Map of the week
Ukraine’s Revolution and the incursion into Crimea
The situation in Ukraine remains tense following the incursion of Russian troops into the Crimean peninsula on 1-2 March. The region is of high strategic importance to Russia both due to its predominantly ethnic Russian population, and the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) naval base at Sevastopol.
On 27 February 2014, approximately 60 gunmen – without markings but heavily armed and apparently professionally trained – seized the Crimean parliament in Simferopol. Lawmakers were then summoned to the parliament and relieved of their mobile phones. Shortly afterwards it was announced that the incumbent Prime Minister Anatolii Mohylov had been removed from office and replaced by Sergei Aksyonov of the Russian Unity party, which holds three of the 100 seats in the Crimean parliament. On February 28, more unidentified gunmen seized Crimea’s airports, and a Russian missile boat from Russia’s BSF blockaded Balaclava bay. Subsequently, Russian reinforcements began to fly in to airbases throughout the peninsula, including infantry, attack helicopters and heavy artillery.
By 3rd March an estimated 6,000 Russian troops had been deployed to Crimea, reinforcing the 15,000 soldiers of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet already stationed in Crimea. The US government subsequently declared Russia had “complete operational control” of the peninsula. Russian forces have seized government buildings, civilian and military transport infrastructure, cut phone and internet service on the island and taken control of local media. Ukrainian garrisons on Crimea have been placed under siege though have thus far neither retaliated against Russian forces nor acceded to demands to lay down their arms and surrender.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin have maintained that Russian forces in Crimea are there solely to provide security to BSF facilities, and that other actions have been undertaken by local ‘self-defence’ units. During a live address on Russian television on 4 March, Putin defended Russian actions by declaring that ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych had requested Russian assistance. Putin rejected the legitimacy of the new government in Kiev, calling it an “unconstitutional takeover”. Referring to a Duma vote authorising him to use military force throughout Ukraine, Putin asserted that force would be a ‘last resort’. He did not rule out military action – further explaining that it would be pursued only for the protection of the Ukrainian people.
The political instability that has plagued Ukraine since November 2013 has been exacerbated by cultural and ethnic divisions. The former Party of Regions government under Yanukovych drew the bulk of its support from the Russophone east, whereas the Ukrainian speaking west of the country formed the electoral base of the opposition. Although integration with the European Union has traditionally drawn widespread support (as the map shows, anti-government ‘Euromaidan’ protests have occurred throughout the country), eastern Ukraine is also in favour of closer ties with Russia while the west is traditionally more nationalist. This has stoked eastern fears that the new government would be dominated by far-right extremists. Since the installation of Ukraine’s new provisional government on 27 February pro-Russian protests have occurred in the east of the country, and supporters of the new government have been attacked. To date, government buildings have been seized by pro-Russian protesters in Donets’k, Kharkiv and Simferopol in Crimea.
The Ukrainian authorities, at the state and federal levels, have so far reacted with restraint. Ukrainian forces in Crimea have not fired upon Russian troops, and while the Kiev government has ordered a general mobilisation, it has not made any moves to attack Russian forces. Kiev has called upon European Union and NATO observers to monitor the situation and render economic assistance. The US and European response has also been cautious. As of 4 March, the US has suspended plans to attend the G8 summit in June 2014 and put all military cooperation with Russia on hold. Economic sanctions are the most likely response. The US has threatened to impose sanctions on Russian natural gas, uranium and coal industries. The EU is believed to be more in favour of targeted sanctions, asset freezes and visa bans on key political and business leaders. The UK is believed to be reluctant to impose harsh sanctions,, due to the importance of Russian money to the London financial and property markets. The exact policy response from ‘the west’ is still uncertain at time of writing.