KIEV, Ukraine — With the Russian takeover of Crimea all but complete — Russia’s Senate is expected to give final approval to the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation on Friday — Ukrainians are waiting for the other shoe to drop. And expecting that it certainly will.
Indeed, many people here believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing a game that goes far beyond reclaiming a piece of land that first became part of the Russian Empire during the rule of Catherine the Great. What they see adds up to what in Kiev is now jokingly referred to as a “Russian Spring,” a term usually meaning an uncomfortably cold season.
But while in the United States it’s fashionable to cast Putin as playing chess, his approach seems closer to the American board game “Risk” — a game of maps.
“All options remain on the table,” said Bobo Lo, a Russia expert at the British think tank Chatham House.
What are those options? For those who wonder if Putin, who famously has said the collapse of the Soviet Union 23 years ago was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, might be intent on reassembling at least part of it, the next conquest could be southeastern Ukraine.
“Crimea is definitely not the end,” said leading Ukrainian military analyst Oleksiy Melnyk, co-director of Razumkov Centre, a research center in Kiev. “He will not be satisfied.”
Experts then wonder about Transnistria in Moldova, a breakaway region that has requested Russian annexation. That’s just west of Ukraine. And just north is Belarus, also discussed by Putin as historically important to Russia.
Beyond that, experts wonder if he has designs on areas such as Georgia (from which Russia seized two breakaway republics in 2008, though it has yet to officially admit them to the Russian Federation), northern Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. All were part of the Soviet Union and have substantial populations of Russians and Russian speakers — Kazakhstan, second only to Ukraine in the size of its Russian diaspora.
“Right now, I believe the weak sanctions from the West for Crimea have told him he has a relatively free hand,” said Marcel de Haas, a security and Russia expert at the Dutch think tank Clingendael Institute. “There are some strong words, but the West has made it clear that NATO won’t get involved. Right now, I’d say the red line for NATO is Poland.”
Friday marks the end of the so-called “peace interval,” which Russia declared as a sort of grace period after Sunday’s referendum in Crimea. During the interval, Ukrainian troops would not face hostility from their Russian counterparts now in Crimea. Once the interval has expired, however, Ukrainian troops must have left Russian Crimean soil or signed up for Russian military service, or be seen as bandits.
A Ukrainian coast guard captain in Crimea warns that Crimea is more of a template for what is to come in the rest of his country than a completed act.
“We know we’re going to continue to see ‘hot spots’ pop up in the coming months,” said the captain, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “The Russians will create them, then once again say they are protecting their people and exploit the situation.”
A quick look at a map shows why. Crimea is a peninsula on the Black Sea, with land connections only to Ukraine. The Russian mainland is tantalizingly close, but separated from Crimea by water.
Melnyk, the military expert, said he expects that geographic disconnect will become a tool for Putin, who will use Crimea’s isolation as a rationale for creating a Russian corridor to Crimea through Ukraine.
“There is no justification for such concerns, Ukraine would never cut off Crimea,” Melnyk said. “But I would expect him to use it.”
Or listen to Putin wax poetic about Ukraine.
During his speech to the Russian Parliament urging the annexation of Crimea, Putin called Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, “the mother of all Russian cities.” He noted that “we are not simply close neighbors but, as I have said many times already, we are one people.”
Putin made clear in Tuesday’s speech that he views Ukraine as a part of Russia and regrets their separation as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. “Ancient Rus is our common source,” he said, referring to the state founded in Kiev in the ninth century, “and we cannot live without each other.”
Putin’s words were not a direct threat, but many people here interpreted them that way, as did Zbignew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser. Speaking Thursday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Brzezinski quoted several passages from Putin’s speech, including one that said Russian communist revolutionaries — “may God judge them,” Putin said — had “added large sections of the historical south of Russia to the republic of Ukraine … without consideration for the ethnic makeup of the population.”
Those areas are the very ones that would be needed to establish a land corridor to Crimea from Russia.
The conclusion, Brzezinksi said, was that Putin was laying a possible historical rationale for grabbing more Ukrainian territory, particularly if the moment arises where Russian speakers and ethnic Russians are mistreated inside Ukraine. Later, Putin reinforced the idea, saying protecting the rights and interests of the “millions of Russians and Russian-speaking people” who live in Ukraine “is the guarantee of Ukraine’s state stability and territorial integrity.”
Or, consider Ukrainian member of Parliament Kseniya Lyapina’s point: Putin had been struggling domestically. His approval rating had slipped to its lowest point in 13 years before the Winter Olympics and the invasion of Crimea. And while they were still a rather healthy 61 percent, those ratings are soaring right now. “When he no longer needs to distract people domestically, he’ll stop his outside activities. That won’t be soon.”
Or, perhaps most ominously, there’s the constant, though vastly overstated, theme from Moscow that fascists now control Kiev. In that view, Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine are in grave danger. Russia, numerous official statements remind the world, has a responsibility to protect these innocents. As Ukrainian Minister of Defense Ihor Tenyukh pointed out this week, Russia has 60,000 troops massing on the border near Donetsk, and at many levels it has been talking about the danger they face, and that Russia is considering their pleas for help.
Those words are virtual echoes of statements before Russian troops took control of Crimea. In fact, Vitali Klitschko, a Ukrainian member of Parliament and a former world heavyweight boxing champion, this week pointedly spoke about “when” and not “if” Russian troops invade the Donetsk district.
Thursday at the Ukrainian Rada, or Parliament, Ukrainian politicians made a point of saying that they don’t need or expect direct U.S. or European military support. They don’t think American troops on the ground to face off with Russia are a good idea. But they also say they would very much appreciate much harsher sanctions against Russia, sanctions tough enough to hit Putin’s inner circle hard and make Putin pause.
Ukraine could use military advisers, technical help and weapons assistance, they said.
Olga Oliker, a Russia and security expert at the Washington office of the Rand Corp., a research organization, said there are reasons for the West not to file Putin’s actions under “not our problem.”
“On one level, this is very real, these are deeply held beliefs based on a lot of history,” she said. “On another level, this is absolutely about the United States. It’s almost nostalgic for the days when Russia was one of the world’s two great powers, and the desire to return to those days.”
Outside the Rada on Thursday, a collection of about 50 Ukrainian navy and paratroop veterans gathered to ask their politicians to act now to stop this game of maps from swallowing up more of their country.
But these retired veterans hadn’t spent their entire careers in the Ukrainian military. They each began as Soviet sailors. One of those present helped create and commanded the first Ukrainian naval brigade. He said that he’d never imagined at that time that one day the organization he helped create would face off against the organization that helped create him as a sailor.
Like those around him, he wore Soviet military symbols and medals. Many wore the old Soviet Red Star, with hammer and sickle. Vladimir Voloshyn said he has many friends still active in both the Russian and Ukrainian navies. He said he cannot think of Russian sailors as enemies. But he said Putin is clearly an enemy of Ukraine and must be stopped sooner rather than later if Ukraine is to be saved.
“We’re here to help, and if needed to actively help in saving our friends in Crimea,” he said. “We’re here because we are preparing for the worst.”