Crimea’s War of Nerves

Vladimir Putin's forces in Crimea are trying to pick a fight. But the Ukrainians hunkered down in their bases have every interest in abstaining.


SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine — Try to imagine the dilemma that faces Ihor, a Ukrainian naval officer from a base in Crimea that’s now surrounded by the Russian troops that are tightening their grip on the peninsula. (I’ve changed his identity because of the obvious risks to his personal safety.) "I’m afraid that the Russians are now waiting to see how we’ll react," he told me. "Whatever we do is high risk. If we fight back against them, chances are that Russian ethnic civilians will be killed or wounded, and Putin will use that as an excuse to push into southern and eastern Ukraine. But if we do nothing, they’ll take that as a sign of weakness and think they can do whatever they want without any opposition from us — which they’ll soon find is not the case at all."

So far, the weapons in Crimea are silent. But that hasn’t stopped Ukraine and Russia from engaging in a ferocious psychological tug-of-war.

On Sunday, a Ukrainian news agency reported that Russian forces in Crimea had issued an ultimatum to the Ukrainian military units stationed there. But the deadline passed without event — prompting observers to wonder whether the whole thing was a mistake from the start, or perhaps a carefully calculated bluff implemented by Russian commanders on the ground to provoke an incident. If that was the case, the Ukrainian troops on the peninsula have so far managed to hold their ground. (In the photo above, Russian soldiers stand guard outside the entrance to a Ukrainian military base in Crimea.)

But that hasn’t stopped Moscow from ratcheting up the pressure. Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin insists that the decision to intervene in Crimea was motivated by a "threat to the lives of citizens of the Russian Federation, our fellow countrymen," in Ukraine. Moscow has accused the interim government in Kiev, which took power after President Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital, of preparing to wage violence against ethnic Russians — despite the yawning lack of evidence to bolster the claim.

The Ukrainian government is fighting back as best as it can. It has repeatedly stressed its willingness for talks with Moscow. It has tried to signal compromise on issues of language and culture that fuel the fears of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Last week, for example, interim President Oleksandr Turchynov vetoed a controversial law passed by the post-Yanukovych parliament that would have made Ukrainian the sole state language. Turchynov’s veto upheld an earlier law that elevated the status of Russian in majority Russian-speaking regions. Russian broadcast media glossed over the conciliatory veto — but dwelt at length on the abolished law, which many Russian-speakers in Ukraine had regarded as an affront.

Members of the new government have said that one of their priorities must be to break through Russia’s "information blockade." The eastern parts of Ukraine depend on Russia’s state-controlled television networks for much of their information, and the Kremlin’s broadcasters are working full-time to whip up emotions. It’s hard for a Western audience to appreciate how disconnected from reality Putin’s Russia can be. The ability to project lies has been aided by Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, who owns the largest TV station in eastern Ukraine and has so far worked almost in tandem with Moscow’s propaganda.

Last week, some Ukrainians linked with the Euromaidan protesters who broke Yanukovych’s rule suggested that the government should undertake measures to block Russian TV channels. The idea was rejected by members of parliament, who pointed out that shutting down media outlets would be inconsistent with the protesters’ declared aims of protecting press freedom.

Putin, meanwhile, is desperately thrashing around for examples of harassment or persecution of the Russian ethnic population that he can present as justification for invasion. So far, though, he has little to go on. A former senior adviser to Putin, Andrei Illarionov, also believes that Putin is using the same techniques he employed for his 2008 invasion of Georgia’s South Ossetia region under the pretext of protecting Russian citizens.

"The main aim is to provoke a civil war in Ukraine," says Illarionov. "To provoke the new Ukrainian government to respond, react, use force, and open fire so that there are many victims." Putin, he said, "needs corpses, many corpses."

In Crimea itself, many local people happily accept the Russian version of events. Local Russian political and community leaders, who have long chafed under Kiev’s rule, have welcomed the Russian deployment. Last month, the leader of a local Russian nationalist party, Sergei Aksenov, was elected leader of the peninsula’s autonomous parliament in elections whose transparency has been challenged. He said the Russian troops were needed to prevent Ukrainian "nationalists and fascists" from marching on Crimea.

Galya, a 21-year-old Russian restaurant worker in Sevastopol, told me: "I think the soldiers are here to save us." When I asked her what they were saving her from, she answered: "I’m not really sure."

In recent days, the Kremlin has claimed that 675,000 ethnic Russians have fled in fear across the border to Russia. So far, however, there has been little factual evidence to bolster that claim. There have been no pictures of refugees crowding into Russia, no evidence of vast movements of people out of Ukraine. Border crossings between Ukraine and Russia are operating as normal. There seems, however, to have been a certain influx of Russian citizens into Ukraine. Busloads of Russian agitators in civilian clothes have shown up in eastern cities like Kharkiv, where there have been clashes between rival protesters, to stir up trouble.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government continues to worry about the possibility of provocations. Government officials claim that they have received tips that Russia was planning to arrange for several of its own soldiers to be shot dead to manufacture the casus belli Putin has so far been unable to get. The Ukrainian media widely disseminated the information in the hope that it would be impossible to carry out the plan if enough people knew about it.

Ukraine’s best hope, however, may well be the stubborn resistance of its soldiers on the peninsula who have so far largely refused to succumb to the building pressure from the Russian forces surrounding them. Moscow claims that Ukrainian resistance is crumbling, but so far, again, there is little concrete evidence to support the claim. To be sure, Russian media have jumped on images of the Ukrainian admiral who recently declared his loyalty to the Kremlin.

But the Ukrainians have countered with stirring footage of their continued resistance — such as this video of unarmed Ukrainian soldiers singing their national anthem as they walk up to Russian soldiers firing warning shots over their heads. The Ukrainians’ refusal to play the role Putin has assigned to them in this drama may well be the most powerful weapon in their arsenal.

Ukraine is threatened by the loss of sovereignty over one of its most important territories, and the profound destabilization that goes with it. By going for broke over Crimea, Russia may have triggered a confrontation that could well rebound against it, ultimately undercutting its ambitions to rebuild a broader sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. In the end, indeed, it may be Vladimir Putin who has the most to lose. His Crimean adventure was intended to bolster his standing after the collapse of the government of his protégé Yanukovych — and, with it, his effort to prod Ukraine into the Russian orbit. But so far he has succeeded, in the eyes of most of the world, in merely looking like a bully.

The stakes are enormous — and not just for Russians and Ukrainians. The Crimean crisis is shaping up to be the most important event in East-West relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Small wonder that the war of nerves is so ferocious.

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