Moscow promotes agenda of fear and loathing in Crimea

A protester holds a modified magazine cover depicting Russian president Vladimir Putin during a march opposing the Russian incursion in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv yesterday. Photograph: Uriel Sinai/The New York Times

A protester holds a modified magazine cover depicting Russian president Vladimir Putin during a march opposing the Russian incursion in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv yesterday. Photograph: Uriel Sinai/The New York Times

 

For months, Russia told Crimeans to fear Ukraine’s revolution, and now it has sent in troops to calm that fear.

Casting himself as defender of the Russian nation and its historic lands, Vladimir Putin is making a land-grab by the Black Sea. And it may not end with Crimea.

On Saturday, Russia’s parliament empowered Putin to send troops into Ukraine to “protect the lives of citizens of the Russian Federation. until the normalisation of the sociopolitical situation” there. That may mean, Ukrainian analysts fear, until the new pro-EU government that Putin calls illegitimate is toppled.

In August 2008, Putin sent his military into Georgia to protect Russian lives.

Then, Georgia gave Putin a pretext for the invasion by launching a military operation to reclaim its separatist region of South Ossetia.

Putin said Russian peacekeepers and citizens were dying in the province, so he ordered an invasion. Moscow’s troops are still in South Ossetia today, and in another Georgian region, Abkhazia. Russia recognises both as independent states.


Instilling alarm
In Crimea, however, there has been no serious violence.

Instead, there has been a drive by the Kremlin and its local allies to generate a crisis by whipping up fear among Crimea’s ethnic-Russian majority and fuelling demands for Moscow’s intervention.

Russian officials and state television, which is widely watched in Crimea, portrayed Ukraine’s uprising as a neo-Nazi pogrom against the country’s millions of Russian-speakers.

The Kremlin and its broadcasters focused relentlessly on the violence that ultimately bloodied three months of mostly peaceful protests, and on the ultra-nationalist views of some groups in the Maidan movement – which actually include many Russian-speakers in their ranks.

There is no evidence to support Moscow’s claim that violent far-right thugs were preparing to descend on Crimea and largely Russophone eastern and southern Ukraine. But Ukraine’s parliament handed a propaganda gift to its critics last week by lowering the status of the Russian language.

Members of the new government criticised the move and the acting president subsequently vetoed it.

The damage was done, however. Many people in Crimea are now genuinely scared of Kiev’s new authorities, comparing them to nationalist guerrillas who sometimes fought alongside the Nazis against the Soviets in 1940s western Ukraine, as part of their bid to create a sovereign state.

They also fear the new western-leaning Ukraine will sever ancient ties with Russia that are particularly strong in Crimea.

Late last week, Moscow and Crimean leaders moved quickly to exploit rising alarm.

On Thursday, the region’s parliament called a special session to debate moves to loosen ties with Kiev and appeal to Russia for protection.

Thousands of Crimean Tatars – who support the revolution and resent Russian meddling in Ukraine’s affairs – protested against the session.


Exaggerated unrest
Ethnic Russians opposed them, and punches and bottles were thrown. The session was ultimately cancelled, the Tatars went home, and Simferopol was once again quiet: predictions of mass unrest had proved unfounded.

Later, it emerged that an elderly man had died of a heart attack in the crowd and a woman had been crushed to death.

But Russian television continued its near-hysterical coverage of events in Ukraine: one major evening news show claimed falsely that three people had been stabbed to death at the protest.

That night, gunmen stormed Crimea’s parliament. They did not identify themselves but spoke Russian and told locals not to be afraid – they were their allies.

The next day, the gunmen invited deputies to hold their postponed session in the besieged and barricaded assembly. The politicians insisted the vote was perfectly normal and that the gunmen were just ensuring they could work normally. Tatar deputies refused to take part.

As the Tatar protesters had feared, parliament called a referendum on Crimea’s ties with Kiev and sacked the local prime minister, replacing him with Russian nationalist Sergei Aksyonov.

Aksyonov took power as more well-drilled, Russian-speaking gunmen seized two airports in Crimea, and military vehicles and Russian helicopters appeared throughout the region.

As with the men who stormed parliament, these apparent invaders were welcomed by Crimea’s leaders as a stabilising force. By Saturday morning, gunmen held key facilities in Crimea and Russian military vehicles were cruising its roads.


Russian troops
Despite Moscow’s alarming rhetoric, there had still been no serious clashes in Crimea between pro- and anti-revolution groups, or between Russians and Tatars. And the only people toting guns were the men whom locals regarded as Russian troops.

Over a few hours, however, Russian and Crimean leaders moved quickly to justify Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Aksyonov appealed to Putin to protect Crimea’s people, and Russia’s lower house of parliament asked Putin to take measures to defend the region “from tyranny and violence”.

Then Moscow’s foreign ministry claimed that overnight “armed people sent from Kiev” had tried to seize Crimea’s interior ministry in Simferopol, calling it an attempt to “destabilise the situation on the peninsula”.

In Crimea, however, no officials or media mentioned the raid. Outside the ministry itself, “self-defence” volunteers insisted the night had been entirely peaceful.

The glitch in Russia’s choreography changed nothing.

Within hours, the senate had backed Putin’s request to allow the deployment of troops in Ukraine.

Putin perhaps thought he had won the geopolitical tussle for Ukraine when then president Viktor Yanukovich rejected an EU association deal in November.

The revolutionaries changed that, however, and in ousting Yanukovich they turned Ukraine back to the West. Now Russia is using force to stop that happening.

Ukraine leaving Russia’s orbit would have been a heavy blow to Putin, and may have torpedoed his plans for a Eurasian union of ex-Soviet states.


Domino effect
If Ukraine became stable, democratic, pro-European and increasingly prosperous in the coming years, then it might encourage other Russian neighbours to break with Moscow.

Putin is no fan of people power. Seeing revolutionaries withstand deadly force from the state to oust a corrupt clique – on Russia’s very doorstep – appears to have been too much for him to take.

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