Putin’s Crimean games
In the spring of 2014 the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, had indicated that Crimea is a “sacred place” for the Russian people and for the Russian Orthodox civilisation. His aggression in Ukraine began in Crimea and it appears that Crimea may be a key in his strategy again in 2016.
Alarming news is coming from Crimea. Russian and Ukrainian armies are deploying a mass of soldiers and conventional weapons to the administrative border between continental Ukraine and Crimea. Putin, the Russian FSB and the State Duma are at their highest alert. Both sides are blaming each other for the escalation. Russia has claimed that Ukrainians tried to enter Crimea and organise mass provocations. The situation could easily spin out of control. Experts and politicians have made historical analogies with the outbreak of the Georgian-Russian War in 2008, or even with provocations that led to the Second World War.
Since the annexation of Crimea the geopolitical situation has changed considerably. Ukraine remains under permanent crisis, ISIS is threatening millions of people not only in the Middle East or Turkey, but has sparked Islamophobia around Europe and North America. Omnidirectional challenges are becoming the new reality for the European Union.
The Crimean issue, however, remains at an impasse. The first mistake of western policy towards the situation was that Brussels could not manage to vindicate Crimea and the Crimean Tatars during the Minsk I and II negotiations (which were aimed to stop the violence in eastern Ukraine – editor’s note). Second, maybe the biggest miscalculation, is that the EU has not developed an appropriate strategy towards the Crimean Tatars who are facing human rights abuses in Crimea as EU sanctions policy are solely tied to the Minsk agreements, disregarding the Crimean Tatar situation.
This has provided a significant amount of leeway for Russia in implementing its hybrid regime in Crimea. The peninsula has essentially become a Russian laboratory for a new post-totalitarian society, and the Crimean Tatars are its main subject. At the same time, the indigenous people of Crimea are not eager to revolt against Russia’s presence in Crimea. They do not have any tendencies for bellicosity and they treasure their own well-being in Crimea despite repeated provocations by the Kremlin and organised mass searches and intimidations.
However, the current situation in Crimea points to the Russian FSB preparing a broad-scale operation, one which could lead to a dangerous destabilisation well beyond a local military standoff or sabre rattling between the two sides.
Spectacle and public hysteria
On August 8th 2016, rumours emerged of long queues at the border checkpoints for those trying to get to Crimea from other regions of Ukraine and vice versa. Allegedly, the Russian border guards closed the border without any explanation. It should be noted that the end of July and beginning of August is the peak of tourist season and despite the annexation, some Ukrainians still take family holidays in Crimea. Subsequently, hundreds of people from both sides were stopped and the guards informed that due to an “incident” in Armyansk in Crimea the border will be closed for four days. On social networks people were posting pictures and videos of Russian forces and military equipment amassing in Crimea.
According Ukraine’s border service the Russian border guards blocked movement to Crimea through the checkpoints at Chongar, Kalanchak and Chaplinka. People on the Crimean peninsula began hearing news about “war” and that “Ukrainians are coming”. The authorities in northern Crimean temporarily cut internet access for local inhabitants (and in some cities it remains cut today).
Any official explanation regarding what happened finally came on August 10th. Before then, it was only possible to learn about the rumours from the internet. The official versions differ. We learnt about a diversion by Ukrainian nationalists; clashes with criminal groups; a Crimean Tatar altercation; or a group of Russian army defectors trying to escape to Ukraine. Nevertheless the nervousness surrounding the news was fuelled by witnesses from both sides reporting a build-up of military equipment near the border and checkpoints being set up near larger cities.
The Ukrainian border guard noted numerous flights of Russian helicopters near the administrative border of the peninsula. Ukrainian politicians have expressed concern and some noted that Russian military drills are taking place on the border. Already on August 7th, the Russian television channel Lifenews published a short report stating that “during the night near Armyansk, Russian border guards clashed with a group of armed men in camouflage. One border guard was killed and three wounded.” The number killed is different depending on the source, but the FSB has officially recognised this version, claiming one was killed. The shelling was heard by locals and it was noted in social media as well.
