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Russian Cossacks infiltrate eastern Ukraine

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Vladimir Putin

Storming government buildings in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, Russian President Vladimr Putin continues his clever strategy of taking over Eastern Ukraine with pro-Kremlin insurgents. Putin’s fig leaf for invading Crimea was protecting Russian-speaking inhabitants threatened by Ukrainian neo-Nazis and anarchists. Despite feckless sanctions from the U.S. and European Union, Putin invaded Crimea March 1, now extending the same strategy to Eastern Ukraine. Massing some 40,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, Russian warned Ukraine that “difficulties and crises” would arise from any resistance given to pro-Russian militias now seizing government offices in Eastern Ukraine. Kremlin loyalists called for an independence referendum similar to the one completed March 17 in Crimea. Putin warned Ukaine’s new government not mess with pro-Russian groups.

Cossack militias loyal to the Kremlin seized government buildings in Russian-speaking cities of Kharkiv and Luhansk. Acting Ukrainian president 49-year-old Oleksandr Turchinov denounced the Kremlin-driven takeover of more Ukrainian territory, while the U.S. and EU sat idly by. “Anti-terrorism measures will be adopted against those who took up weapons,” said Turchinov, promising to crack down on separatist groups. Ukraine’s 39-year-old Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk blamed Putin for employing the same strategy in Crimea to Eastern Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that Moscow had no intent to going further into Ukraine. Seizing government buildings in Eastern Ukraine, Pro-Russian Cossacks thumbed their noses at Kiev’s new pro-Western government they regard as illegitimate.

Moscow insists that Ukraine’s revolutionary government agree to establish a federation of independent provinces, in effect gutting the central government. “The plan is to destabilize the situation, the plan is for foreign troops to cross the border and seize the country’s territory, which we will not allow,” said Yatsenyuk, yet so far haven’t confronted pro-Russian groups seizing government buildings. Calling the Kremlin-driven actions in Eastern Ukraine a “destabilization strategy,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said Moscow wasn’t finished seizing territory in Ukraine. Moscow wants Ukraine to confirm in “non-aligned” stance, steering away from eventual membership in NATO or the EU. What irked Putin about the Feb. 22 revolution was that it occurred while he hosted the Sochi winter Olympics. It took Putin only a week after the games ended to seize Crimea.

If there were any doubt, Bildt told the West that Moscow wasn’t finished with its power grab in Ukraine. “Those who thought that it ended with Crimea were wrong,” said Bildt, highlighting Western impotence in stopping the Kremlin from seizing more of Ukraine. “If the political forces that call themselves the Ukrainian government continue to take irresponsible attitude toward the fate of the country and its people, Ukraine will inevitably face new difficulties and crises,” said Russia’s Foreign Ministry. Moscow doesn’t recognize Ukraine’s new revolutionary government. Western countries were quick to recognize Ukraine’s new pro-Western government, despite toppling the Russian-backed government of democratically elected Viktor Yanukovich. Threatening Ukraine with a broader takeover, the weak new government is in no position to confront Moscow’s superior military strength.

No matter what pro-Russian groups want in Eastern Ukraine, Moscow walks a dangerous tightrope seizing more Ukrainian territory. While Putin denies that membership in the G7 or other prestigious international groups matter, more intrusions in Ukraine threatens to push Moscow into rogue nation status. Whatever Cossacks do in Eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin needs to look at the consequences of international isolation. “Without your support, without the support of Russia, it will be hard for us to resist the Kiev junta on our own,” said a pro-Russian rebel seeking Russian control of Eastern Ukraine. Despite pulling off the same stunt as Crimea, Moscow risks more international isolation seizing more territory. Russia’s deputy speaker of the Upper House of parliament Ilyas Umakhanov doesn’t see the same outcome in Donetsk that happened in Crimea.

Putin has some big decisions to make in Eastern Ukraine: Seize more territory and face more international isolation. If the EU votes to ban all Russian petroleum products, including natural gas, it would be a $160 billion blow to Russia’s $2 trillion economy. While Bildt might overstate Russia’s intent in Ukraine, there’s no question that there’s an ongoing debate in the Kremlin how far Russian should go. “I don’t think this situation automatically reflects what happened in Crimea . . . from the judicial, historical and legal points of view, it demands a separate assessment,” said Umakhanov. While the U.S. and EU would like to see Russian forces withdraw from the Ukrainian border, Kiev must proceed with caution with threats to rid Eastern Ukraine for pro-Kremlin forces. Any aggressive move by Kiev could trigger a full Russian invasion like Putin did in 2008 when he taught Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili a lesson about provoking the Kremlin.

About the Author

John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.

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