Is Putin sending message to Ukraine with Russian military drills?

Putin's order for military exercises near Ukraine is sure to rattle nerves around Europe. But the Kremlin also appears hesitant to expand Russian Ukrainians' access to citizenship.

Alexei Nikolsky/RIA-Novosti/Presidential Press Service/AP/File
Russian President Vladimir Putin (r.) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu attend a meeting while visiting the airborne troops school in the city of Ryazan, Russia, in November 2013. Mr. Putin on Wednesday ordered massive exercises involving most of its military units in western Russia amid tensions in Ukraine.

Russia appears to be keeping all its options open when it comes to the increasingly separatist indications coming out of Ukraine's east and south.

Even as the Kremlin appeared to be putting the brakes on efforts by parliamentarian hardliners to expand citizenship for ethnic Russians in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin ordered surprise military exercises in the western and central military districts that abut Ukraine.

"The Supreme Commander-in-Chief has set tasks to check capability of troops to take actions to settle crisis situations that pose a threat to military security of the country as well as terrorism-related, sanitary epidemiological and man-made emergencies," Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is quoted by Russian news agencies as telling a meeting of military leaders.

The two-stage drills, which will run until March 7, will involve Russian ground armies, two naval fleets, and air forces that include tactical fighters, airborne troops, transport units, and strategic bombers. Mr. Shoigu also said that special "anti-terrorist" measures are to be put into immediate effect in all military townships of the western district, which runs from the Arctic to Russia's borders with Belarus and Ukraine.

It's a big, significantly timed military exercise and not a mobilization for war, says Alexander Golts, deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal. Still, he notes, it is not clear just what it portends. "Maybe we're just ratcheting up the tensions here, but maybe something else will follow. It is a growing tendency in modern Russia that we do not seem to care any longer what the world thinks about us."

The move comes as tensions rise over Crimea, a 60 percent Russian-populated autonomous republic in Ukraine. The region has seen growing strife between the pro-EU minority in the Black Sea peninsula's population that supports the new government in Kiev, and the pro-Moscow majority who have staged huge demonstrations, particularly in the Russian naval base city of Sevastopol, asking Moscow to "protect" them.

Analysts say the sudden maneuvers, though depicted as routine by Shoigu, are certainly freighted with messages for neighboring Ukraine and the watching West.

"Ukraine is the front page news today, it is our key bone of contention with the West right now, so there is no possibility that this rather loud signal could be about anything but Ukraine," says Sergei Strokan, who covers Ukrainian affairs for the Moscow daily Kommersant.

"One clear message is that if Ukraine moves to restore its control in Crimea through military means, Russia may act as it did in Georgia in 2008," he says, referring to when Russian forces drove invading Georgians out of the breakaway territory of South Ossetia. The Kremlin later granted "independence" to that little region and another pro-Russian republic, Abkhazia.

Long before Russia detached those two territories from Georgia, it had granted Russian citizenship to most of their inhabitants under Russian legislation that entitles any former Soviet citizen to apply for a Russian passport.

But at the moment, the Kremlin seems disinclined to move ahead with efforts by hardliners in the Russian parliament Wednesday to pass fresh laws that would make it easy for Crimeans to receive Russian papers.

Valentina Matviyenko, the Kremlin-appointed speaker of the Federation Council, the parliament's upper house, told journalists that draft legislation submitted by the Communists and the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party was "untimely," according to the official ITAR-Tass agency.

Russia "should not give signals and reasons for reproaches. We are interested in preserving Ukraine’s statehood," Ms. Matviyenko said. "In this respect, this issue is not topical yet, we should think it over."

Mr. Strokan thinks the Kremlin is not ready to extend new protections to Russian Ukrainians just yet. "This is all at the stage of signalling and contingency planning," he says. But if it thinks Russians' rights are being violated, "then Russia will act."

"Intervening in Crimea would create a rift with the West ... but perhaps Putin doesn't care about that anymore," Strokan says. "Russia has grown stronger, more assertive, and more anti-Western. This is our back yard, the people in Crimea are Russians, and there's no chance Russia will back down if it comes to a struggle over that."

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