Putin’s war

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea has touched off a high-stakes, Cold War-style clash—one that Russia can’t afford to lose

Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

In the end, and despite three months of defiance, struggle and bloodshed, Ukraine’s revolutionaries had only a few days to savour the victory they believed they had won before it all started spinning apart in a wave of counter-protests and a Russian invasion of their country.

Now, following an armed intervention that was stealthily escalated, the entire Crimean peninsula is under the control of Russian forces, or of gunmen whose loyalty lies with Moscow. There have been violent clashes between pro-Russian protesters and supporters of Ukraine’s new, revolution-backed government in the south and east of Ukraine, including in Kharkiv and Donetsk, where pro-Russian protesters succeeded in storming regional government buildings. Most ominously, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought and received parliamentary approval to deploy troops anywhere in Ukraine—triggering fears of a wholesale attack.

Putin, in a rambling press conference this week, said there had been an “unconstitutional coup” in Ukraine, but bizarrely claimed he hadn’t yet sent Russian soldiers to the country. He said if he did so, it would be a “humanitarian mission” to protect people with close bonds to Russia.

Ukraine, which mobilized its own armed forces in response to Russia’s invasion, has not been so fragile since becoming an independent country in 1991. A protest movement that began against a decision—made by Ukraine’s recently ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych—not to sign an association agreement with the European Union, it has grown into a conflict that threatens to tear Ukraine apart.

It is a struggle about Ukraine’s political values and alliances: Those who rose against Yanukovych dubbed their movement “Euro-Maidan” because they want Ukraine to be close to Europe, and because their revolution was centred in Kyiv’s Independence Square, known locally as the Maidan.

But their uprising has also put Ukraine at the centre of a renewed Cold War-style clash pitting Russia against the European Union, Canada and the U.S. Ukraine is a country both sides want to count as a partner. For the European Union, a friendly and democratic Ukraine means a secure eastern border and enhanced trade opportunities. For Russia, Ukraine is a country with which it shares deep cultural and historic ties. And for Putin, a compliant government in Kyiv is key to his strategy of strengthening Russian influence in the old Soviet bloc. What’s becoming apparent is that he is prepared to do more to achieve his goals in Ukraine than are his Western adversaries.

Yanukovych first backed away from an association agreement with the EU in part because Russia was willing to give Ukraine $15 billion in loans. It bought Yanukovych’s loyalty. When protests drove Yanukovych from power and led to the establishment of a pro-Western government in Kyiv, Putin put away the carrots and took out his stick. A new interim government had not even been appointed in Kyiv before Russian armoured personnel carriers had left their bases and were rolling through Crimea.

These were only the opening moves. By Saturday, Russian troops had taken control of Crimea’s airports, and Russian helicopters buzzed the skyline. Unidentified gunmen seized the Crimean parliament in Simferopol. There, the newly appointed pro-Russian premier, Sergey Aksenov, claimed control over the region’s police and military units. Deputies in the parliament pledged to hold a referendum on Crimea’s status—likely a choice between outright independence, union with Russia or continuing to be part of Ukraine—later this month.

Ukraine’s Western allies have not yet responded with similar levels of assistance or force. While Russia was consolidating its control of Crimea last Friday, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird made a visit to Kyiv. He toured battle sites in Independence Square, where some 100 protesters and police died the previous week, and he praised the revolution’s activists and foot soldiers for what he called their inspiring courage. Then he announced the concrete help Canada was offering: $200,000 in medical aid.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper also warned of “ongoing negative consequences” for Canada-Russia relations should Russia’s military intervention continue, and Canada has recalled its ambassador from Moscow. The international response has been similar. The Group of Seven economic group—Canada, America, France, Britain, Italy, Germany and Japan—announced they would suspend participation in planning for a G8 summit scheduled to take place this summer in Russia. And American Secretary of State John Kerry has vowed that Ukraine’s Western allies are prepared to “go to the hilt” to isolate Moscow, warning of visa bans, asset freezes and sanctions.

