Creeping Russia Takeover in Crimea Seen More Likely Than Assault
2014-02-28 18:50:03.16 GMT
(For more on the unrest in Ukraine, see EXT2.)
By Leon Mangasarian
Feb. 28 (Bloomberg) — A creeping Kremlin takeover of
Crimea by ostensibly local ethnic Russian forces is more likely
than a military assault on all or parts of Ukraine, U.S. and
European intelligence officials and analysts said.
The officials, who requested anonymity to discuss
intelligence matters, said Russian intelligence services have
maintained assets and sympathizers in Crimea, especially in the
port city of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
“Moscow knows an army invasion would cause too many
problems, so they’re operating just below the waterline to make
it look like a bottom-up movement led by ethnic Russians,”
Joerg Forbrig, a senior program officer at the Berlin bureau of
the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., said in a phone interview.
“They’re avoiding the impression of an open military
intervention, but that’s what it is.”
At the same time, the intelligence officials said, while
he’s kept a low profile so far, Russian President Vladimir Putin
still appears to view the crisis in Ukraine as a zero-sum
competition with the West. Putin told German Chancellor Angela
Merkel and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron in a phone call
today that the escalation of violence in Ukraine must stop, the
Kremlin said in an e-mailed statement.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he called Russian
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov today to discuss reports of
Russian military activity in Crimea. Kerry, speaking to
reporters in Washington, said he told Lavrov that “it is
important for everybody to be extremely careful nto to inflame
the situation.” Lavrov said that Russia doesn’t intend to
violate the sovereignty of Ukraine, according to Kerry.
Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said Russian
troops are “directly involved” in the Crimea as armed soldiers
occupied the region’s main airport in Simferopol. Interior
Minister Arsen Avakov said servicemen from the Black Sea fleet
blocked Belbek airport. Zerkalo Nedeli weekly cited a Crimean
official as saying eight Russian military helicopters landed on
“It would be a last resort if there are Russian casualties
in Crimea,” Forbrig said. “There could also be provocations
aimed at trigging a Russian intervention. Something might happen
at an office, a government building, to the infrastructure or
even an attack on a military memorial to create a pretext for
the Kremlin to move in.”
Russia will probably remain “just below that level” to
try to get what it wants, he said, adding that he doesn’t rule
out a larger-scale Russian invasion of Crimea or other parts of
Russia’s Crimean Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol,
established more than two centuries ago, allows Russian ships to
reach the Mediterranean in a day through the Bosporus instead of
the weeks it takes for the northern fleet, based on the Kola
Peninsula near the Arctic Circle, according to a report by
Christian Le Miere of London’s International Institute for
Strategic Studies, or IISS.
Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, when the USSR gave it
to Ukraine, then a Soviet republic. Russians comprise 59 percent
of Crimea’s population of about 2 million people, with 24
percent Ukrainian and 12 percent Tatar, according to 2001 census
data. Of the entire country’s 45 million people, 78 percent are
Ukrainian and 17 percent are Russian.
There’s precedent of Putin using the military on the
country’s borders to support its citizens. In 2008, Russia
routed Georgia in a five-day war over the separatist region of
South Ossetia, which has since declared its independence.
Moldova, on Ukraine’s southwest border, also has a pro-Russian
secessionist region, Transnistria.
“An all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine is probably
impossible because much of Russia’s military is in bad shape and
Ukraine is a huge country; it’s not like grabbing South
Ossetia,” Jan Techau, head of the Brussels office of the
Carnegie Endowment and a former research adviser at the NATO
Defense College in Rome, said by telephone.
Russia, which is holding military exercises with tanks and
warplanes near its border to Ukraine this week, began revamping
its army four years ago. The changes, which include shifting
from mass mobilization for a major conflict to a smaller, more
nimble force with a higher state of readiness, are still
incomplete, according to ‘The Military Balance 2014,’ published
by the IISS.
“Considerable work remains to be done,” the IISS said.
“Moves to create light, medium and heavy brigades remain at an
Russia’s conscription goals “are hard to meet” and the
target for 425,000 contract soldiers by 2017 is lagging as
soldiers fail to sign up in numbers needed, the report said.
There were 241,400 contract soldiers in 2013, the IISS said.
“It’s not clear that its troops would be in a state to
carry out an intervention in Ukraine even if the Russian
government wanted to,” Anna Maria Dyner, an eastern European
analyst at the Warsaw-based Polish Institute of International
Affairs, which advises Poland’s government, said in a telephone
Russia’s 2013 State Defense Plan puts the nation’s total
troop level at 80 percent of the planned strength of 1 million
soldiers, “the first official admission that armed forces” are
below the 1 million mark, the IISS said.
Ukraine has about 182,000 military personnel.
Russian soldiers in Ukraine are based only in Crimea and
aren’t supposed to move around without prior notification and
agreement from Ukraine’s government. The Black Sea fleet is the
second-smallest of Russia’s five naval organizations and
comprises a destroyer and a cruiser, minesweepers, submarines
and other vessels, the IISS says.
Dyner said economic concerns are an even bigger reason
discouraging Russia from overt intervention in Ukraine. The
Kremlin doesn’t have “a huge amount of money to spend on such a
big operation,” she said. More fundamentally, she added,
Russia’s slowing economy is a factor.
“Ukraine is an important gas transit country to Europe and
a conflict would probably damage pipelines, further harming ties
with the West,” Dyner said. “This would damage the Russian
economy, which is the last thing Putin wants right now, just as
they’re thinking about reforms amid weak growth.”
Ukraine is criss-crossed with Soviet-era pipelines that
carry about half of Russia’s deliveries of natural gas to
Europe. Russia’s state-run OAO Gazprom has a quarter of the
European market. Putin has used natural gas to pressure Ukraine,
and Russia halted gas flows to the country in 2006 and 2009 amid
disputes over prices and volumes, leading to shortages
In the latest crisis, Russia offered cheaper gas to bolster
pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych before his ouster.