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Common Cents

Crimea Gambit

Ralph Murphy

(3/4/2014) Ukraine's autonomous Crimean peninsula has turned into an east-west, armed struggle reminiscent of the turbulent "Cold War" era. Russian troops have been pouring into the region by air and sea, and appear to have violated agreements worked out with Ukrainian authorities in the late 1990's which restricted their legal off-base movements on the peninsula to logistical support associated with the operation of the facilities. The troops seem to have played a major role in supporting a 6 March Crimean parliament decision to succeed from the Ukraine and join Russia. The vote has highlighted major divisions in the Crimea, and forced a serious diplomatic confrontation with Western powers.

Russia denies the unmarked military units are their soldiers- rather, calling them instead "local militias". While there is speculation they could be military contractors, given their organization, war materiel, and rapid deployment to power centers it appears unlikely the units are spontaneous. Uniformed Russian troops brazenly surround Ukrainian military bases on the peninsula in what appears to clearly violate the legal agreements of a "Partition Treaty" ratified by both the Ukrainian and Russian parliaments in 1999.

The "Partition Treaty" allows a total of 25,000 Russian troops to be deployed at a Naval Base in Sevastopol, and two air bases at Kacha and Guardeysky on Crimea itself. Associated with the troops are 24 artillery systems, 132 armored vehicles, 22 military planes, and 5 Russian Naval units.

Tim Ripley of "Jane's Defense Weekly" reported that between 6,000 and 7,000 combat forces deployed to Crimea since hostilities began to escalate on 28 February. The report claims the bulk of these forces were ground troops inconsistent with a Naval presence. Their actions on the peninsula have gone beyond the agreed framework even if they claimed to be engaged in routine training operations.

The Crimean parliament voted this week to "enter into the Russian Federation with the rights of a subject of the Russian Federation." Russian President Vladimir Putin has not yet responded to this request. The recently installed Crimean Parliament itself took advantage of the uncontested, unmarked troop intimidation and was sworn in last week "as an emergency session while the building was under siege from pro-Russian armed men." The leaders propose a 16 March Crimean referendum on formal Russian annexation that is widely seen as a "rubber stamping" of the parliamentary coup.

The Crimea peninsula is a landmass of 10,077 square miles surrounded by the Azov and Black Seas. Its inhabitants are approximately 58.5% ethnic Russians, 24.4% ethnic Ukrainians, and just over 12% Crimean Tatars-mostly Muslims.

The proposed referendum asks the voter to decide: "1) Are you in favor of reuniting Crimea with Russia as a subject of the Russian Federation." A second question is: "2) Are you in favor of retaining the status of Crimea as part of the Ukraine?"" It's unlikely the adherents of the latter will be able to get out the vote under the current street climate. Complete independence for the region is not on the ballot.

President Barack Obama issued an executive order providing the groundwork to "impose sanctions against individuals and entities responsible for the crisis." The Russian ground forces and Crimean Parliament’s actions are seen by the American administration as a "violation of international law." President Obama further asserted "The resolve of the U.S. and our allies and the international community will remain firm."

Punishment includes Visa restrictions and economic sanctions specific to Russians involved in the illegal, Crimean military action. That action would theoretically include President Putin. Many Europeans have applauded the proposal with European Council President Herman Van Rompey emphasizing "The situation must deescalate and failure by Russia to do so will have serious consequences on our bilateral relationship."

Russia responded by proposing a law that would permit that country to "confiscate assets belonging to U.S. or European companies if sanctions are imposed on Moscow." Germany, in a rare departure from European Union statements, has maintained the crisis should be resolved through diplomatic dialogue and channels.

The Ukrainian government has stood clearly behind the now subjugated Crimean leadership. Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called the Moscow backed referendum "an illegitimate decision." He asserted that the Crimea region "is and will be an integral part of Ukraine." President Obama supported the statement allowing on 6 March that "Any discussion about the future of Ukraine (to include Crimea) must include the legitimate government of Ukraine." Again a call for sanctions.

How the Ukraine debacle might play out is not yet clear. If the 16 March referendum does take place, and results in Crimea joining Russia, the relatively tepid response to Russia's troop presence and early March overthrow of the Crimea government will surely turn genuinely hostile. Russia allowed South Ossetia and Georgia's Abkahzian regions statehood following their creation in 2008. Those states are recognized by few, but Crimea's destiny may be decided without even the option of independence. Through economic sanctions, diplomacy, and other government means, the profit must be taken out of this violation. If the world community fails the people of Crimea and rewards the transgressors with territorial gain, it will surely occur elsewhere.

Ukrainian sovereignty in the Crimea must be upheld by the rule of law.

Ralph Murphy is a former member of the CIA Headquarters Staff in Langley, VA.

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