Vladimir Putin is enjoying himself.
I talked back in late February about the "Russian Gambit" in Ukraine. Today, that "gambit" looks to be nearly fulfilled on the ground. After taking the "low-hanging fruit" of Crimea a month ago, and allowing a few weeks to pass, now the next "act" of this piece of political theatre is afoot.
Last weekend, pro-Russian forces (who clearly look like Russian special forces without insignia) took over strategic buildings in Donetsk and Lugansk in the east of Ukraine, close to the Russian border. Those two provinces then declared their "independence" in local parliaments filled with pro-Russian figures. On Friday, an ultimatum set by the Kiev government came and went without action to repel the "rebel" forces from their positions. On Saturday and Sunday, more "pro-Russian forces" took control of strategic buildings and police stations in a network of towns across the region, effectively making the region beyond Kiev's control. With the local police either siding with the "protesters" or just going home, this region of South-eastern Ukraine is de facto no longer controlled by Kiev.
Yesterday saw the first casualties so far of the crisis on Ukraine's "mainland", when Ukrainian special forces attempted to retake Slavyansk; after a firefight that caused one fatality and a number of casualties on both sides, the Ukrainian forces withdrew.
It's Crimea all over again, the nightmare scenario for the interim government in Kiev.
The Crimea Strategy
Perhaps years in the future, historians will look back on how Putin handled the "Ukraine Crisis", and say that he effectively created a template for how to annex a country from the inside out, without using a conventional army to invade.
The "strategy" runs as follows:
1) Secretly infiltrate special forces as civilians.
2) Foment unrest and a crisis of legitimacy in the country's government.
3) Special forces, dressed in anonymous-looking fatigues, take control of a strategic building or two, such as the local parliament.
4) An "emergency session" of the said parliament is convened, filled with supportive "politicians".
5) The "politicians" vote for a referendum on the status of the said area from the offending government.
6) Cue crowds of supporters who swarm outside the parliament.
7) Man barricades and take weapons if necessary to defend against possible counter-attack by offending government.
8) Carry out a propaganda war against those supporting the offending government against the "human rights" of the supporters.
9) Territory becomes part of nation (or client state) with minimum of fuss.
The "Crimea Strategy", if you disregard the moral question, represents a brilliant piece of tactics and political theatre. For the poor government on the receiving end, in this case, the interim government of Ukraine, there is little they can do. If they do nothing, Russia wins. If they fight back, Russia wins.
This is what Putin doubtlessly calculated back in late February, when his ally, former president, Yanukovich. fled Kiev. It's worth remembering that back on that weekend when Yanukovich first fled Kiev for the eastern heartland of his support, the "Donbass" region that has now unilaterally declared its "independence", briefly (for a few hours) considered the same thing back in late February. From what it's possible to gather, after talking to Putin, Yanukovich changed his mind at that time.
A war of opportunism
Perhaps Putin thought it was the wrong time, and wanted to get as much political mileage out of the chaos? He wanted to choose when to strike, rather than have it forced upon him. Taking Crimea was pure opportunism; dividing Ukraine in two and taking the choice parts (the industrial heartlands, plus whatever can be easily "got" - as far west as Odessa?) looks like a more carefully-planned event, made necessary by the reality on the ground.
Since the annexation of Crimea, a propaganda war has been raging by Russia on Ukraine and her western allies. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum and annexation of Crimea a month ago, there were similar (doubtlessly orchestrated) calls for "referendums" in the eastern regions of Ukraine. These passed, to replaced by a number of plots to undermine the Kiev government by undercover (Russian) agents; these were discovered and foiled, but included seizing control of the parliament in Kiev and other, similarly ambitious plans. In the days just before the seizing of the buildings in Lugansk and Donetsk just over a week ago, another plot in Lugansk was also foiled; the seizures in Lugansk and Donetsk may well have been simply accelerated by this.
Now the "Crimea Strategy" is in full swing in the "Donbass". The apparent "lull" in the three weeks between the Crimean referendum and the first military occupations in Donetsk and Lugansk now looks more like the necessary "interval" between acts in Putin's power-play. The speed that undercover Russian forces have taken over so many strategic buildings in towns and cities across the south-east of Ukraine (an area considerably larger than Crimea, with a much bigger population), indicates that they would have needed time to properly "recon" the area, using willing locals to help them, while the political moves helped to mask the real military strategy. The thousands of Russian troops across the border look more like stage props; their effect more psychological, and a useful distraction from the real plan.
In other words, the timing of this second part of the "power-play" is unlikely to have been a coincidence.
Some have suggested that Putin's ambitions may even extend as far as annexing Finland. While this looks wide of the mark, the main reason that advocates of this idea give is that, like Sweden, Finland is not a part of NATO, and was part of Russia up to the First World War (Lenin arrived in St Petersburg on an internal train from Helsinki). As Putin is getting a great deal of kudos from the average Russian for turning back the clock on twenty years of Russian "retreat", there is little incentive for him to stop just yet.
Something indicates that stirring up the idea of "recovering" Finland may be just causing mischief, but as said as the start, Putin is enjoying himself. Sergei Lavrov also seems to be a master in the art of diplomatic double-speak and semantics. Russia has no intention of invading Ukraine, Lavrov has said; similarly, it regards the borders of Ukraine to be sacrosanct. Well, this all depends on your definition of an "invasion", and Russia's opinion of the borders of Ukraine are meaningless if it encourages Ukrainians in the east to redraw them for themselves, like in the "Donbass".
More intriguingly, there is the matter of Moldova and Transnistria, a strip of land populated by ethnic Russians that makes up most of the border between Ukraine to the east and Moldova proper to the west. This is a self-declared independent state that hosts a number of Russian "peacekeepers", making it effectively a Russian military protectorate, albeit separated from Russia by the wide expanse of Ukraine. Transnistria's "president" has asked for the region to be joined with Russia. So far, Russia's response has not been publicly forthcoming.
The motivations for having this strip of land as a de facto part of Russia are more strategic than anything else, as well as a strong stamp of Russia's influence on the region. Moldova recently started talks with the EU, just like Ukraine has; the stumbling block is Transnistria, whose economy is dependent on smuggling. The Kremlin therefore has good reason to enjoy raising merry hell in Moldova. The question is: how to bridge the gap between the Russo-phile "Donbass", and the hundreds of kilometres of the rest of (mostly ambivalent) southern Ukraine, that divide it from Transnistria?
Might that call for another use of the "Crimea Strategy" further along the Black Sea coast; in Odessa, for example? This city has a long Russian history, and has quite a high number of ethnic Russians, compared the the regions between it and the South-east of Ukraine.
One last point: Kaliningrad. This Russian Baltic enclave, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, may now be getting more of Putin's attention because of NATO's moves to increase its military presence in the area. In Putin's psychology, NATO's actions may be considered a provocation on the military viability of this Russian territory. Might this also backfire badly for NATO in the future?