IMPERIAL STRETCH : Putin's Crimean Invasion

A Bridge Too Far

Kiev: Vladimir Putin's return to the brutal politics of his predecessors didn't come as a complete shock- we had ample warning the KGB strongman had a pining for the USSR and murderous tendencies: the hundreds of thousands erased in Chechnya, the crackdown on anyone hinting of opposition; it was pretty obvious Kiev's bloodbath on Feb 18-20 was ordered by Putin in his Sochi meeting w Yanukovich: everything pointed to a full settlement only 1 day before the blowup on Feb 18th- the release of Gov. bldgs, the relaxation of sieges, the Opposition jetting off to Germany as if they already were the Gov ... except Putin's surprising release of the next $2 billion of his 15 bil bribe to Yanukovich. Even the Hotel Ukraine snipers slaughtering medieval protesters in their homemade shields were supposedly directed and aided by Russians. The Crimean Invasion was predictable- under his cool KGB exterior, Putin was white hot at the collapse of his imperial reconstruction project. MH Photos of Crimea, Sevastopol, Sudak

The 97% Soviet "vote" for Crimean annexation is typical- Russians cheat and lie so badly their results and explanations are like a bad comedy routine- reportedly 123% of Sevastopol residents voted in an election without a "no change" option (join Russia or go to the 1992 Crimean Independence), about double the number of actual voters: 474,137 votes vs. only 385,462 citizens (or as they said in 2000, a significant overvote). An 82% turnout is nonsense too- the 250,000 Tatars (12%) insanely boycotted (I asked Tatar leader Umarov why) and probably most of the Ukrainians stayed away, intimidated by armed thugs at polling places. Polls put real support for Russian merger at 41-42%. I said jokingly Russian citizens would be allowed to vote- that was the case, with a Russian reporter voting.

Now the question is whether Ukraine can hold the restive East, roiled by Russian "tourist" subversion. Initial reports aren't good- the Lugansk admin building was invaded and occupied again by Russian subversives the 16th, but nobody has sent some loyal (Western) militsia/Internal Ministry troops East to purge the Separatists and Russian loyalists among the local militsia, who stood by passively when a large crowd ransacked and destroyed a building housing a Pravy Sector office, or seal the borders against busloads of Russian "tourist" infiltrators. I asked Klitschko about that, but he totally ducked the question; former Defense Minister Grytsenko said he'd recommended doing that and mobilizing the military 2 weeks ago, but nothing was done. Klitschko, stressed, took a boxer's stance and refused the translator earphone, he repeated the mantra of not reacting to provocations and that "events would be decided in Moscow"… when they actually need to defeat the active subversion of Russian invaders; the latter is a stunning admission of impotence. But in TV interviews later, he said firmly "If we have to, Ukraine needs to fight!! Actually chocolate/shipping billionaire Petro Poroshenko is leading Pres. polls now, amazing since he isn't even a candidate and has barely existed at Euromaidan.

In a desperate move to consolidate power in threatened areas (Admin Bldgs have been occupied and freed several times in Donetsk, Kharkiv, Lugansk), the Oppo Gov appointed oligarchs Kolomoisky and Taruta to run Dnepropetrovsk and Donetsk regions, figuring their endless resources could pay for whatever muscle is needed to combat the Russian invaders (fake citizens that are fueling the protests). But is this why 100 people died, to appoint crooked oligarchs who will game the whole region for their advantage? Kolomoisky, head of biggest bank Privat, has been linked to many of the raider attacks, where 100 thugs with clubs and zip guns invade a company, beat up and throw out the employees, and take it over, armed with a decision of some corrupt judge that THEY are the owners. Many other governors have also been linked to oligarchs. Lesya Orobyets, Rada Deputy, primo anti-corruption crusader, and likely next Kiev mayor, embarrassed, said in an interview (@3:03m) Mar 8 that they were only "interim appointments" because of the pressures of the situation and would be changed relatively soon. But incredibly, venal separatist and titushky-hirer Kharkiv Mayor Kernes has been allowed to keep power.

