KIEV, Ukraine – It’s not Moscow calling the shots in Crimea, it’s local “self-defense forces.”
The Kremlin didn’t reinforce its troops on the strategic peninsula to seize it but to respond to an appeal from deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, now being cast as weak and misguided. And in any case, all Russian forces in Crimea are back at their bases.
Or so insist Russian officials, who are apparently seeking to rewrite the narrative of their military incursion into Ukraine that has shocked the world, frightened former Soviet-dominated neighbors and sent the Russian ruble and stock market into tailspins.
But the Russians may not be backing off so much as settling in.
Russia and Ukraine, with deeply entwined economies as well as historical and geographic imperatives to stay connected, may be entering a prolonged period of stalemate.
Russian gunmen, whether dispatched by the Kremlin as Kiev alleges or acting on local Crimean Russians’ mistrust of Ukraine’s new pro-West government, are likely to maintain their grip on the peninsula for weeks or months.
Ukraine’s armed forces are outgunned by Russia’s and any push-back could trigger a shooting war with no true winner, given the international censure and economic strangulation that Russia would face after wresting Crimea from its weaker neighbor.
On Wednesday, a fresh contingent of 200 Russian troops strengthened control of a Ukrainian air defense base in Yevpatoria, north of the Black Sea fleet port of Sevastopol. They stood guard at the gates, securing the stock of anti-aircraft missiles. Some wore their Russian military insignia, a Ukrainian commander said, dispensing with the pretext of being concerned locals.
Russian gunships offshore at Sevastopol also continued to blockade Ukrainian naval vessels, despite the early Tuesday expiration of an ultimatum for the crews to surrender and swear allegiance to Russian command.
In Kiev and other European capitals, diplomacy kicked into high gear. That has created an impression of a pause for reflection and, in Moscow’s case, a chance to recast its posture in the Crimea faceoff as reluctant aid to an ally.
Putin and Russia’s United Nations ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, blamed Yanukovych, their erstwhile ally, for prompting the Russian deployment by portraying the change in political leadership in Kiev as a threat to the lives and cultural autonomy of Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in media appearances in Madrid and Paris, denied that Moscow was calling the shots in the tense confrontation in Crimea. The peninsula was part of Russia for centuries until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev annexed it to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
“Those who sit in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) do not control the whole territory,” Lavrov said, warning the Western intermediaries trying to de-escalate the Crimea crisis that they should be talking to the territory’s local leaders.
“Russia does not give orders to self-defense forces in Crimea,” Lavrov said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in Kiev on Tuesday and traveled with his Ukrainian counterpart, Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia, for meetings in Paris on Wednesday, sought to downplay the limited results of their travels.
Kerry said he had had “zero expectation” of Lavrov and Deshchytsia talking on the sidelines of the gathering, originally intended to discuss the Syrian civil war.
Lavrov said conditions were not right for a meeting with the Ukrainian diplomat, describing the atmosphere as one of “threats and ultimatums.”
Kerry said he reiterated Washington’s call for Moscow and Kiev to open direct talks, for Russian forces to withdraw to their bases and for the Kremlin to welcome human rights monitors to gauge the state of ethnic relations in Ukraine’s Russian-dominated areas. He pointed to a confusing incident involving a U.N. envoy, Robert Serry, who was confronted by Russian gunmen Wednesday in Crimea and told to leave the territory.
Lavrov said in Madrid, after talks with his Spanish counterpart, that Russia’s Black Sea fleet forces were “staying at the sites of permanent deployment,” countering reports of Russian troops fanning across Crimea to seize control of Ukrainian military sites such as the air defense base in Yevpatoria.
Yanukovych was driven out of power by a three-month uprising in western Ukraine after he ditched an association agreement with the European Union in late November that was to have led to closer economic ties with the 28-nation bloc.