Ukraine Conflict Putin Strengthens His True Enemies
Although Russia has espoused moral justifications for its invasion of Crimea, President Vladimir Putin's move is all about geopolitics. His short-sighted logic, however, could bring Ukrainian nationalists to power -- and create a whole new set of problems.
Whenever Russia pursues its own interest against the will of the international community, a dictum by Czar Alexander III springs to mind. Russia, he said, has only two allies: its army and its navy. If you can believe the Kremlin's propagandists, however, a new, unexpected ally has come to Moscow's defense: the Western press. According to the website "Sputnik and Pogrom," the Western media have "begun to support the Russian Federation's course of action in the Crimean crisis."
The statement has little basis in reality, but it has nevertheless been shared thousands of times on Russian social media networks. European reporters, it is said, have finally figured out that hardboiled neo-fascists and not freedom fighters were behind the takeover of Independence Square.
This has been the Russian propaganda line for months -- that the West is ignoring the hordes of neo-Nazis bullying valiant Ukrainian policemen. The role of the violent nationalists, however, has been widely covered in the international press, and it was police brutality -- and Yanukovych's attempts, supported by Moscow, to outlast the protests -- that actually radicalized Independence Square. When students were beaten down on the night of November 30, they had neither helmets, nor batons, nor firearms.
Russia's Ridiculous Justification
Russia's justifications for its Crimean military intervention are outrageous. Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told the UN that masked irregular troops from Kiev had raided Crimea's ministry of the interior. Valentina Matviyenko -- the current Chairman of the Federal Council of the Russian Federation who quickly gave President Vladimir Putin a blank check for his march into Ukraine -- has mentioned that there were multiple dead during a raid.
But this attack never seems to have happened. Thus far, neither photographic evidence of the attack nor an official body count has been produced. On the contrary: The Crimean militia -- which is still overseen by the allegedly attacked ministry -- didn't want to confirm the attempted attack. Even the head of the Crimean parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov, has said that he doesn't have data about any victims.
There are indications Moscow is exaggerating the far-right's influence on Independence Square in order to give Russia an easy justification for the invasion and so it can sell it to the Russian public as a rescue mission. On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seemed to acknowledge as much on Monday with his claim that the occupation of Crimea was about protecting Russians and human rights.
But the invasion is very clearly the product of geopolitical calculations: Moscow is regaining control of the Crimea and with it, its strategically important Black Sea port, Sevastopol.
New Government on the Ropes
To be sure, members of the Right Sector -- the Ukrainian right-wing militant group -- have in fact anointed themselves the new keepers of order and are intimidating officials, police officers and state attorneys. In such circumstances, the transitional government in Kiev needs as much help as it can get to prevent Ukraine from descending into anarchy.
But the Kremlin has scoffed at the new cabinet. Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev said it would be difficult to work with "people who stroll through Kiev in black masks with Klaschnikov assault rifles." That's ludicrous. The cabinet is headed by transitional President Alexander Turchinov and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, both veteran politicians. They are about as radical as the head of a German bank.
Thanks to Russia, the transitional government in Kiev already has its back against the wall. Former President Viktor Yanukovych and his confidants plundered the state, leaving behind a country on the verge of bankruptcy. Now Turchinov and Yatsenyuk have to forestall economic collapse while, at the same time, preparing for war.
The Kremlin has maneuvered them into a lose-lose situation. Ukraine needs reforms -- but their painful consequences will be blamed the transitional government. If Yatsenyuk and Turchinov send the Ukrainian army up against the vastly superior Russian military, a bloodbath looms. But if they submit to the Russians, the radical nationalists will accuse them of betraying the country.
All signs point to Russia annexing Crimea and possibly eastern parts of Ukraine, which will have dire consequences. n the long run, it will weaken moderate powers in Ukraine and could pave the way for the nationalists to take power. And if they do, revenge will be on their minds.