But whatever Western measures eventually add up to, they won’t compare to a willingness to risk, or even invite, war—which is what Putin has already done. “You don’t understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state,” Putin once told former American president George W. Bush. Part of Ukraine is in Eastern Europe, Putin continued, “but the greater part is a gift from us.” Putin has now shown he meant what he said. Ukraine, at least most of it, is not an independent country. It belongs to Russia, and Russia can give it away, or take it back.

Wounded supporters of Ukraine's new government. (Reuters)

Wounded supporters of Ukraine’s new government. (Reuters)


“Of course, Russia will interfere. Russia has always been the older brother,” said Oleh Fylyk, a young professional wearing a flat plaid cap and a stylish scarf, as he stood outside Ukraine’s national parliament last week. “But it’s all in vain now. Now it’s all in vain.”

Fylyk predicted activists who led the uprising against the Russian-backed administration of Yanukovych would soon travel to Crimea and to the east of Ukraine, where many ethnic Russians live, and bring the revolution to them. “They will spread all the ideas that have been proclaimed here,” he said, “and the situation will change.”

He had reason then to be so hopeful about the revolution’s durability, and so nonchalant about what Russia might do to stop it. He was speaking during the brief period of optimistic calm following Yanukovych’s ouster.

The former president’s fall was faster and more complete than most activists had believed possible. One day he was signing a deal with opposition political leaders, mediated by members of the EU, that would leave him in power until at least December. By the next morning, his authority had dissolved, police had disappeared from Kyiv’s streets, he was on the run, and tourists with muddy shoes were strolling through his mansion.

The Maidan still looked like a war zone, and not all the dead were buried. But Ukraine had a new interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, and parliament would soon be choosing a government. No one thought there wasn’t hard work ahead. But in Kyiv there was a sense of accomplishment rather than fear. “From now on, every Ukrainian who is abroad, when he pulls out his passport, no European, no one from anywhere in the world, can say that Ukraine’s the same as Russia,” said Fylyk. “That’s why people stood up here. And that’s why they died.”

Crimea is the part of Ukraine containing the highest concentration of people who wish their land was Russia. Dangling off the bottom of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, the peninsula, like Ukraine itself, had long been part of the Russian empire—home to a changing and multi-ethnic population for centuries, including Ukrainians, Tatar Muslims, Greeks and Jews. But most of its people are Russians, and many hold close emotional and linguistic ties to Moscow.

Crimea’s modern union with Ukraine dates only to 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it from the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian one. It hardly seemed to matter at the time. Both were part of the Soviet Union, whose collapse didn’t seem imminent. When it came, there was tension between Russia and Ukraine regarding Crimea’s status, but it ultimately remained with Ukraine—as did the port city of Sevastopol, which lies within the Crimea peninsula, but is a separate administrative region.

Russia formally confirmed its commitment to Crimea’s status within Ukraine when it signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum with Britain and the U.S. The treaty’s signatories also pledged “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.”

Russia was permitted, however, to continue docking a large part of its Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol, and to keep military bases in Crimea. This agreement with Ukraine was set to expire in 2017, but in 2010 was extended by Yanukovych until at least 2042 in exchange for discounts on Russian gas. This meant Russia already had significant military assets at hand in Crimea when the crisis began. It could also count on significant local support.

Armed servicemen wait in Russian army vehicles outside a Ukranian border guard post in the Crimean town of Balaclava March 1, 2014. (Baz Ratner, Reuters)

Armed servicemen wait in Russian army vehicles outside a Ukranian border guard post in the Crimean town of Balaclava March 1, 2014. (Baz Ratner, Reuters)

“We speak Russian. We like Russian culture. The last 20 years have been occupation and brainwashing by Ukrainian nationalists who are trying to dictate their Western fascist ideas,” Andrei Richikhin said as he carried a banner calling for the unity of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus to a Feb. 26 rally at the Crimean parliament in Simferopol.

