Russia continues to deny that the armed and uniformed men who have taken control of the Crimean Peninsula are under Russian control. The men wear camouflage uniforms that have no insignia on them. These men speak Russian and the Russian government describes them as a local self-defense force. The agreement with Ukraine allowing Russia to use a naval base in Crimea until 2046 allows Russia to station up to 25,000 military personnel in Crimea. Russian says these troops have stayed on their bases. The militiamen have surrounded Ukrainian military bases in Crimea and threatened to open fire on any Ukrainian troops who try to get in or out of these bases.
Ethnic Ukrainians are a minority in the “Autonomous Republic of Crimea” (created by the 1996 Ukrainian constitution). The two million people living in Crimea are 12 percent Crimean Tatars. These are descendants of Mongol and Turk troops that invaded the region in the 13th century. The invaders blended in with the existing inhabitants, who were a mélange of Greeks and even more ancient peoples who had been there for thousands of years. The Tatars became Moslem in the 14th century. Eventually the Ottoman Turkish Empire took control of Crimea but that was lost in 1775 when the Russian Empire drove the Turks out. Most Tatars fled to Turkey and elsewhere. Ukrainians and Russians moved in. When the communists took over in the 1920s they proceeded to kill or deport half the Tatars remaining in Crimea. The communists didn’t trust the Tatars. In 1944 all remaining Tatars were moved to Central Asia and while that expulsion was revoked in the late 1960s Tatars only began returning after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The communists believed that the Tatars had collaborated with the invading Germans, and some did, but no more than other non-Russians. Today 24 percent of Crimeans are Ukrainian and 58 percent are Russian.
In Ukraine ethnic Ukrainians are the majority in most provinces, even those in western Ukraine that have the largest Russian minorities. Many Russians believe that Ukraine should be part of Russia, or at least parts of Ukraine should be. All this is connected with the bitter memories of the 13th century Mongol conquest of Russia (Moscow and north to Novogorad) and most of Ukraine and Belarus). This included the destruction of many major cities like Ryazan, Kolomna, Moscow, Vladimir and Kiev, which were all rebuilt, but some others were not. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the Russians and Ukrainians managed to win back most of their territory. Meanwhile the Turks from the Ottoman Empire (centered in modern Turkey) were moving north and it took until the 19th century to push the Turks out of what became the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. All this is vividly remembered in Russia and is one reason why a lot of Russians want their empire back.
Ukraine and the West is angry about how Russia is so blatantly violating a 1994 agreement in which Ukraine allowed the ICBMs and other nuclear weapons based in its territory to be removed and destroyed. In return the West paid for it all and everyone (Russia and Western nations) agreed to never try and take territory from Ukraine. This clause was meant mainly for Russia and at the time there were many Ukrainians who wanted to hold onto the nukes (despite the enormous costs and technical problems) as a way to discourage Russian from trying to regain control of Ukraine. It is because of this agreement that Russia is making an effort to hide its role in the takeover of Crimea. Some of the uniformed men who took control of Crimea are apparently locals, but the core of this “local militia” are men with obvious military training and who have been using those skills recently. Some may be civilian contractors (which Russia exports to some parts of the world) and some are probably Russian special operations troops. Russia also got former Ukrainian president Yanukovych to write a letter requesting Russian military assistance in Crimea. Yanukovych insists he is still president of Ukraine and the Russians agree with this as well as providing Yanukovych with sanctuary and protection from prosecution for crimes he is accused of in Ukraine. Yanukovych was the Russian Plan A, what is going on in Crimea is Plan B. The 11,000 Russian troops stationed in Crimea are mostly support personnel for the naval base. The exception is 2,000 marines. In the last week another 7,000 troops, mostly infantry and special operations forces were flown in or arrived by ship.
All this is right out of the old Soviet playbook, where the communists rarely took direct control of a newly conquered territory but got locals to be figureheads who answered to Russia. That all fell apart between 1989 (when the East European nations Russian taken control of after World War II broke away) and 1991 (when the Soviet Union itself fell apart and most of the unhappy non-Russians forced to be part of the empire got their freedom). Russia is trying to use the old techniques to get their empire back. That’s not working out so well, although there have been some minor successes.
The last time Russian invaded a neighbor that used to be part of the Soviet Union was in 2008 against the tiny state of Georgia in the Caucasus. Russia admitted that its forces were there and suffered 350 casualties during the August 8-24 operations. This included 64 dead and three missing. Georgian casualties were higher. Through the end of 2008 Russian troops in the south Caucasus continue to allow local militias to cause mischief in Georgia. Militia gangs in South Ossetia fired, and sometimes moved, across the border into Georgia. But if the Georgians fired back, or chased the militiamen into South Ossetia, they risked clashing with Russian troops. Russia was still punishing Georgia for not showing proper deference to Russia. This is something that is happening to all of Russia's neighbors who used to be part of the Soviet Union. Russia learned from the experience in Georgia, where its troops performed poorly and much of the world condemned this blatant act of aggression.
