Thursday, February 27, 2014


Putin moves to carve up Ukraine if he can get away with it.

Crimean War Games.


As to how Vladimir Putin might respond to his humiliation last week in Ukraine, the answers came in rough and rapid succession on Thursday. At least the U.S. and the European Union can't harbor any more doubts about the Russian president's intention to provoke a possibly violent conflict in Europe.

Overnight in Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, dozens of armed and well-organized men overpowered guards at the autonomous region's parliament and regional government and raised a Russian flag above both buildings in the capital Simferopol. Seven armored personnel carriers attached to Russia's Black Sea Fleet at the same time left their base outside the capital but turned back once the occupiers were safely inside. Separately, Crimea's elected parliament voted to hold a referendum on the region's "status" in May. The operation had the trademarks of Russian special forces.

Later in the day, Ukraine's deposed President Viktor Yanukovych emerged from nearly a week out of view with a declaration to two Russian state-run news agencies. Calling himself the "lawful" leader of Ukraine, he wrote, "I am compelled to ask the Russian Federation to ensure my personal security from the actions of extremists." Russia appeared to oblige. A Yanukovych press conference is scheduled for Friday in a southern Russian city.

Mr. Yanukovych fled Kiev last Friday after his allies and security services abandoned him. Parliament then voted him out of office. Prosecutors want to try him for the murder of some 100 protesters. The evidence of corruption that has since been uncovered has turned him into the Ukrainian Bokassa, complete with a golden throne for a toilet at his private residence outside Kiev.

Mr. Putin isn't picky about his company. Mr. Yanukovych may be a pawn-in-exile in the Russian's game of destabilizing Crimea, and perhaps also the eastern, Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine that were the ousted leader's political base. The Ukrainian turned on the protesters with live ammunition last week at Moscow's behest and with direct help from Russian military advisers, as documents found in the aftermath of his downfall show. Mr. Putin might figure that if he lets Mr. Yanukovych's ouster stand now, he could lose his sway over his authoritarian comrades in Belarus and Central Asia too.

As long feared, Crimea has become the flashpoint for conflict between the two large neighbors. A majority of Crimea's residents are ethnic Russians, but a significant Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar minority lives there. The region has long been sleepy, but a pro-Russian demonstration was held last weekend and on Wednesday the Tatars put on a larger counter-protest. Now there are reports of "volunteers" headed to Crimea from Russia and armed checkpoints on important access routes in the peninsula manned by Russian loyalists.

This manufactured crisis catches Ukraine at its most vulnerable moment. A transition cabinet was only voted in on Thursday in Kiev. The interim president, who took over Sunday, warned against "military aggression" and told Russian troops to stay in their bases. Ukraine has police and other security forces in Crimea. But the troubles there distract Ukraine's new rulers from making good on promises to clean up government and save a sinking economy. As Mr. Putin no doubt intends.

The Kremlin is testing the Western response as much as Ukraine's. Mr. Putin saw that Washington and Europe did little to help Georgia when Russia invaded in 2008 and were phlegmatic during Ukraine's three months of protests. This week's moves suggest he is now contemplating a territorial carve up of Ukraine, which is one way to ensure it stays out of the EU and NATO.

It would be out of character, but President Obama could put Mr. Putin on notice that he would pay a considerable price for doing so. The ruble hit new lows this week and Russia's economy is vulnerable to Western sanctions. Any violent provocation in Ukraine, a European state of 46 million, should render Russia unwelcome at the G-8 and other civilized places.

As an authoritarian leader, Mr. Putin is unpredictable. But he can de-escalate as easily as he decided to confront the new Ukrainian government this week. The problem is that on every front, whether missile defense in Eastern Europe or Syria, this White House has yielded to his wishes and never given him a reason to respect American will. A tweet from NATO headquarters and a statement from Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday about Crimea won't change that.

The future of democracy in Ukraine, and as of Thursday perhaps peace in Europe, is on the line here. The Obama Administration finally awakened to the Kremlin challenge on Ukraine in the last two weeks, but now Mr. Putin is raising the stakes again. The alarm is ringing in Crimea. source

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Nothing can come from nothing.

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