Tensions have rapidly increased in Crimea, where ethnic Russians look east toward Moscow rather that north toward Kyiv for their heritage, and perhaps destiny. After several days of unrest in which the Crimean regional parliament declined to seek separation from the new government of Ukraine, several armed men seized the building and hoisted the Russian flag onto the roof. The new government in Kyiv warned Russia to keep its military forces in its Crimean base within the confines of the facility:
Armed men seized the regional government headquarters and parliament in Ukraine’s Crimea on Thursday and raised the Russian flag, alarming Kiev’s new rulers, who urged Moscow not to abuse its navy base rights on the peninsula by moving troops around.
“I am appealing to the military leadership of the Russian Black Sea fleet,” said Olexander Turchinov, acting president since the removal of Viktor Yanukovich last week. “Any military movements, the more so if they are with weapons, beyond the boundaries of this territory (the base) will be seen by us as military aggression.”
In response, Russian military jets began patrols near the Ukraine border, in addition to keeping its ground forces on alert status:
— Russian fighter jets were patrolling the airspace on their side of the border with Ukraine, and Russia’s military remained on alert. “Constant air patrols are being carried out by fighter jets in the border regions,” Interfax reported, quoting a Russian ministry statement. “From the moment they received the signal to be on high alert, the air force in the western military region left for the … air bases.” (Reuters)
— Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, “warned that any move by Russian troops off of their base in Crimea ‘will be considered a military aggression.’ ” (AP)
Also according to the AP, the now-deposed Viktor Yanukovich has surfaced in Moscow after disappearing from Kyiv. Yanukovich reportedly tried to get across the border almost immediately after fleeing the capital, but was prevented from flying out of Kharkiv by border guards. An arrest warrant for mass murder was issued shortly afterward, but Yanukovich had gone underground by that time. The AP update briefly notes that a Russian official announced that Yanukovich had asked for protection from Moscow and gotten it.
Yanukovich also declared himself the rightful head of state for Ukraine:
Viktor Yanukovich said on Thursday he was still president of Ukraine and warned its “illegitimate” rulers that people in the southeastern and southern regions would never accept mob rule.
In a statement sent to Russian news agencies from an unknown location, Yanukovich railed against the “extremists” who had stolen power in Ukraine, threatened violence against himself and his closest aides and passed “illegal” laws. …
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said he had no information and could not comment on Yanukovich’s statement.
Put this together and it looks like a pretext for action on Putin’s part. For the moment, he’s still playing his cards close to the vest; he’s agreed to sit down for IMF discussions on a Ukraine bailout to take the place of the one Putin suspended, for instance. Yanukovich is simply a clown show, though, as his credibility in Ukraine is shot, and Putin knows it. The Crimean peninsula will be the flashpoint for any action, and it’s not long odds on Ukraine losing it, either diplomatically or otherwise. The new government in Kyiv can’t sustain a war against Russia, and the EU won’t attack Putin on their behalf. They could well isolate Putin economically, though, and he knows it, especially if they begin buying natural gas from the US or developing their own through expanded fracking.
Update: The Ukrainian parliament has officially chosen its new prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who received 371 out of 450 votes. Yatsenyuk declared that Ukraine’s future is in the EU, but we’ll see what Russia has to say about that.