After the 2008 Georgia invasion Russia took over border security in South Ossetia (population 50,000) and Abkhazia (population 200,000), two areas formerly part of Georgia. In 2009, these two ethnic separatist areas declared themselves independent, but they have actually become part of Russia. Georgia has a population of 4.6 million, and a hostile relationship (going back centuries) with Russia. Now Georgia has to live with the fact that Russia annexed six percent of its population and territory and no one can do anything about it. This annoys the UN but Russia pays no attention to any criticism of its actions down there.
In 2009 Russia accused Ukraine of directly participating in the 2008 Georgia fighting. At that point Ukraine began getting nervous about the increasing pressure from Russia. The nightmare scenario became a Russian operation to reclaim Ukraine, or parts of it initially, as part of the "Russian Empire." The U.S. has lost its enthusiasm for letting Ukraine join NATO, thus leaving Ukraine on its own to deal with Russian aggression. With Ukraine Russia is trying to avoid the mistakes it made in Georgia.
Russia has long claimed ownership of the port of Sevastopol (the home of the Black Sea fleet) on the Crimean peninsula. The Russians lease the land, and provide jobs for some 20,000 Ukrainians. Russia considers the base sovereign Russian territory similar to a foreign embassy. Prominent Russians frequently and publically demand that Sevastopol become a part of Russia. The Ukrainians have always refused to even discuss this. The Ukrainians have always regarded Russia as a bully for this attitude towards Ukraine. Many senior Russians (including president Putin) openly claim that much of Ukraine actually is Russian territory. This includes Crimea and much of eastern Ukraine (where most of the industry and Russian speaking population is). The Russians make the case that these areas were conquered by Russia after Russia took control of Ukraine and were only incorporated into Ukraine during the Soviet period for convenience, not to recognize what territory an independent Ukraine would have. Most of the Russian speaking Ukrainians want to remain part of Ukraine, but with a little more respect shown for ethnic minorities, like Russians and the Tatars in Crimea. The official Russian line is that Western agitators and agents are behind all the unrest in Ukraine. But the Russians have been saying that for over a century and still the Ukrainians resist. Meanwhile (since 2003) construction has been under way at Novorossiisk, on the east coast of the Black Sea (in Russian territory) to build an alternative to the old Soviet base of Sevastopol that is rented from Ukraine.
In Crimea the “Russian” troops are trying to coerce or persuade Ukrainian military commanders and government officials to defect to the newly declared independent Crimea. This is all right out of the old Soviet playbook and the Russians will get away with, for a while at least. The old playbook is full of tried and tested techniques for conquerors. Russia apparently is not worried about the threat of economic sanctions. Although dependent on exports of oil and natural gas, Western Europe is also vulnerable because a quarter of their natural gas comes from Russia, via Ukraine. Alternatives to this piped in gas are expensive. Fracking to tap local supplies is an unpopular option but that would take years. In the meantime Russia is forcing the West to subsidize Ukraine.
In response to the current situation Russia has raised the price for natural gas it sells to Ukraine and cut off financial aid that former president Yanukovych had negotiated (in return for more Russian influence in how Ukraine was run). The U.S. and the West have promised nearly $20 billion in financial aid but no direct military assistance to help Ukraine keep the Russians out. Meanwhile Russia can continue using the old Soviet playbook to take away other parts of Ukraine, especially in the western part of the country. The UN will make ugly noises but Russia has a veto in the UN and will use to block any UN interference with its Crimea operations.
The EU (European Union) imposed economic sanctions on former Ukrainian president Yanukovych and 17 of his associates. Yanukovych is believed to have stolen large amounts of money from the Ukrainian government. This became obvious when protesters invaded Yanukovych’s palatial estate outside Kiev and found that the cost of putting this estate together was far more than Yanukovych made as president, or before he became president.
March 5, 2014: In Crimea pro-Russian militiamen seized two Ukrainian air defense missile battalions. The militiamen have fired a few warning shots at Ukrainian troops who tried to take control of their heavy weapons (or aircraft, armored vehicles or ships) and the Ukrainians have backed off. Apparently the Ukrainian government has ordered its troops in Crimea to avoid bloodshed.
March 4, 2014: Another Topol M ICBM, an RS-12M model, was successfully test fired. This model was Russia's first solid fuel ICBM, and the first (and so far only) mobile (via truck or railroad) ICBM. Test firings are essential to make sure older missiles will still fly or to test new features. Russia said the RS-12Ms had been equipped with new capabilities to deceive anti-missile defenses.