There is little to inspire confidence, no Ukrainian leader has stepped up to rally the people and put forth concrete steps, politicians seem way out of their depth in this crisis. Worse, they just whine how mean the Russians are, how the world has betrayed them (true by Budapest Memorandum), then how they are avoiding provocations, instead of actively resisting. Defense Minister Igor Tenyukh gave a terse 7 min press conference Mar 17 before literally running out; Grytsenko had said he wasn't up to the task. Tenyukh said the Ukr military would fight, though other reports said only a pitiful 6000 troops were combat- ready in this 46 million nation (Tenyukh was fired by Parliament Mar 24). In the absence of leadership, the billion dollar Mig 29's at Berbek Airfield weren't flown out to the mainland or capital ships also rescued- they should have fought their way out from the initial handful of occupiers, though a Russian journo says only 3 were operational. Sailors Union Pres. Voloshyn said the ships (9:50min) were blocked by Russian sunk ships, and Naval Commander Berezonvsky's betrayal lost crucial time to escape, now 51 of 61 have been taken over by Russians.

Yet in this Imperial Overreach, I get the feeling Putin is committing a grave blunder- himself unleashing titanic forces that might ultimately sweep him from power. From providing an example to Russian separatists in Chechnya/Dagestan/Tatarstan/Tyumen/Yakutia by the Crimean Invasion-Secession and the victorious Maidan, to energizing the nascent anti-imperialist anti-Putin middle class that rose up in 2012 (just what he's trying to forestall with this brutal 19th century display), to crippling the Russian economy from sanctions- inc. funding the now-crippled Crimean economy, to drawing attention to his own ill-gotten wealth as he broke his oligarchs (heard $40-60 bil)… the long-term effects for Russia are dire. He is a creature of his upbringing and training as a KGB plotter and killer, and simply can't transcend it.

The total costs to Russia will be massive: Ukraine is not distant obscure Georgia (Atlana?); the organization, courage, and perseverance of the medieval Maidan warriors captured the imagination of the world: 3 Marathon months of blood, sweat, ice, tears, attacks, pain, brotherhood, exhaustion, loss, death, and hope. After all that, to deal with the plunder of their province by their former master is a cruel blow. "I'll be 18 in a week," sobbed normally perky Olga in the Press Center, "I don't want my brothers to die in a war, Putin is crazy, he won't stop there." With this ruthless demonstration, the world will turn away from Russia en masse. Every penny of the $60 billion Putin spent in Sochi for PR will be poterya.

In 5 years the West may buy only half the natural resources they do now, Russia's only income- military invaders are not reliable suppliers or partners. Russia could be thrown out of International Orgs from G8 to UN groups. Countries don't respect such imperial takeovers now, they are alarmed and repulsed by them. China will think twice of any alliances, and boost their exploding military spending on border zones, forcing Russia to do the same (they have come out against the Invasion despite the parallels with Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang). Corporate partnerships bringing valuable technology and needed modernization will be put on hold. Russians will have a tougher time getting visas, with their distasteful taste for Empire, and the hundreds of billions of money held + shipped offshore (which has now become a flood- $70 bil this year, more than all of 2013) may be at risk. In the Cyprus meltdown, Western banks thought little of just appropriating 40% of "dirty" Russian money. With the theft of Crimean property and resources, Ukr may renege on some of the $30 billion of alleged Russian loans, though they are still constrained by the Gazprom chokehold, who in turn are constrained by the Ukr control of Russia-Europe pipelines. In response to sanctions, Russia may nationalize foreign companies, causing a wholesale flight of investment and cooperation, and a crippling exchange of sanctions. This Invasion has conversely forced a hesitant World into desperate Ukraine's arms: $15 billion from the EU finally, EU AA finally signed- on a new Spring (unfortunately Putin signed the Crimea annexation simultaneously), $18 bil from the IMF, $10 bil of loans and military aid, NATO reinvigorated, moral, technical, and logistic support across the globe.

Sanctions, esp trade, and widespread pullback from Russian business will have a painful effect- the Russian market and ruble are already crashing, and Putin's pals punished. Another measure that would really hurt (and could have had a strong prophylactic effect earlier) is closing the Bosphorus to Russian warships- the Montreux Convention gives SU the right to transit warships, but also absolute control to Turkey, who are worried about discrimination against their Turkic brethren- the Tatars, who already suffered deportation and genocide at Stalin's hands; and the collapse and theft of their joint Crimean/Ukrainian investments. The 100 km long Turkish Straits are impregnable- even the Nazis never crossed through them, and Turkey being NATO, untouchable. Russia's warm-water fleet is of limited utility without access to warm water.