Outside the building, thousands rallied. They waved Russian and Crimean flags, shouted “Crimea is Russia!” and praised the Berkut special police that protesters in Kyiv blame for the deaths of so many of their comrades. At the Simferopol rally, many said it was the Kyiv protesters themselves who were to blame for the violence. Some said their tea had been drugged to make them attack the police. “We don’t like what’s happened in Kyiv. We don’t want the same to happen here,” said Andriy Anatoly, a 57-year-old seaman at the rally.

The protesters’ goals were different in the details. Some wanted full union with Russia. Others wanted Crimea to join Russia, but as an autonomous republic. Some preferred independence. Most wanted a referendum to settle the matter. They were united in their hostility to the government in Kyiv, and by their affection, if not loyalty, to Moscow. Many also distrusted the West and blamed it for the uprising against Yanukovych—a view shared by Putin, who claimed during his press conference this week that Euro-Maidan protesters were trained at “special bases” in Lithuania and Poland.

“Leave! Go! We’ll sort this out on our own!” said Nikolai Dontsov, white-haired, dignified and wearing a towering Cossack wool hat. He tore open the camouflage jacket he was wearing and revealed a row of medals on the uniform beneath. “I got this one for keeping the Americans out,” he said, jabbing a finger at his chest. That was 45 years ago, when he served in the Soviet army. He still had his military bearing as he stood on a ledge above the crowd and directed the young men beneath him.

Opposing the pro-Russian demonstrators were thousands of Muslim Tatars. Mostly men, many wearing black toques, they shouted “Ukraine! Ukraine!” A few, in Arabic, yelled, “God is greater!” Crimea’s Tatars overwhelmingly support the Euro-Maidan revolution and back the new government in Kyiv. “We will protect Crimea as our native land, and we’ll fight for Crimea to stay part of Ukraine,” said Mustafa Abibulaev, an accountant and father of three, as he stood near the fringes of the protest. Tatar animosity toward Russia has deep and painful roots. In 1944, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin exiled Crimea’s entire Tatar population to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands died in transit or exile.

Eskender Bariiev, a member of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, an unofficial democratic assembly, grew up hearing stories about this from his mother, who was deported in boxcars with her family at the age of six. The dead were thrown from the train. When they finally arrived in Uzbekistan, they survived only because Bariiev’s grandmother had medical training. Local Uzbeks would pay for her help with bread. Bariiev didn’t see Crimea until 1991. He brought his mother home a couple of years later.

In an interview, however, Bariiev cited more pragmatic reasons for the Crimean Tatars’ attachment to Ukraine. He’s travelled widely, including in Europe and Russia, and studies other countries’ political systems and how they treat minorities. “That’s why we think the security of Crimean Tatars can only be ensured in a country with the rule of law,” he says. “We want to live not only as part of Ukraine, but as part of a Ukraine that is part of Europe. We want to live where minorities are protected, where there is property law, the rule of law and European values.”

Tatars are not the only Crimeans who backed Euro-Maidan. Ivan Kleepa is an executive in the Sevastopol branch of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, the political party led by retired boxing champion Vitali Klitschko. He says small protests against Yanukovych took place in Sevastopol in January. Kleepa believes Crimea should remain part of Ukraine because of its stronger democratic standards. “If a government is not democratic, human rights are not protected. That’s why Crimea should not join Russia,” he says.

Kleepa’s family has been in Crimea for generations, and is mixed: Russian and Ukrainian, Polish and Greek. He accuses pro-Russian Crimeans of focusing on emotional issues of ethnicity, language and religion. “They’re looking for an enemy, someone they can fight,” he says.

Pro-Russian supporters chant slogans during a rally at a central square in Simferopol, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Pro-Russian supporters chant slogans during a rally at a central square in Simferopol, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

The roadblock between Simferopol and Sevastopol appeared suddenly, illuminated in the tunnel by a set of headlights through the misty night rain. There was a truck parked beside the road with a Russian flag jutting from its cab, and men milling about wearing a mishmash of military camouflage and ratty balaclavas, shining flashlights into the windows of the cars they motioned to stop.

