The Guardian reports: Russia and the west are on a collision course over Crimea after Moscow was accused of orchestrating a “military invasion and occupation” of the peninsula, as groups of apparently pro-Russian armed men seized control of two airports and Russian troop movements were reported across the territory.
The new authorities in Kiev, installed following the removal of the pro-Moscow president this week, accused Russia of “an attempt to seize airports”, and on Friday evening the main Crimean air hub at Simferopol was still guarded by unidentified, uniformed men. Later it was announced that the airport had been closed and incoming flights diverted.
“I see what has happened as a military invasion and occupation in violation of all international treaties and norms,” said the new Ukrainian interior minister, Arsen Avakov. “This is a direct provocation aimed at armed bloodshed on the territory of a sovereign state.”
The White House warned that any Russian military intervention in Ukraine would be a “grave mistake”. The UN security council took up the issue at a session last night. The sudden escalation of the crisis amounts to the most dangerous stand-off in the former Soviet Union since the Russia-Georgia war six years ago. [Continue reading…]
The Daily Beast adds: Private security contractors working for the Russian military are the unmarked troops who have now seized control over two airports in the Ukrainian province of Crimea, according to informed sources in the region. And those contractors could be setting the stage for ousted President Viktor Yanukovich to come to the breakaway region.
Paul Saunders, the executive director of the Center for the National Interest, said that the Obama administration faces a particularly bad set of choices when it comes to responding to the airport takeovers, especially if is confirmed they are Russian government controlled security contractors.
“If the Obama administration takes a public position that they are Russian forces, then they need to explain what they plan to do. This will be quite similar to the red line in Syria, in that they will have to choose between imposing the ‘consequences’ that administration officials have warned about, repeating statements that have been ignored, or saying that it is not really an ‘invasion,’” he said. [Continue reading…]
Luke Harding writes: Moscow’s military moves so far resemble a classically executed coup: seize control of strategic infrastructure, seal the borders between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine, invoke the need to protect the peninsula’s ethnic Russian majority. The Kremlin’s favourite news website, Lifenews.ru, was on hand to record the historic moment. Its journalists were allowed to video Russian forces patrolling ostentatiously outside Simferopol airport.
Wearing khaki uniforms – they had removed their insignia – and carrying Kalashnikovs, the soldiers seemed relaxed and in control. Other journalists filming from the road captured Russian helicopters flying into Crimea from the east. They passed truckloads of Russian reinforcements arriving from Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
The Kremlin has denied any involvement in this very Crimean coup. But Putin’s playbook in the coming days and months is easy to predict. On Thursday, the Crimean parliament announced it would hold a referendum on the peninsula’s future status on 25 May. That is the same day Ukraine goes to the polls in fresh presidential elections.
The referendum can have only one outcome: a vote to secede from Ukraine. After that, Crimea can go one of two ways. It could formally join the Russian Federation. Or, more probably, it might become a sort of giant version of South Ossetia or Abkhazia, Georgia’s two Russian-occupied breakaway republics – a Kremlin-controlled puppet exclave, with its own local administration, “protected” by Russian troops and naval frigates. Either way, this amounts to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, de facto or de jure.
Ewen MacAskill adds: But a Russian takeover of the Crimea could turn out to be disastrous in the long run. The Kremlin would be underestimating the impact of the sizeable population of Tartars who were forcibly deported from the Crimea by Stalin in 1944 and not allowed to return until the beginning of Perestroika in the 1980s.
[Igor] Sutyagin, who is at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, said: “The Tartars are very anti-Russian. They will do anything not to be under the Russians. They will be determined to fight for Ukraine. It would be a second Chechnya. There are a lot of mountains in Crimea, just as in Chechnya.”