WASHNGTON – The tension along the Ukraine border with Russia is hitting new highs as Russia has deployed an estimated 150,000 troops there for “exercises” and the new pro-European interim government in Ukraine is wrestling with the idea that the country could split.
The deployment by Russia is a throwback to the 2008 “exercises” near Georgia, when Russia eventually invaded and ultimately annexed several regions that previously had belonged to Georgia.
Acting Ukraine President Oleksandr Tuchynou, who was selected by the parliament even as ousted President Viktor Yanukovych continued to claim, from Moscow, that he’s the legitimate president, has instructed that “separatist tendencies” in the Ukraine’s southern and eastern sectors will be rebuffed.
In condemning “separatism,” the interim government has instructed Ukraine’s Security Service to investigate organizers of separatist activities.
“We must give a harsh answer to any separatism and threats to Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” said Turchynov. He said his priorities are to restore the rule of law and central control across the country.
“Separatism has become a serious threat,” he said, threatening punishment on any “infringements of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.”
Moscow maintains considerable influence over the Russian-dominated southern and eastern portions of the country which includes the Crimea, where President Vladimir Putin has positioned additional troops. It also is the area where the Russian Black Sea fleet is located.
Turchynov, who is pro-European, has appointed an acting prosecutor – Oleh Makhnitsky – to go after those separatists who “detest Ukraine and seek to dismantle it, taking advantage of a power vacuum in Kyiv.”
In turn, Makhnitsky has ordered prosecutors in the south and east to investigate local politicians who openly call for separatism as they further distance themselves from Kyiv’s officials.
Given the temporary nature of the interim authorities, Moscow isn’t discouraging talk of separation.
“In such circumstances, ‘Maidan self-defense’ groups have emerged as a restraining factor in key south-eastern administrative centers where oblast – or city-level authorities – have backed ‘centrifugal tendencies’ toward separatism,” according to a report from the open-intelligence group Stratfor.
Euro-Maidan groups have emerged in the various southeastern oblasts of the country as an informal power structure. While European oriented, they don’t necessarily take orders from Kyiv.
They keep watch on those politicians who seek separatism from Kyiv.
Moscow has made it clear to the European Union countries which support the new interim government in Kyiv that there are red lines, according to Stratfor.
They include Ukraine integrating into Western institutions, the West providing training and weapons for Ukraine’s military and security forces and Kyiv’s rejection of Russian financial assistance.
So far, Moscow has offered $15 billion as an incentive for economically depressed Ukraine to side with Moscow’s Eurasia Union instead of joining the EU, to which Yanukovych had agreed. That sparked the anti-government demonstrations that produced his removal. It also has produced the deep division in Ukraine, with western regions following Europe, and eastern areas seeking to align with Russia.
The concern among Europeans, however, is that it will be difficult to top Moscow’s incentive package which includes reduced rates for much needed natural gas delivered to Ukraine.
“A total attack is under way against the rights of the Russian-speaking population, laws are being adopted that threaten all those who do not accept fascism,” according to Mikhaylo Dobkin, an oblast governor from the southeast area.
Moscow and Yanukovych, who continues to claim he is the democratically elected leader, have equated the takeover by the parliament, and its decision to name a president, as tantamount to Adolf Hitler’s 1933 rise to power to become the German chancellor.
Although the Ukrainian Security Service has been charged with ensuring against separatism, sources say that its capability is stretched thin, making it doubtful that it can maintain order and protect high-risk installations.
Sources see Moscow using the Crimea in southern Ukraine to leverage the pro-Maidan officials in Kyiv.
This is where Russia has a substantial military presence. There already are indications that officials of this autonomous portion of the Ukraine are aligning themselves more closely with Russia.
Any Russian military action would come from the Crimea where the population is more than 60 percent ethnic Russian.
Despite U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel telling Moscow not to take military action, Moscow appears to have pretty much dismissed such a warning.
Moscow is going so far as to offer Russian passports and fast-track citizenship to Crimean residents, something which the Russians extended to residents of the Georgian breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia shortly before the 2008 Russian invasion there.
It may be history about to repeat itself in the Ukraine, but following the end of the 2008 five-day war, these territories then declared independence from Georgia and were de facto annexed by Russia.
At the time, Moscow also had enunciated the doctrine of granting military protection to Russian citizens. Analysts believe a similar approach may be under way now in the Crimea.