Putin’s Shadow Shock Troops Roil Ukraine

Vladimir Putin draws on his background as a master spy, testing and teasing the new regime in Kiev and its backers in Washington.

The world woke up Friday morning to the spectacle of Russia staging a non-invasion invasion of Ukraine: mysterious armed men in uniforms occupied the airport in the Crimean capital of Simferopol while what appeared to be conventional Russian troops reportedly blockaded the military airport at Sevastopol. The previous day, in the pre-dawn dark, another group of men had occupied the regional parliament building. And all this took place against the background of 150,000 Russian troops on the move and Russian jets roaring through the skies just across the border.

Ukraine’s acting interior minister, Arsen Avakov, raged over what he called “an armed invasion and occupation” in Crimea. He declared the airport takeovers were in violation of “all international treaties and norms” and claimed they were intended to provoke “armed bloodshed.”

Yet there had been no armed confrontation. The civilian airport is still operating. And the way the moves were carried out—possibly by Russian soldiers, or maybe local Ukrainian Russian-speakers, or, who knows? – clouded the question of who, precisely, was doing what to whom.

American intelligence agencies have concluded that most likely there will be no open invasion of Ukraine. But analysts expect there will be more moves by Russian President Vladimir Putin of the sort we’ve seen over the last two days.

Putin was a spy before he was a politician and he will use all the tools at the disposal, overt and covert, to force Ukraine back into his orbit, or punish it for trying to pull out.

The overthrow of the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was “a real setback for Russia,” says Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations. “In some ways it is a frontal assault on Russia’s vision of its place in the world, and that is going to leave Putin angry and smarting.” Part of his strategy now seems to be to test and tease the new Ukrainian government and its supporters in Europe and the United States.

The Russians lease a huge naval base for their Black Sea Fleet at the Crimean port of Sevastopol, so they already have considerable forces on the ground. “What I worry about is a provocation in the Crimea that gives the Russians an excuse to start using the 15,000 troops they have there to lock down part of the peninsula or stir up trouble,” Kupchan said shortly before the news broke about the airports. Tensions would ratchet up until “the most likely scenario for a [Russian] use of force would be a murky bout of bloodletting in which Russia deploys troops in the name of preserving order and preventing further loss of life.”

The new Ukrainian government clearly worries about the same thing. On Thursday it demanded that Russian troops in Crimea stay confined to quarters under terms agreed in the 1997 lease agreement for the Sevastopol base. Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov warned that “any movement, particularly with weapons, outside official residences … will be interpreted by us as military aggression.”

So, what happened at Simferopol airport? Interim Interior Minister Avokov said that first about 100 men who called themselves “Cossacks” without further elaboration tried to occupy the airport on Thursday night. But they left in trucks around one in the morning on Friday. Then “119 armed soldiers in camouflage apparently belonging to the Russian armed forces”—but without insignia—“arrived at the airport building at 1:30 a.m. and settled in an airport restaurant.”

When police asked the men if they were indeed soldiers and if they had permission to be in the airport, they simply refused to answer. Eventually they deployed outside the airport as well as inside.

A paper being distributed to members of the U.S. Congress by the Ukrainian embassy in Washington offers a chronology of several incidents preceding the airport occupations, including other small-scale Russian military deployments around the peninsula.

The paper calls on the United States to “promote a peaceful solution to this challenging situation” and to support “Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.” And Secretary of State John Kerry has been trying to do just that. He says again and again that he hopes Russia will cooperate to stabilize the situation in Ukraine.

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But if Putin doesn’t see things that way, the Americans’ tools for pressuring him are limited. As Kupchan points out, Washington’s short term strategy probably has to be to lean on the new Ukraine regime “to behave and exercise restraint and to build a government that represents an inclusive tent and that avoids actions that could be seen as rubbing the Kremlin’s nose [in its defeat].” It would also be wise, says Kupchan, for the United States and Europe to “avoid rhetoric and actions that would play into Putin’s paranoia.”

Yet at some point the Obama administration may have to define what it means by “grave” consequences for Russia if it intervenes in Ukraine. At this point no one seems to know what those would be: Withdrawing ambassadors? Some form of sanctions? “It would depend on the nature of the intervention,” says Kupchan, but if the situation really gets ugly, “U.S.-Russian relations would take an adversarial turn of the sort we have not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

Former NATO commander James Stavridis, now dean of the Fletcher School, takes much the same view. “I hope Vladimir Putin is listening closely to Secretary of State Kerry's warnings against intervention in Ukraine,” he tells The Daily Beast. “Doing so would be a geopolitical disaster for all sides.”

Most likely, Putin will continue to taunt Kiev and Washington as he did this morning in Simferopol airport, biding his time like those nameless soldiers sitting in the coffee shop, until he thinks the moment is right for a more decisive move.

Additional reporting by Eli Lake