Victims of any military action are inevitable, and Russia’s pretence that it is bringing troops into another sovereign country “to protect Russian nationals” should convince nobody. Among the planned victims are the indigenous Crimean Tatars, who in just over two months will be commemorating the 70th anniversary of their deportation as a people from their native land. In May 1944 it was Stalin who used defamation and propaganda to try to justify a terrible crime. In March 2014, it is Vladimir Putin.
There is probably no reason to doubt the sincerity of those ethnic Russians in the Crimea who are loudly welcoming the moves by Russia that began with the effective seizure of Simferopol on 27 February. Neither Russian flag-waving crowds nor the unprecedented 95,000 ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers who have in the last 36 hours told Putin that they don’t want Russia’s “help” can in themselves prove what the majority in the Crimea want.
Nor can the deployment of Russian troops.
The reports in the Western media on Saturday that only Russian supporters were visible were superficial and misleading. Ukraine’s leaders in Kyiv and the leaders of the Crimean Tatars had called on people to avoid escalating the situation. Certain moves, such as the attempt to seize the building of the Mejlis (the representative body) of the Crimean Tatars, were almost certainly aimed at provoking confrontation between the Tatars and pro-Russian groups.
When the Crimean Tatars did not succumb to provocation, Russia came up with a supposed attack, resulting in casualties, on the Interior Ministry building in Simferopol. Although the police shortly refuted the entire story as never having happened, an appeal for “Russian help and support” was issued by Sergei Aksenov. A Russian national, Aksenov supposedly ousted the Crimea’s prime minister, Anatoly Mohylyov, during a vote in the seized parliamentary building on 27 February. In the last parliamentary elections, Aksenov’s Russian Unity party received only 4 percent of the votes and just three seats in parliament.
The plans for a referendum allegedly “adopted” in a parliament surrounded by gunmen should not be seen as even providing a thin democratic coating. According to Article 73 of Ukraine’s constitution, any referendum on changes to Ukraine’s territory must be nationwide. On 1 March, Aksenov announced not only that he was seeking “Russian protection,” but also that the “referendum” would be held at the end of March. With gunmen presumably protecting Russian nationals’ interests at the polling stations.
The basic recipe for intervention has been used before – in Transdniester, in Abkhazia. The situation in Ukraine is different. This is in part due to Putin’s impatience and obvious rage after all plans to bring Ukraine into line through large loans brokered with former President Viktor Yanukovych failed. Only his domestic audience, fed by a largely subservient media, can possibly believe the pretence about “protecting Russian nationals.”
The permission from Russia’s rubber-stamp legislative bodies to deploy troops on Ukrainian territory, not just the Crimea, also steeply raises the stakes.