagery or iconography of that era as “Nazis.”

Stepan Bandera is still a hero to many Ukrainians.
On the other hand, Ukrainian nationalism is fiercely defined by being anti-Russian, and anyone or anything that defied Stalin is liable to be held up as honorable by the Ukrainian ultranationalist fringe.  Thus, throughout the Euro-Maidan protest movement, the blue-and-yellow national flag of Ukraine has flapped alongside the more grim, swastika-like red-and-black heraldry of pro-fascist organizations that fought Stalin during the Second World War.  For Ukrainian ultranationalists, these flags are “anti-Soviet” and “anti-Russian” rather than “pro-Nazi” or “pro-fascist.”  Or are they?  It is unclear how much of a role far-right groups have played in the Euro-Maidan movement and are playing in the new Euro-Maidan-installed and -vetted Ukrainian interim government.  One thing is certain: these groups have exploded in popularity over the past few months, even if they are still a minority.  It is also difficult to evaluate the situation clearly, because anti-Yanukovych and anti-Putin sources are likely to downplay the role of rightists as they court Western sympathy and pro-Yanukovych and pro-Putin sources are likely to exaggerate it for the opposite reason.

Dmitry Yarosh (left) of the Rightist Sector
One of the more frightening new Ukrainian opposition groups has been the Rightist Sector (Pravy Sektor), whose leader, Dmytro Yarosh, recently called on Doku Umarov, the radical Islamist Chechen leader of the Caucasus Emirate terrorist organization, “to activate his fight” and “take a chance to win” and to take up arms against Russia on the side of Ukraine.  Yarosh pointed out that “many Ukrainians with arms in hand” supported the Chechen Republic’s failed wars of secession from Russia and “it is time to support Ukraine now.”  That kind of statement is unlikely to win the hearts of Western supporters.  Yarosh’s views may or may not be fringe, but his own role is not: he is a deputy secretary—or claims to be one—in Ukraine’s post-Yanukovych National Security and Defense Council (N.S.D.C.) and was prominent on the Euro-Maidan side of the negotiations that led to the transition in power.

Doku Umarov (center)—an ally of Ukraine’s far right?
TheRightist Sector considers itself a successor to Bandera’s “Trident” organization.  In one viral YouTube video, a Rightist Sector activist brandishes an AK-47 and declares, “The Right Sector was armed and will be armed till the time when it will be necessary.  You did not give us this weapon and you will not take it away.  Who wants to take away my machine gun, my pistol, my knives?  Let them try!  As Americans say, ‘God made every man different; Sam Colt made them equal!’  I will put aside my Kalashnikov only when order in Ukraine is restored.”

Other active far-right groups include Patriots of Ukraine, the Social-National Assembly, “Kyiv Organization’s ‘White Hummer,’” and the Ukrainian National Assembly–Ukrainian People’s Self-Defense (UNA-UNSO), a right-wing Ukrainian paramilitary founded by veterans of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan.

The Ukrainian far right.  The torches add a nice Transylvanian touch, don’t they?
Pro-Kemlin Mob Raises Russian Flag in Kharkov, Capital of Proposed “Malorossiya”
Pro-Russian rallies were held March 1st, and are ongoing, in various cities across Ukraine, especially ethnic-Russian-dominated ones such as Odessa, Dnipropetrovsk, and especially Kharkov and Donetsk. Donetsk is the capital of Yanukovych’s home oblast (province), where ethnic Ukrainians have only a tiny majority; Yanukovych is of mixed Polish, Belarussian, and Russian parentage.  Kharkov was the capital of the nascent Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic during the Russian Civil War in the late 1910s, when it allied itself against anti-Moscow republics formed in Kiev and other areas in western Ukraine.  It is the proposed capital of the separate republic of Malorossiya (“Little Russia”) that some Russian nationalists would like to establish in eastern and southern Ukraine (as discussed recently in this blog).  Kharkov was also Yanukovych’s first stop when he fled Kiev after his impeachment.

The scene in Donetsk this weekend
Andry Parubij, Ukraine’s new acting secretary of defense, says that the country’s N.D.S.C. (see above) has foiled attempts by foreign forces to foment uprisings in other oblasts of Ukraine similar to the one that has played out in Crimea.  At least one western oblast, Transcarpathia, formerly part of Czechoslovakia, tried to secede in 2008 on behalf of its Ruthenian and Hungarian ethnic minorities.  Ethnic Hungarians in Transcarpathia seem at least to be siding against the new government in Kiev.

Ukrainian founder of Femen seeks asylum in Switzerland
Anna Hutsol, the leader of the Ukrainian feminist guerilla-politics collective Femen, confirmed on March 1st that she was seeking political asylum in Switzerland.  The group, which has aligned itself with the dissident Russian punk band Pussy Riot and takes an aggressive anti-clerical, anti-puritanical, anti-patriarchal, and anti-Moscow stand.  Femen has also made some enemies among the opposition by siding resolutely against the until-recently-imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who was a hero of Ukraine’s pro-Western “Orange Revolution” of 2004 but who is regarded as corrupt as well.  During the Euro-Maidan movement, Femen has been based in Paris, but has run afoul of France’s laws against blasphemy and causing “offense,” which are nearly as harsh and arbitrary as Russia’s, though they tend not to be enforced by Cossacks with whips.  Hutsol has a sister who lives in Winterthur, in the canton of Zurich, but due to the fact that her visa is for France she may have to seek asylum there instead.  Hutsol said that it is too risky for her and her fellow activists to return to Ukraine.

[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it some time in 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

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  1. The black flag is used by Anarchists and Islamicists. Any ideas as to the symbolism of the Islamic black flag? The color of Islam is green, like the Saudi flag. I believe that the Madhi is supposed to arrive under a black banner. Is the black flag for radical messianists? Or is it a flag of war, like the Rising sun with the Rays.

    Also, why are the ladies of Femen always so hot? It seems to undermine the feminist message if they are auditioning for baudacious gazongas.

  2. Black is used in flags by lots of groups. It occurs as a matter of course in many sub-Saharan African and Caribbean flags and also in the flags of many far-right groups in Europe. Green is used in many Islamic flags, but sometimes black is thrown in to convey radical politics; pretty much all al-Qaeda and other salafist and jihadist flags are dominated by black. But there are exceptions: Cyrenaican nationalists in Libya are moderate Sufis but use black in their flag. There are no hard and fast rules.

  3. Great piece, Chris. Thanks for pointing out the Turkish connection, I had not contemplated that!

    So using a magic eight ball, what is the likelihood that with a weak Western response, Ukraine would become a new Yugoslavia, pulled apart into separate 'Republics' (Crimea, Malorussiya, Tartarstan, Transcarpathia, a rump state Ukraine, etc)? Would Putin favor a partition like that to grab eastern Ukraine and Crimea and ditch the feisty Europhilic western parts? I also wonder where the natural gas pipelines fit into this...

  4. I predict (and I could be wrong) not so much dissolution or dismemberment as being picked apart at the edges, as has happened to Georgia. There will still be a rump western-oriented Ukraine that includes Kiev and Lvov, but it will not include Crimea and may not include Donetsk or Odessa either. But we'll have to see. Putin would be satisfied with that, for the time being. (See the newest post, from this morning, for more on possible secessionist parts of the Ukrainian mainland.)

    I also think it's possible that we'll end up with a Tatar republic within the Crimean republic, maybe with some kind of international monitors. (The name Tatarstan is already taken!)


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