The Russian frame of mind is quite simple when it come to the Ukraine: the Ukraine is mine. That is how Russian President Vladimir Putin views the situation and, in Russia today, as Putin goes, so goes the nation.
The de facto Russian military occupation of the Ukraine’s Crimean region is a giant step toward a scenario that no one wants to live through. The star of that scenario is a much more belligerent Russian Republic, reminiscent of the former Soviet Union’s pugnaciousness.
Latest reports indicate that Russian troop transport planes and attack helicopters have landed illegally at two Crimean airports, and that Russian troops have “secured” a number of high value targets, including airports, seaports, and border crossings between Russia and Ukraine and between Ukraine and Crimea.
Public statements referring to “the territory of Ukraine,” and alleging the mistreatment of ethnic Russians in Ukraine as a rationale for Russian intervention, are strongly reminiscent of the scenario Adolph Hitler used to rationalize his annexation of parts of Poland, which was the event that triggered the Second World War. The key difference is , under this scenario, the objective is the restoration of a puppet regime Ukraine, rather than an outright annexation.
After two months of street demonstrations accompanied by escalating violence and 80 deaths, the Ukrainian parliament sent Ukrainian president Viktor F. Yanukovych packing by passing a resolution calling for his impeachment. Yanukovych fled the country, showing up days later in Russia, claiming to be the still-legitimate president.
Yankukovych’s ouster triggered a series of event that have included the movement of Russian troops to the border with Ukraine, the seizure of the Crimean capital building by armed Crimean insurgents, and some hard-faced saber-rattling from Russian President Vladimir Putin. The entire scenario is also reminiscent of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, when the Soviet Union’s military forces crushed a popular uprising that had overthrown the puppet regime of Mátyás Rákosi.
The current Ukrainian crisis is following the same script, beginning with a popular revolt against a Russian puppet and ending with Russian military repression. Communism may be officially defunct in Russia today, but that totalitarian frame of mine is still controlling the thinking of Russia’s leaders.
The 61 year-old Russian strongman takes great pains to maintain the image of a modern, democratic political leader but, under the surface, Putin is the latest in a long line of Russian dictators, a reincarnation of the Czars in plain clothes. That is why he went to the Russian parliament to ask permission to use Russian troops in the Ukraine, and that is why the parliament obligingly passed a unanimous resolution authorizing his request.
When the Soviet Union broke up into 12 independent nations in 1991, and its constituent parts went their separate ways, the loss of the Ukraine was the unkindest cut of all. The very name of the country itself indicates its status as a Russian vassal state. The word “Ukraine” means “borderland” and it was so named because it is the borderland between Asiatic Russia and its European neighbors, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia. With some of the most fertile farmlands in the world, a mild climate and a long growing season, the Ukraine was Russia’s bread basket and now ranks as the third largest grain exporter in the world. It was also where most of Russia’s nuclear arsenal was based so that, for a while after the breakup, Ukraine’s nuclear capacity outweighed the British, French and Chinese nuclear arsenals, until they sent Russia’s bombs back to them.
That’s not what Russians think about when they think about the Ukraine. What they think about is Russia’s Black Sea fleet, which is headquartered at Sevastopol in Crimea. The Black Sea fleet was long considered one of the Soviet Union’s greatest assets in the event of a limited war scenario, giving the Russian Navy excellent access to the nations watered by the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Ocean. Russian Air Force units have also been stationed in and around Sevastopol.
If push does comes to shove, the Ukraine’s are not going to be pushovers, with more than 200,000 troops and fully equipped arsenals stocked with Russian-built equipment. Interior lines of communication and short supply lines would make a determined Ukrainian army a tough nut to crack for Russia….and the Russians know it. Many of the Ukrainian military’s senior staff were trained in the Soviet military and, while Putin may want to pick this fight, his soldiers might not be so eager to face off against their former comrades and allies. Nevertheless, recent reports from Ukraine indicate that the Ukrainian army is neither equipped nor mobilized for a head-to-head confrontation with Russian forces.
Putin is making his moves on Crimea, where he already has a strong base of operations. The Crimeans themselves are primarily of Russian extraction by a three to one ratio, and already have independent status as an autonomous state within Ukraine, giving them a perfect right to invite the Russians in. Sevastopol is the back door into Ukraine, an access route for Russian forces.
From a strategic standpoint, grabbing up a sympathetic Crimea and cutting them out from Ukraine as an independent state allows Russia to continue in full control of its strategic basis in the face of a less amenable regime in Kiev. From a tactical standpoint, moving forces into Crimea puts the Ukrainians in the position of having to fight a two-front war, one on the border with Russia, and the other on the border with Crimea.
Right now, Russia has the upper hand militarily and diplomatically. Militarily, they have accomplished a fait accompli. Their troops are on the ground and in control of the situation. At this point, eastern Ukraine and Crimea are virtually occupied territories. The United States can, and will, huff and puff, but that is all the US can do. If Putin plays his cards right, he will succeed in reinstating a Russian puppet state in Ukraine. And that’s all he wants….right now.
By Alan M. Milner