Scoop Search

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Crimea on my mind

One can only hope that the warmongers and analysts are wrong and that the Kremlin’s keepers, drunk from “victory” in Georgia, are not seriously considering an invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea. But the situation in Crimea is very different and a South Ossetia scenario seems unlikely. First, Southern Ossetia was de facto a war zone before the events of 8-8-8. Second, Ukraine’s president has been called a lot of thing, but "hothead" is not one of them. The only way Russia could conceivably justify invading Crimea would be if Russians began being killed. Rumors abound that the FSB is preparing cells of jihadists in the peninsula to provide the pretext for military annexation. In may well be in the realm of fantasy, but Moscow has resorted to similar trickery in the past. Recall the NKVD units that posed as UPA soldiers during WWII and killed innocent civilians disguised as nationalist freedom fighters.

This of course does not mean that the situation in Crimea does not warrant attention. Last week, I had the opportunity to talk about Crimea with Oleksandr Skipalsky, a 40-year veteran of Soviet and later Ukrainian intelligence services and Boris Kozhin, the first commander of independent Ukraine’s Black Sea Fleet. Both men cautiously praised president Yushchenko’s words and actions vis-à-vis Georgia but warned of the problems posed by the country’s increasingly dysfunctional state apparatus.

Vice admiral Kozhin spoke frankly about Ukraine’s ability to prevent Russian ships from returning to Sevastopol. He said that Ukrainian forces are incapable of physically blocking the Russian boats with ships, mines or bombs of their own. But Ukraine was right in making the declaration and sending the right signals through diplomatic channels: “Now the world knows our position.”

Concerning Crimea, Kozhin said that twenty to twenty-five thousand of the peninsula’s residents have already been already granted citizenship and passports by Russia. Skipalsky said that in comparison to South Ossetia, Russia has completed about 50 to 60 percent of the groundwork in Crimea. He said that the Kremlin’s Crimea-based initiatives are systemic in nature and worked down to the nitty-gritty details: when Russia opens a school in Crimea, the event is not just about a school-opening: it’s a military event, a media event, an intelligence event, all geared towards creating “positive influence” in Crimea. He criticized the Ukrainian government for failing to take a systemic approach to affairs in the peninsula.

I asked Skipalsky about the last time the specter of Crimean separatism reared its ugly head and the formula for success in its defeat. It was the year 1994 and Kyiv was embroiled with its own economic and political problems as “nationally-conscious” president Leonid Kravchuk was in the process of being replaced by “pro-Russian” president Leonid Kuchma. Crimea elected its own president in February of 1994 – vehemently pro-Russian Yuri Meshkov, who campaigned on promises of holding a referendum on Crimean independence and joining Russia, introducing Russia’s ruble as the peninsula’s currency and dual citizenship. “Meshkovshchina” is the term used to Crimea separatism of that vintage and many of the same faces were around then that are around now, including Konstantin Zatulin. Skipalsky said that the separatist movement was funded by a drugs-for-cash spetz-operation to Turkey organized by Russian intelligence. Meshkov lasted in office for a little over a year until the presidency was abolished

With the political mayhem in Kyiv and the country’s hyper-inflated economy in general, it would seem that Crimean separatism had very high chances of succeeding in 1994-1995. How was it averted back then?

Some Ukrainian politicians take credit for avoiding the loss of Crimea to Russia. But Skipalsky said that ultimately it was Russian president Boris Yeltsin that put the kibosh on Crimean separatism in 1995. "Yeltsin stopped it. Yeltsin did not want it." The problem today is that Yeltsin is no longer the Kremlin’s keeper.