“We’re here to protect Sevastopol,” said one. Just off the road, more men stood shivering around a campfire. They said they were from local towns and had formed “self-defence” units to look for “provocateurs,” whom they didn’t define but presumably included activists from Kyiv. “We don’t want a war,” he said. The men were reluctant to talk, and a little hostile. One photographed this reporter and the licence plate of his car.

A different crew was staffing the checkpoint in the morning, this one more talkative. “We want to join Russia,” said a man named Andriy, who declined to give his last name. He added that he wanted Crimea’s secession from Ukraine to be peaceful. Andriy said they were looking for “terrorists” and “Nazis” who might be smuggling explosives into Crimea. “Nazis can come from anywhere,” he said, when asked where such threats might originate. He believed Nazis had come to power in Kyiv, and that Ukraine’s new prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, was a fascist. To be safe, Andriy and his men were searching any car whose licence plate revealed that it came from outside Crimea.

Similar “self-defence” units were springing up across Crimea last week. The ones encountered by Maclean’s appeared to have been unarmed and limited their activities to inconveniencing drivers. Other groups were more dangerous and ambitious.

Before dawn last Thursday, according to one witness, some 60 or 70 armed men stormed and occupied the Crimean parliament. Their exact identity was unknown. Asked by journalists who they were, one threw a flash grenade. Outside the parliament, a large crowd gathered, waving Russian and Crimean flags. The thousands of Tatars who had come out in such force the day before were nowhere to be seen.

Hour by hour, more government, transportation and military installations fell to armed men who would not say who they were. On Tuesday, they fired warning shots at Ukrainian soldiers marching toward the occupied Belbek air base in Sevastopol. A standoff ensued, but no one was hurt.

These soldiers were nothing like the rag-tag militiamen of the self-defence units on the road between Seferopol and Sevastopol. They were heavily armed, looked and acted professional, and wore uniforms stripped of any badges or insignia that might have identified them.

Some might not have been officially part of the Russian armed forces—retired soldiers, or perhaps members of the Berkut special police force, which the new government in Kyiv had just disbanded. But it seems certain that overall direction came from Moscow. The Ukrainian government claimed thousands of additional Russian soldiers arrived at now-seized airports, and more Russian warships steamed into Ukrainian waters.

When Putin on Saturday requested, and quickly received, parliamentary approval to authorize the deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine—supposedly to protect Russian citizens and soldiers until the “normalization” of the political situation—he was merely giving political cover to what was already done: Russia had invaded Ukraine and taken control of Crimea.

Harder to explain is why Russia did it. The reasons cited by Putin and other Russian officials, supported and inflated by sycophantic Russian media, are false. There was no fascist coup. There is no threat to Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population from armed militants.

It’s true that some duelling demonstrations have been violent, but not all. At that rally in Simferopol, at which pro-Russian protesters faced off against pro-revolution Tatars, there was little physical hostility beyond shoving and the occasional thrown plastic water bottle. A Maclean’s reporter stood between the two sides who were only inches apart, speaking first to a pro-Russian protester, then a Tartar. The pro-Russians took some pride in the fact they could discuss their differences calmly and said that, as individuals, “we’re good.”

Elsewhere, a woman who held up a Ukrainian flag in the midst of a pro-Russian crowd surrounding a Ukrainian naval base in Crimea was attacked within seconds. Viktor Neganov, a Euro-Maidan organizer in Sevastopol, says that when he publicly challenged a pro-Russian politician, members of a nearby crowd punched him repeatedly in the head. That was two weeks ago, before Russian troops showed up. “People who support Maidan here are scared because of all the Russian soldiers,” he says. “I can do nothing, and Euro-Maidan activists can do nothing, against those with weapons.”

And yet the pro-Moscow news outlet Russia Today ran a story about hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians of Russian descent supposedly fleeing to Russia to escape the brewing humanitarian crisis, or applying for asylum there because they fear—as a Russian official put it—“radicalized armed groups.” Such propaganda would be silly were it not so obviously designed to justify further Russian aggression. Russian soldiers in Crimea are already chasing ghosts.