Allegedly, the number of men who entered to Crimea changes, but the maximum indicated was more than a dozen people. Apparently, the group had made three attempts to break through the border from the Ukrainian side. In order to catch the perpetrators, the FSB announced operation “Krepost” (Fortress). A recent investigation by Ukrainian journalists, however, indicates that the Russian border guards had provoked an incident on the border and fired on the car of a local man. Apparently the local man survived being shot six times, while the border guards, who were allegedly drunk, fled their position in order to avoid justice. Notwithstanding where the truth lies, the Kremlin is keen to use this as a strategic advantage against Ukraine. It took three days for the story to come to light and only on August 10th was the Crimean spectacle introduce to the world.
Spectacle now on the international stage
In the official FSB explanation issued on August 10th, Russia directly blames Ukraine for terrorist activities: the “Russian FSB prevented in the Republic of Crimea a terrorist attack prepared by the chief directorate of intelligence of the ministry of defence of Ukraine”, reads the FSB statement. It goes on to accuse Ukraine of sending a “sabotage group” to conduct terrorist attacks on strategic infrastructure points in Crimea in order to destabilise the political and social situation ahead of Russia’s duma elections in September. Two Russians were killed and several injured in the clashes.
The Ukrainian ministry of defence has denied these accusations and pointed out that they are nothing more than a justification for greater militarisation of Crimea and aim to create an atmosphere of insecurity among the Crimean population.
The situation escalated further when Putin, during a press conference with the Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan, stressed three main points. First, he claimed the Normandy format “makes no sense, especially during the G20 summit in China.” Second, he considers the recent attacks on the head of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (one of the separatist states operating in Ukraine’s east – editor’s note) as part of a bigger operation by Ukraine’s special forces. Igor Plotnisky was injured in a bomb attack on August 6th. Third, Putin sent a public message to Ukraine’s western allies that the Ukrainian elite are choosing terror over negotiations in Crimea and Donbas. Putin concluded that that Russia “will not let such things pass”.
On the same day the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, rejected the Russian allegations calling them “cynical and insane” and expressed hope that “Russia will implement the security clauses of the Minsk accords including via the Normandy Four framework”. The next step for Ukraine is to demonstrate how dangerous the situation is. Poroshenko called Putin and the leaders of the Normandy format (Germany and France). He ordered all military units in the area on high alert. Additionally Ukraine called on the UN Security Council to address the situation and asked the OSCE to use its presence in the Kherson region (which neighbours Crimea) to send a monitoring mission where the incident had allegedly occurred.
Russia, however, sees the situation as a window of opportunity in order to halt the negotiations over the implementation of the Minsk agreements and continue its own strategy for the de-legitimisation of the government in Ukraine. If Russia could manage to demonstrate to some in the West that the Minsk agreements are pointless, they could argue that sanctions should be terminated, since they are tied to the Minsk accords, alleviating pressure on Moscow while at the same time putting Kyiv at a major geopolitical disadvantage.
The rapprochement between Putin and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on August 9th in St Petersburg also gave the Russian president some leeway for dealing with the “Ukrainian issue”. At the same time, western countries seem to be baffled on how to deal with the developing situation while recognising Russia’s fabrications regarding what really happened in Crimea.
Undoubtedly, the West needs Churchills and Roosevelts who are able to deal with possible spiralling geopolitical developments. There are some indications that Putin has something special planned for Crimea and Ukraine. After the downing of the Russian jet, Turkey paid a huge price for the incident. At that time two Russian airmen were killed; allegedly, two soldiers have died in Crimea. In both cases, Putin noted there would be “serious consequences.”
Ridvan Bari Urcostaisz a human rights activist, political scientist, and member of the Crimean Tatars International NGO “Bizim Qirim” in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine. He holds an MA in Political Science from Taurida National V.I. Vernadsky University.