Ukraine: a moment of acute danger
This is a moment of acute danger. The revolt in east Ukraine began last week with the forcible but unarmed seizure of government buildings in the city of Donetsk and the proclamation of a breakaway republic there.
So far sources on the ground identify nine places in the Donetsk region (oblast) where attempts have been made to seize installations, and roadblocks set up.
This morning there is frantic diplomacy – after a month of apparent drift since Putin annexed Crimea.
William Hague will meet Europe’s foreign ministers tomorrow, in Luxemburg, for a routine meeting at which Ukraine will top the agenda.
Poland, Britain and Sweden have led the way in Europe with a call for a civilian mission under the EU’s common security and defence policy. This would see hundreds of EU lawyers, experts in policing and civil rights sent to Ukraine to bolster its capacity to govern itself: this is in response to the problems of disorder that have followed the overthrow of the government in Kiev, and to widespread claims in the Russian media that Ukraine is being governed by neo-fascist bands on the ground.
UK government sources in Brussels say this would not mean British cops patrolling the streets of Kiev – but it would put British and other European personnel into the front line of what is going on. And government sources make clear that as prime movers, Britain would want to put resources and people on the ground in Ukraine.
Though the UK sees this as an urgent need, clearly events are overtaking western diplomacy once again.
On 1 March Vladimir Putin received authority from the Russian parliament to invade Ukraine in defence of Russian-speakers there. On 18 March he made a speech advocating that Russia reunite its “scattered” fragments, which would include Crimea, east Ukraine and possibly the Moldovan breakaway state of Transnistria.
A Russian diplomat also indicated last week that Putin’s interest would extend to the large Russian minorities in the Baltic states.
Most people in the west are a) oblivious to the strategic danger and b) in no mood for their governments to intervene anywhere. In addition, there is across Europe a strong current of anti-EU political sentiment, which is opposed to any idea of Europe projecting a geopolitical identity. This, in turn, hampers the Europeans’ ability to do what the US wants them to do: to assume security responsibilities on their Eastern border.
What happens next depends on whether the Ukrainian security forces deal with the armed groups in a proportionate way. The use of the term “Colorado beetles” to describe them – they wear an orange and black pennant – is possibly not indicative of restraint.
Putin’s overall aim is to force the west to accept a federalised and neutral Ukraine. Western politicians had convinced themselves that he would foment unrest in the east of the country, while destabilising the rest of it, in pursuit of that aim. So it is not clear whether the Donetsk rebellion – by no means universally supported even in the region – is a Kremlin gambit or a locally-led move.
The British foreign office statement, calling for Putin to distance himself from the armed gangs, reflects an assumption that the Kremlin has, indeed ordered this.
One final note: the military realities. An analysis by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) identifies two Russian military formations – one based in Taganrog and the other in Rostov on Don – that could easily move in to support the Donetsk uprising. Security analysts will be focusing attention on troop movements there and, says RUSI, there are signs that Ukraine has already moved an airborne battalion and parts of a tank brigade there.
What is clear, as the masked men deploy and guns appear on the streets, is that Vladimir Putin is close to achieving an excuse for intervention. The west is nowhere near close to achieving a strategy to deter that.
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