Putin might have hoped his soldiers would confront a more substantial and aggressive enemy. If Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea had resisted Russia’s incursion, the resulting conflict would have been easy to continue and to escalate. In the ensuing fog, it would have been possible to obscure where responsibility lay for its initiation. Similarly, if anti-Russian activists had responded with any sort of violence, Putin could have pointed to their actions as proof that fascists really were menacing Ukraine.

Ukraine’s new political leaders, however, recognized the provocation for what it was. They have, so far, shown firm restraint. “The situation just has to be de-escalated. And ideally we should de-escalate it through negotiations and discussion,” said Pavlo Sheremeta, Ukraine’s new minister of economic development and trade, in an interview.

“You know, it’s a good phrase coming from Sun Tzu, the Chinese philosopher and general: ‘The battle is won before the battle starts.’ With a state that is in a pretty weak situation at the moment, I don’t think we are in a position to hold a war.”

Vladimir Putin

In one sense, Putin’s plan might have slightly backfired. Having failed to draw Ukraine into battle, he has left Russia exposed to international condemnation for its naked violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Russian financial markets have not responded well. Both its stock market and currency value fell sharply this week.

On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly from Moscow’s perspective, Russia has now reconquered territory it long held and only recently lost. If there are to be costs, Putin may judge these to be manageable.

But do Putin’s aspirations begin and end with Russia’s annexation of Crimea? This too isn’t clear. Wars have their own momentum, and the same faulty logic Moscow used to invade Crimea could just as easily be applied to eastern Ukraine, home to many ethnic Russians. Putin’s request to Russia’s upper house of parliament for approval to deploy troops did not distinguish between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine. A much larger Russian attack on Ukraine cannot be discounted.

This would be a more difficult undertaking for Russia. How far west would its army advance? There is no obvious line that divides pro-Russian Ukraine from the rest of the country. Ukrainians loyal to their new government live in Donetsk, too.

And at some point the Ukrainian military will fight back. They won’t win, but they’ll impose a cost. Ukrainian civilians will do the same. They have already shown themselves ready to die fighting the security forces of their own government. It’s hard to imagine those same men placidly accepting Russian soldiers strolling through the centre of Kyiv. Such a scenario would also provoke a more robust Western response than has Russia’s occupation of Crimea.

Annexation, however, even of Crimea, may not be Putin’s ultimate goal. In the press conference, Putin said Ukraine’s parliament is “partially” legitimate but all other components of the new government, including interim president Oleksandr Turchynov, are not. When he said Russian troops would remain in Ukraine until the situation was “normalized,” he likely meant the end of the revolution-backed government in Ukraine, and the establishment of one that is friendlier to Moscow. Putin’s invasion might be as much about pressuring Ukraine as it is a land grab.

The invasion is also punishment for Ukraine’s revolution. Putin has correctly recognized that the Euro-Maidan movement resonates beyond Ukraine, and especially in former Soviet-ruled countries. Even the activists in the Maidan are multinational. There are several Georgians, all wearing similar camouflage coats. At least one, who spoke to Maclean’s and has been here since November, has combat experience.

There are also Russians in the movement. One man, who declined to give his name, says he had been living in Crimea, where Russian media portrayed the protesters as bent on war. He came to Kyiv to find out if this was true. “I saw with my own eyes, and I decided to stay and help a bit,” he says.

It is the Ukrainian revolution’s international appeal that most concerns Putin. “The idea that a post-Soviet government—especially one that is in a country that is as close to Russia historically and culturally as Ukraine is—could be overthrown from below is something that scares a lot of people in Moscow very much,” says Jeffrey Mankoff, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

What happens in Kyiv is watched in Minsk, Tbilisi, Yerevan and Chisinau. Throughout the former Soviet bloc, Russia is trying to reassert political dominance. Ukraine is a linchpin in this strategy. Lose Ukraine, and Russia’s entire regional strategy is weakened. According to Richard Youngs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Russia fears that a democratization process in Ukraine could have a “knock-on” effect in Russia itself.