Russia, in its massive land grab, does gain billions upon billions of spoils, including perhaps the crucial Black Sea shale leases in the Black Sea owned by the Crimean div. of Naftogas, necessary for Ukraine to break its dependence on Russian gas. Shell, in suspiciously bad timing, just cancelled negotiation over them. One thing the US should do is station a Battle Group in the Black Sea, and sit on these huge gas/oil leases Russia will try to rip off as the new "proprietors" of stolen Crimean Naftogas, gas Ukr needs to break free from Russian dependence. That should be very forcefully negotiated with them- you get the land, but not the sea rights. Meanwhile Visa/MC shut off 2 Russian banks, and Russian tourists have been booted from their hotels. Surprised some Ukrainian didn't attack them, even if suicidal- some Russians should have paid the ultimate price for this foul takeover with their unmarked terrorist little green men. The besieged hryvna's now breaking 11/$; the Euro topping 15 (45% devaluation!).

Since Obama was limited to his bookish "grave concerns", there was little to stop Putin's plans… the over-extended US had only 2 of 10 Carrier Battle groups deployed, and nothing near the Black Sea on Feb 27-28, when a dozen US ships cruising around Sevastopol or a few Mach 1.1 F18 over-flights of the Simferopol Parliament may have made Putin reconsider this adventure (though Ukraine could have also done overflights). The CVN George HW Bush carrier group crossed Gibraltar Feb 27, and only reached Greece Mar 4; only the guided missile cruiser Truxton (which I once toured) has crossed into the Chorny Morye. A truce over the besieged blockaded Ukrainian bases to give them free passage was passed Mar 16, but Russians were threatening Ukrainian forces only a few days later. After 2 were killed in an attack on a mapping center in Simpheropol Mar 18, naval commander Haiduk kidnapped in Russian storming of his naval base (released Mar 20), and the holdout Belbek Airbase stormed, Ukrainians are withdrawing forces from Crimea. Invader honor was on display as they took over Ukr bases using a first wave of Russian "protesters", inc. women and children to rip down the fences, then a second wave of self-defense vigilantes, with Russians in the third. If the Ukrainian soldiers wanted to resist, they would have to shoot "civilians".

Ukraine was hopelessly outmatched, and the Crimean takeover already a fait accompli within 4 days- the moves on the Eastern border seem an apparent feint (though many troops haven't been withdrawn), but if Putin can achieve de-facto Eastern secession with his tourist guerillas, he will. Ukraine's soldiers showed remarkable restraint as they suffered Guantanamo-ish tortures in Crimea ("Are they shooting yet", complained a frustrated VVP). There are new Russian reinforcements along the Eastern border, but suspect Putin is just rattling Ukraine's chain. All Crimea water and electricity comes over the Isthmus from the Mainland- Ukraine could cut them off, but that would punish Crimean Ukrainians and Tatars and maybe provoke the invasion of all of Ukraine- Russia has already sent probe forces into Kherson on the mainland, and taken over a gas plant on a long spit just off NE Crimea. This is partially a long term result of Yushchenko's attempts to evict the Black Sea Fleet (NPR aud @ 29:10`min) and flirtation with NATO- no doubt Putin started considering it then- and feared the new Government might repeat them.

It is shocking that both houses of the Russian Parliament voted unanimously for this outrage, including my former editor at once liberal Moscow News (now Kremlin owned), Alexei Pushkov- now Duma foreign relations chair. Only one MP voted against annexation. Ironically one absurd Russian charge against Ukraine's new Government is their nationalism. There isn't a threat to one hair on any Russian's (speaker's) head in Ukraine, but the Putinists know that- they are experts in this subversion - the protect endangered citizens ploy has been used in multiple Russian/Soviet invasions, even Hitler's.

Ukraine is really a different place than Russia: less brutal, less aggressive, less paranoid at imagined slights- it is profoundly corrupt, but when the people scream enough, Government-connected criminals are punished. In Russia, the complainers are. Russians have a deep affection for and connections with Ukraine- it is imbedded throughout their history, literature, language… but Ukraine didn't "join" Russia, the Cossacks were slaughtered on their last island redoubt - Russian overlordship started with great violence, which reached it's apogee in the 20's and 30's, when the Bolshevicks-Cheka-KGB killed 10-16 million in their purges, famines, and psychotic schemes. These genocidal killings, which Russia despicably refuses to even acknowledge (would Germany have a seat anywhere if they denied the Holocaust?), are the reason Russia has lost any right to a say in Ukraine's future.

