Things are proceeding about as I expected in Ukraine, and in terms of Putin’s posture.
Readers will have heard about the Russian military exercise launched in the Western Military District involving “150,000 troops.” That’s a lot of troops, but I very much doubt they are all headed for Russia’s border with Ukraine. I do expect a build-up on that border, but something on the order of 20,000-30,000 is more like it, and it may not be that many. The 150,000 troops are, in any case, mostly stationed in western Russia to begin with. Some, especially elements like special forces, aviation, and missile units, will probably deploy from elsewhere to augment the Western Military District’s permanently stationed units.
Russia establishes a beachhead
Putin has an interest in being able to intimidate Ukraine, but he doesn’t want to have to invade Ukraine outright. That said, a flashpoint is shaping up on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, where ethnic Russians, who outnumber Ukrainians and ethnic Tatars approximately 2:1, have been staging protests against the events in Kiev. As noted in LU’s headlines last night, armed men of unidentified origin occupied the parliament building in the Crimean capital of Simferopol early on 27 February, barricading themselves and raising a Russian flag over the building.
Interpreting this poses an interesting question. We could assume that the armed men are ethnic Russian Ukrainians. They may be. But demographically, the ethnic Russians in Crimea – with its temperate seaside climate – tend to be older, and are not an obvious source of “private-enterprise” armed action. According to a Crimean Tatar leader, the armed men were seen driving up from the port of Sevastopol, where Russia headquarters most of her Black Sea Fleet under a long-term agreement with Ukraine. Crimean locals – Russian sympathizers – who had been preparing to besiege the parliament building before the men arrived said that the men did not identify themselves, but were armed with military-grade weapons and were clearly professionals.
It would be exactly in character for Putin’s Russia to seek to establish a friendly “protectorate” inside Ukraine, which would become a source of requests for military support, as well as a bargaining chip with whatever government emerges in Kiev. Crimea is the obvious place to do that: not only is its ethnic majority Russian, but its geography is uniquely convenient, having a long coastline on the Black Sea and being adjacent to Russian territory. We can assume that that’s what’s going on here. (Unsurprisingly, the Crimean parliament has today announced a plan to hold a referendum on the region’s political future, in light of the perturbations in Kiev. Again, such a vote would give Russia political cover for intervention.)
It is underestimating Putin, however, to assume that he means to invade Ukraine forthwith, in a crudely aggressive military move. The force build-up that has already started – special forces reportedly moved to Anapa (near Novorossiysk), unconfirmed reports of Russian troop movements inside eastern Ukraine, Russian jets patrolling the border, the probable deployment of multiple regiments of infantry to the border – will enable Putin to credibly threaten Ukraine. From his perspective, the ideal process would be inducing Ukraine, out of desperation, to make a stupid move, one that would give Russia cover for taking action – or, even better, would be leave the Maidan Ukrainians so overexposed that they would have to back down from it, and agree to a disadvantageous settlement.
The new government tries to get its bearings
The Maidan Ukrainians – I’m calling by that name the Ukrainian nationalists and all who support the bid for a unified Ukraine oriented toward Europe – have their own set of problems. It is grossly unfair and inaccurate to represent them as racist nationalists on the “Nazi” or “fascist” model, which is the Russian propaganda line. But neither are they united in a hardy republicanism that Americans would approve. There are some bad actors among them. Russia will make the most of that, and Western Europeans and Americans won’t be able to defend everything the struggling Maidan effort comes up with.
The Maidan Ukrainians have their work cut out for them. A nicely nuanced piece by WSJ’s Matthew Kaminski sums it up:
Ukrainians distrust, with good reason, the entire political class. Mr. Yanukovych wasn’t the only greedy or incompetent pol here. But the Maidan crowds can’t rule the country, and in the past five days, parliament has assumed that role. On Wednesday night, the names of those who would lead a proposed new transitional government were announced before thousands packed in at the Maidan. Some were booed, others were cheered.
Behind closed doors, the politicians are “trying to recreate the old system,” says Mustafa Naim, an Afghan-Ukrainian journalist, furious at the signs of deal-making by the same old faces. “You can see it in their eyes. We may need to go out on the Maidan again.” He says Ukraine needs to clean the whole political slate by scheduling a parliamentary election to coincide with the planned presidential vote in late May.
In the political unity sweepstakes, Russia and the ethnic Russians are ahead of the Maidan Ukrainians by several lengths. In the meantime, there’s a lot of breathless nonsense being rumored out there at the moment. We can assume there will continue to be. Some things to keep in mind are the following:
1. The defensive preparations – roadblocks, tank barriers – being set up in eastern Ukraine, especially Crimea, are defensive preparations. This isn’t a judgment about who is politically at fault for the crisis; it’s a statement of military reality. These barriers don’t mean Russia is about to attack. They mean Russia and her sympathizers in eastern Ukraine are hardening eastern Ukraine against the use of military force by the national government in Kiev.
2. Sevastopol is the main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. (Novorossiysk, east along the coastline in Russia, is a secondary base.) Sevastopol is where the amphibious landing ships have their home port, along with the Russian naval infantry units stationed on the Black Sea. There is nothing unusual about those forces being in Sevastopol. The Russian naval infantry units – the largest is the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade – have among them about 2,500 troops. That number is insufficient to most military tasks involving security or order in Crimea. Russia may send small detachments of them out to perform limited tasks ashore, but I suspect they will be held in reserve, for combined, doctrinal use if Russia does need to close a military pincer on central-government forces in Ukraine.
The U.S. response is still no response
3. The U.S. warships that were in the Black Sea for the Olympics are out of this fight. USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20), the Sixth Fleet flagship, arrived in Istanbul on 24 February for a port visit, and departed on the 27th, headed toward the Mediterranean. USS Taylor (FFG-50) remains in Samsun, Turkey through this morning, according to a (very garbled in translation, but ultimately intelligible) report from the Turkish maritime press. (Our colleague Devrim Yayli at Bosphorus Naval News also confirms Taylor remains in Samsun.)
Taylor has been undergoing repairs to her propeller after running it aground earlier in the month. The repairs were to be finished on the 24th, but Taylor’s commanding officer has also been relieved, which may figure into the frigate’s extended stay in Samsun. Besides her unsuitability as a platform for offshore presence in the Ukrainian crisis, Taylor is undergoing a crisis of her own, and won’t be a factor in U.S. policy.
(Note as well that NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, categorically declares that NATO has positioned no forces for a military response to the Ukraine crisis, and says the two American warships are on their way out of the Black Sea region.)
This is as good a place as any to note that the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) arrived in the Mediterranean on 22 February. She’s on the way to the Persian Gulf area to take station there. She’ll be relieving USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75), which has spent the last year maintaining constant-deployable readiness and has been forward deployed since July. As soon as an outlet like Debkafile is aware of Bush’s presence, we’ll probably start hearing wild speculation about Bush being a response to the crisis in Ukraine. Ignore it. Truman heading home to the East coast, via a Med transit, won’t be a response to the crisis in Ukraine either.
To round things out, the USS Bataan (LHD-5) amphibious ready group (ARG), with the 22 Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) embarked, has also arrived in the European theater. This deployment is also not in response to the crisis in Ukraine; it’s a scheduled rotation. Bataan has been operating off Portugal in the last several days.