March 3, 2014: Ukraine ordered its military reserves to report for active duty and put the military on high alert. There is not much danger of a Russian invasion of Ukraine because Ukraine can deploy over a quarter million active duty and reserve troops. Russia still has a largely dysfunctional armed forces with fewer than 100,000 troops (paratroopers and special forces) that they can really rely on. Russian military staffs are quite good at calculating the “correlation of forces” for an operation and predicting the probability of success and that math does not look good when it comes to invading Ukraine. The Russians Stavka (general staff) famously warned against going into Afghanistan in 1979 on the grounds that the lack of roads and railroads there prevented Russia from putting enough troops (the “correlation of forces”) into Afghanistan to quickly crush opposition. Russian political leaders ignored this and less than a decade later withdrew from Afghanistan because the general staff had been right. Russia could make the same mistake again, but that is not likely.
March 2, 2014: The head of the Ukrainian Navy has been fired because he defected to the Russians.
March 1, 2014: Russia has begun licensed production of the Israeli Searcher 2 UAV. This comes after seven years of negotiations and user trials by Russian troops. The Searcher 2 is a half-ton aircraft with an endurance of 20 hours, max altitude of 7,500 meters (23,000 feet) and can operate up to 300 kilometers from the operator. It can carry a 120 kg (264 pound) payload. In 2012 Searcher 2 was tested in northern Russia during cold weather and performed well despite extremely colder temperatures (especially on the ground, where it got to -30 Centigrade). The Russian Air Force now has at least six Russian made Searcher 2s and is expecting to receive a lot more from the Russian factory.
February 28, 2014: Russian electronics technicians took control of TV and telephone facilities in Crimea and cut all landline and Internet links for Crimea and hacked into nationwide cell phone systems to block the cell phone service of some Ukrainian government officials and put wiretaps on many others. Ukrainians hackers and engineers fought back but the Russians appear to have the edge.
February 27, 2014: In Crimea armed pro-Russian “militia” seized buildings used by the local Crimean government.
February 26, 2014: Russia announced training exercises for troops near Ukraine and unannounced inspections of military units to assure their readiness for combat. Russia also said it was seeking overseas bases for its troops and was talking to several countries about this. In the United States the intelligence agencies warned senior U.S. officials that Russia had moved additional troops, aircraft and ships into position for rapid movement into Ukraine. This was described as a continuation of moves the Russians had begun making since late last year when the Ukrainian unrest seemed likely to go on for a while.
February 24, 2014: Ukraine issued arrest warrants for ousted president Viktor Yanukovych. Russia declared the ouster of Yanukovych to be illegal.
Russian officials disclosed that Algeria will order two more Kilo class diesel-electric subs. In late 2013 Algeria received the two Russian Kilo class boats they ordered in 2009. The Kilos weigh 2,300 tons (surface displacement), have six torpedo tubes and a crew of 57. China, India, Vietnam and Iran have also bought Kilos. Nearly 60 Kilos have been built or are under construction.
February 23, 2014: In Ukraine parliament repealed a 2012 law that made other languages official languages (you could do public business in those other languages) if more than ten percent of the people in a province spoke that language. This was something Russia wanted because Russians are more than ten percent of the population in most of the eastern provinces. The law also affected Hungarian, Moldovan and Romanian speakers in some far western provinces.
In Sochi the Winter Olympics concluded. This was a success for Russia as none of the threatened Islamic terrorist attacks occurred.
February 22, 2014: In Ukraine 73 percent of the members of parliament voted to oust president Viktor Yanukovych. Many long-time allies of Yanukovych voted to oust the president. Yanukovych fled the capital yesterday after several days of snipers firing on demonstrators, apparently on the orders of Yanukovych. This sudden move came as a surprise to Russia and the West because the EU had worked out a deal where Yanukovych would relinquish some power and new elections would be held. Yanukovych would not be prosecuted and Russia could continue to meddle in Ukrainian politics until it found another Yanukovych (to become a pro-Russian president). The Ukrainian people had other ideas and the parliament understood and acted on the popular will.
China and Russia surprised everyone yesterday and went along with a UN resolution calling for the Syrian government and the rebels to provide access for humanitarian aid throughout Syria. To make this happen the UN had to, at Russian and Chinese request, take out clauses calling for war crimes, largely committed by the government, to be punished. There is massive support in the UN for this resolution, especially the part calling for free access to all parts of Syria so that UN sponsored aid can reach Syrians in need. The main obstacle to this resolution being adopted has always been a Russian veto. China usually vetoes the same Syrian resolutions Russia does but is believed to be following the Russian lead here. In three previous attempts Russia and China blocked a similar resolution. This change of heart is believe the result of the belief that Iranian and Russian aid have put the Assad forces in a position to eventually win the war with the rebels. So now Russia can afford to be merciful, although this resolution will not make Syrian roads that much safer, not with all the disagreements between rebel groups and local militias (both pro and anti-government).