While Russians think of Ukraine fondly as their little brother, many Ukrainians think of Russia as a sadistic elder sibling: bullying, arbitrary, carelessly cruel. Russians has also been master, teacher, trainer, which they were all in the USSR and even later. In facts, Ukrs are maybe psychologically unable to fight Russians, they haven't even closed the border to these tourist thug rioters (who have killed 3 in Donetsk -though now it's getting closer to armed foreign insurrection) or replaced the Russian-sympathizer police and security forces with those loyal to the Center. After the incredible courage and fortitude of the Maidan fighting, Ukrs are returning to their former passive behavior, and it's maddening- some new security Ministers aren't professional military, but amateur Maidan revolutionists. Ukrainians and Russians share a common heritage- I even coined the word Rukrainians to identify many behaviors common to both, yet even most Russian transplants to the East consider themselves Ukrainian and don't want to switch nationalities- only 33% of Donetsk, 24% Lughansk, and 16% of Kharkiv would merge with Russia.

Yet Russians hammer the tired Soviet slander of "Nazis, fascists, extremists" taking charge in Ukraine- it moves Western hearts and minds, whose media just love Nazis- it still sells papers. I've watched German journos bubbling with joy that they dug up some crazy Right Wing loser. But it is nonsense- perhaps under 7% of Svoboda or the newer right groups harbor racist or anti-foreigner views… far less than comparable groups in Russia, who are accepted because they are usually fervent nationalists. I have worked next to and interviewed these people over 3 months, and haven't seen a speck of anti-foreign/Semitic behavior. Mostly they are nationalists: this protest was largely fueled by their courage and energy- the real reason for their hatred.

In reality, right wing neo-Nazianti-Semitic extremists are far more common in Russia, as evidenced by the Serbian Chetniks, Russian Cossacks, disgraced Kiev Berkut, titushkis and other motley extremist groups invading Crimea. Russians despised the Ukrainian independence movements because they were the only peoples in the SU who resisted their monstrous slaughters, so they've been trying to discredit them since the 1920's. Crimea has become a frightening place, with journalists, activists, Ukrainian military under assault by the vigilante rabble Moscow has assembled- even Russian journalists are beaten, one US doc crew barely got away with their life in Mariupol. A girl I'd interviewed, Katya Butko of AutoMaidan, was kidnapped at the border, tortured, and held 3 days with her 2 travel mates in Sevastopol. Their crime? They had a Ukrainian flag in the trunk. Passage into the Peninsula by car is harrowing, people have even been kidnapped off trains for having photos of Maidan on their phone, and the only flights are through Moscow.

The Maidan protest was indigenous - it wasn't funded (much) by the CIA or EU (maybe the Parties, or an Oligarch) - it was about the biggest thief outside of Africa- a kleptocrat who stole an est. $40 billion in 4 years in a poor country- the entire deficit. Even Easterners were disgusted at the scale of Yanu's theft, whom he told for 3 years- We are going West! "He changed alot of minds," said Kiev City Councilman and Protest leader Andrei Stranikov. Maidan was composed of people from every corner of Ukraine, Jews, foreigners, I even had 4 very pro-Maidan Russians in my hotel. I asked many Protesters what they were paid- they didn't even understand the question: millions of Ukrainians have donated food, money, cooking, clothes, apartments; spent days and nights handing out sandwiches or soup.. to support this; whereas the Anti-Maidaners (inc. thugs) were all bussed in and given $30-65/day. I've watched Mercedes's and BMW's stop and disgorge trunkloads of supplies and hand out money- even rich who might be hurt by Maidan felt they had to help.

Putin has a tendency to back criminals : Yanukovich was a greedy thief, an 2 time ex-con who beat people unconscious, now a despised escaped traitor; Crimea's "PM" Aksyonov was a brutal former Mafiyosa (Goblin) repeatedly linked to contract killings; Chechnya's Kadyrov is a savage dictator. Mr. Putin isn't acting like a ruler even of the last century, but of the 18th with his initial attempted royal restoration of the Yanukovich line (though he later acknowledged Yanukovich is a political corpse.. who can never leave Russia). Yanukovich's dethroning occurred in an almost unstoppable parabolic arc from the moment he jailed Tymoshenko (incredible for years), unable to take her nonstop screeching about his thievery.