Historical evidence supports this argument. Putin’s domestic crackdown on dissent intensified following Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004 and 2005. Critical journalists were beaten and murdered. Investigations into the assaults were generally fruitless. Kremlin strategists also created a pro-Putin youth movement, Nashi, meaning “Our own people,” whose members were tasked with confronting any popular uprising that might flare up in Moscow. Putin wanted to contain Ukraine’s revolution then. This time he wants it crushed.

Exactly how far Ukraine’s Western allies are willing to go to protect it is also difficult to predict. Military intervention is almost certainly off the table. Neither the European Union nor NATO is willing to contemplate war with Russia. This leaves diplomatic isolation and economic pressure. Likely softening the bite of diplomatic measures is the perception in Western capitals that Russia’s co-operation is necessary on several files, including transnational terrorism, Syria and Iran—countries with which Russia has close relations.

Western and Russian economies are also integrated. Europe especially depends on Russia for oil and gas supplies. And a document that was photographed this week as a senior British official carried it to a meeting of Britain’s National Security Council suggests Britain does not want any measures the European Union adopts to include trade sanctions, or to “close London’s financial centre to Russians.”

Putin understands that these factors may restrain Ukraine’s allies. He also has good reason to believe Western outrage won’t last. Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia was followed, only a year later, by American President Barack Obama’s plan to “reset” relations between the U.S. and Russia. Putin’s punishment will likely be brief. The most Ukraine can realistically hope for is that the West’s solidarity with it will not be just as brief.




In Kyiv’s Independence Square, where the revolution began, there are now more flowers and shrines, and less garbage and scattered debris. The lobby of an adjacent hotel, once an emergency triage clinic that was full of dead and wounded, is again a bar. The barricades remain, as do the tents that shelter those who guard them. Activists move from the barricades to the tents and back, huddling around blazing barrel fires in both places.

Oleh Tomaschiuk, a construction worker from Ternopil, stands at one barricade close to the spot where he almost died two weeks ago. Tomaschiuk and a wave of other activists rushed the Berkut special police in an effort to push them back along a road leading to the square. “We didn’t know they had so many snipers,” he says.

Tomaschiuk, who was unarmed, threw himself behind a tree now holed by the bullets that were meant for him. Those caught on the road died. Piles of flowers mark the spot where they fell. “I don’t know their names,” he says. “I recognized their faces from the Maidan.”

An old woman, her hair wrapped in a kerchief, overhears and beckons Tomaschiuk to pose for photograph beside the tree. She snaps his picture with a digital camera and asks God to help him. He smiles.

Despite all the threats now assailing Ukraine’s revolution, the Maidan still feels like something sacred, a mini-capital in the hands of the people who won it. Many walking through here cry. They may be mourning individual losses. Others may simply be overwhelmed by the enormity of what happened here. Grief and pride collide and produce tears.

This may explain the reluctance of those who occupy the Maidan to pack up and leave. The piles of bricks, barbed wire and tires are a reminder what they achieved, here, in the heart of their country. When the barricades are gone, horizons will expand, revealing occupied Crimea, Ukrainians in eastern cities beating each other, and Russia.

Of all the slogans uttered in the Maidan, the most common by far is Slava Ukraini. It means “Glory to Ukraine,” and depending on the context can mean much more than that. Shouted as a coffin carrying the body of a sniper-killed activist is borne through a crowd, it is a call of a defiance, praise and mourning. Chanted loudly in unison by tough-looking men, it can take on the sinister overtones of nationalist conformity. Spoken intimately as one individual grips the hand of another, it is a gesture of encouragement and an affirmation of shared purpose, one that says, “We’re all right” and, “This is worth it.”

Lately, though, the phrase seems to have lost its anger and rebellion and evolved into a simple statement of fact. Whatever happens next—and what happens next will be difficult and possibly bloody—demonstrators here in Kyiv and across the country have stood up and freed themselves. Ukraine has been covered in glory.

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