Private security contractors working for the Russian military are the unmarked troops who have now seized control over two airports in the Ukrainian province of Crimea, according to informed sources in the region. And those contractors could be setting the stage for ousted President Viktor Yanukovich to come to the breakaway region.
The new Ukrainian government in Kiev has accused Moscow of “an armed invasion and occupation” in the Crimean cities of Simferopol and Sevastopol, where well-armed and well-organized troops with no markings or identification have taken control of the airports. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Secretary of State John Kerry over the phone Friday that no Russian military or marines have been deployed outside of the base of the Black Sea Fleet, which is anchored nearby, officials in both governments said.
Lavrov was technically telling the truth, but the troops are being directed by the Russian government. Although not confirmed, informed sources in Moscow are telling their American interlocutors that the troops belong to Vnevedomstvenaya Okhrana, the private security contracting bureau inside the Russian interior ministry that hires mercenaries to protect Russian Navy installations and assets in Crimea. Other diplomatic sources said that the troops at the airport were paramilitary troops but not specifically belonging to Vnevedomstvenaya Okhrana.
“They don’t have Russian military uniforms and the Russia government is denying they are part of the Russian military. Actually most of them may be Ukrainian citizens. But these are people that are legally allowed to perform services to the Russian fleet,” said Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest.
A Russian Foreign Ministry statement Friday did not address the troops at the airport but did acknowledge that armored elements of the Black Sea Fleet had been moved in Crimea, “associated with the need to ensure the protection of locations of the Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine, what is happening in full accordance with the basic Russian-Ukrainian agreements on the Black Sea Fleet.”
Simes cautioned that information about the fast moving events in Crimea is hard to verify, but the message coming out of Moscow is that these security contractors were deployed by the Russian military for two purposes; first of all they want to secure the airport to ensure that thousands of pro-western protesters don’t descend into Crimea to push back against the Crimean population’s effort to establish a new government and seek some autonomy from the new government in Kiev, which most Crimeans see as illegitimate.
Second, the forces could be paving the way for Yanukovich to travel to Crimea, where he will maintain that he is still the president of all Ukraine. In fact, Yanukovich was involved in the decision to deploy the security contractors to the airport, he said.
“They are providing an extended perimeter of security. Yanukovich certainly has the authority (in Moscow’s view) to allow these units to extend their service wherever it is appropriate,” said Simes. “I am told by informed sources in Moscow that this is what it happening.”
The Russian government response to the events in Crimea, where pro-Russian citizens have also taken over government buildings, is still a work in progress. Moscow is working with Yanukovich to plan his appearance in Crimea, where he would lead a political gathering and “give his blessing” to what’s going on there,but no announcement has yet been made.
“I don’t think the Russian government wants to be allied with Yanukovich; he would be an albatross around their neck. But he allows them to do certain things,” said Simes. “I was told more generally that Yanukovich’s cooperation, which is described as legitimate cooperation, is providing cover for the new Crimean government to do a lot of things, and ignore the new leaders in Kiev.”
Senior U.S. officials have been warning Russian leaders both in public and private not to intervene in Ukraine militarily and to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. U.S. intelligence officials have seen no signs that Russia is planning to use huge nearby military exercises to prepare for an outright invasion of Ukraine.
But the private security forces provide a loophole for Vladimir Putin; he can claim there is no Russian “military” intervention while using Russian-controlled forces to exert influence inside Ukraine. The plan would be to give the new Crimean government a space to hold a referendum and then elections, thereby establishing a province with some autonomy from Kiev.
Paul Saunders, the executive director of the Center for the National Interest, said that the Obama administration faces a particularly bad set of choices when it comes to responding to the airport takeovers, especially if is confirmed they are Russian government controlled security contractors.
“If the Obama administration takes a public position that they are Russian forces, then they need to explain what they plan to do. This will be quite similar to the red line in Syria, in that they will have to choose between imposing the ‘consequences’ that administration officials have warned about, repeating statements that have been ignored, or saying that it is not really an ‘invasion,’” he said.
In the end, the U.S. is not going to deploy troops to Ukraine. Washington has limited ability to use economic sanctions, and therefore may not be able to stop the Russian backed Crimeans from possibly teaming with Yanukovich. If the former Ukrainian president can’t take over all of Ukraine, perhaps he can establish a breakaway government in Crimea that ignores the powers in Kiev.
“We have a very weak hand. I don’t see an endgame where we would be able to force them to leave. You could have a situation where you have two governments both claiming to be the legitimate government of Ukraine,” he said. “My dark fear is a repeat of Taiwan in 1949.”
Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, said that if the reports are true, Moscow may have severely overplayed its hand in Ukraine.
“If it’s true that Russian troops being directed by Moscow are crossing the line from simply securing existing Russian interests in Crimea to undermining Ukrainian sovereignty in Crimea, than Russia stands to lose from that because Russia’s influence in all of Ukraine will wane dramatically,” he said.