Ukraine had a real chance now- Russia could have been a real big brother, and kept the money and support flowing, using Ukraine as a bridge to the EU. Ukraine will never lose its links and love of Mother Russia- common currents run swift and deep. But this bullying takeover will likely destroy the Ukraine economy, trembling on the edge, and create decades of bitterness. Ukrainian and Tatar refuges, threatened by the motley thugs running Crimea, could reach a flood. Division of property, possessions, the supply of Ukrainian pensions, utilities, wages will cause losses, pain, and conflict for years. There was no need for this imperial takeover- it was entirely punitive, Russia will gain almost nothing and lose a lot.

Empires and emperors are destroyed much more by arrogance and overreach, than caution and conservatism- Hitler knew a 2 front war was suicidal and no one had ever successfully invaded Russia since the Mongols. He did it anyway. With his unshakeable mission to recreate the empire (as Putin advisor Ilarionov called it) Putin may have done something as stupid and disastrous, and may actually provoke the overthrow he hoped to prevent.

Michael Hammerschlag's articles (HAMMERNEWS.com) have appeared in NYT, IHT, Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, Hawaii Advertiser; Moscow News, Tribune, Times, and Guardian, Novaya Gazeta; Kyiv Post & Weekly, Politics in Ukraine, and Business Ukraine. He's spent 8 years over the last 22 in Russia & Ukraine, has covered this story since Nov 1st, and warned of Ukraine's loss of Independence in May 2010 after Yanukovich's election.

Published by Michael Hammerschlag

Michael Hammerschlag's (Hammernews.com) political commentary and articles have appeared in New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, Hon...  View profile

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  • Michael Hammerschlag 4/18/2014

    Article was entirely updated April 18th here:

  • Michael Hammerschlag 4/2/2014

    cont3: police ringed their Dniepre Hotel HQ and forced them to give up their weapons and leave.

    Some 9000 Russian suspected provocateurs have been denied entry at Ukraine's borders as the guards finally get their act together. Likewise the last ministers I questioned- foreign, dep. defense, and econ. trade and development spoke flawless English, seemed to have a good grasp of the problems and some solutions, and answered questions frankly. Dep. Defense Min. Polyakov did admit that Ukraine's "military was penetrated top to bottom by Russians", making any defense quite problematic. http://hammernews.blogspot.com/ AUDIO/VIDEO

    Many other governors have also been linked to oligarchs - the protesters were right to be suspicious- their first demand was avoid the same old faces.

  • Michael Hammerschlag 4/2/2014

    cont: Poro's past: http://www.kyivpost.com/opinion/op-ed/taras-kuzio-beware-of-petro-poroshenko-a-serial-flip-flopper-video-341313.html
    "I will make Kyiv a truly European capital," promised Klitschko.

    Finally finally, though, Kiev is getting the upper hand in the East- the extremist separatists have split apart and the Center is hunting the leaders down. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/10720051/Pro-Russian-groups-in-eastern-Ukraine-fight-among-themselves.html

    But dissension has also smashed the Opposition with a fatal police raid on Pravy Sector’s notorious radical Olexander Myzechko, who had fought Russians in Chechnya, and starred in famous videos terrorizing Gov officials (the prosecutor deserved it, allegedly freeing a brutal rapist for a bribe). PS’s leader Yarosh, now a Pres. candidate and decked in a suit, threatened Interior Minister Avakov (who replied in kind), and demanded his ouster. After a shooting of 3 by a Pravy Sector, inc. a deputy Mayor,

  • Michael Hammerschlag 4/2/2014

    UPDATES: In a stunning development, Klitschko withdrew from the Presidential race March 29, throwing his support behind chocolate/shipping billionaire Petro Poroshenko (who was significantly leading Pres. polls now), amazing since he wasn’t even a candidate and has barely existed at Euromaidan. He did however help Maidan enormously, and his victory would prevent the divisive populism of Tymoshenko. "I always said it should be the candidate who people support the most and who has the highest chance of winning. Petro Poroshenko is such a candidate,” said Klitschko. Entrusting the country to another oligarch may be the Ukrainian version of the Russian “strong leader” syndrome, ironically used to excuse Putin’s excesses. Poroshenko has at different times been allied with the Kuchma, the Party of Regions, and Yushchenko’s Party. Sadly for Opposition unity, Klitschko is running for Kiev Mayor, already being contested by primo anti-corruption crusader + Rada Deputy Lesya Orobyets. "I will

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