Russia approves troops for Ukraine. Is war looming?

An expanded Russian invasion of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula seems imminent. So far Ukraine has avoided confrontations with Russian troops, but there are fears of a slip towards war.

Ivan Sekretarev
One of the many soldiers without insignia - presumed by most observers to be Russian - who have fanned out across Ukraine's Crimea in the past two days.

Russia's upper house of parliament unanimously approved President Vladimir Putin's request today to send a "limited contingent" of troops into Crimea, a move that may be interpreted in Kiev and around the world as a declaration of war against independent Ukraine.

Russian forces have been active in Crimea in recent days, patrolling the roads and liaising with local pro-Russian militias who have occupied government buildings and airports, but those troops have been able to claim they were legally garrisoned in the Russian naval base of Sevastopol. Now the gloves -- and the masks -- are off, and experts say they expect to see regular Russian troops arriving in force over the next few hours, either by air or by sea from nearby Russia.

"In connection with the extraordinary situation that has developed in Ukraine and the threat to citizens of the Russian Federation, our compatriots. . .  I hereby appeal to the Council of Federation of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation to use the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of  Ukraine until the social and political situation in that country is normalized," says Mr. Putin's appeal, posted on the Kremlin website.

The resolution passed by the Russian parliament, and the mostly-approving discussion in the house that accompanied it, suggests the intervention would be limited to Crimea. But experts say that, like so many past examples of "limited" military operations, it may very well mutate into something much bigger in the tense days and weeks ahead.

"This can be interpreted as a declaration of war. The thing is, once the troops go in, it's doubtful they will ever leave Crimea," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant.           

The move follows a request to the Kremlin earlier Saturday from Crimean prime minister Sergei Aksyonov, a pro-Russian politician appointed just last Thursday, for protection against unspecified threats. "I am turning to Russian President Vladimir Putin to request assistance to preserve peace and calm," the official RIA-Novosti agency quoted Mr. Aksyonov as saying .

Crimea is a Russian-majority territory that was "gifted" to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, ironically to celebrate 300 years of Ukrainian-Russian unity. The change carried no consequences until the USSR broke up, and Crimea became an autonomous republic within independent Ukraine.

The current situation is sharply different from the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, in which Russia intervened to protect two breakaway territories populated by people who'd earlier been mostly granted Russian citizenship. In that case, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili arguably provoked Russian retaliation by attacking one of the republics, South Ossetia, and killing about a dozen Russian peacekeeping troops that were stationed there.

In this case, despite heated rhetoric, the new authorities in Kiev have made no military move to counter Russia's growing grip on Crimea.

"It is not clear what the mission of this expeditionary force will be. There is no real and present danger in Crimea," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "Despite the language of the resolution, there is no evidence that Crimean citizens were threatened, nor was there any sign of danger to our naval base at Sevastopol. There are no obvious factors to justify this."

Mr. Konovalov points out that the decision to deploy a "limited contingent" until the situation in Crimea is "normalized" is exactly the same terminology employed by the former Soviet Politburo when it decided to send troops into Afghanistan to prop up a pro-Soviet regime there in late 1979. "We all remember how that turned out," he says.

In Kiev, the initial response to the Russian move was muted.

Ukraine's new prime minister, Aseny Yatseniuk, called it a "provocation" and said Ukraine would not be drawn into conflict with Russia. "We will not use force, we demand that the government of the Russian Federation immediately withdraw its troops and return to their home bases," news agencies quoted him as saying.

On Friday President Barack Obama said that there "will be costs" for any Russian military action on Ukrainian soil in a vague and short press briefing in which he refused to take reporters' questions..

"It seems unlikely that the US or NATO will step in militarily," says Mr. Strokan. "There will be sanctions, complaints, but even these will blow over as they have in the past. Basically, Putin is capitalizing on the West's weakness."

But Konovalov says Russia has torpedoed any chance of reconciliation with the new government in Kiev, and could face painful consequences down the road, including possible expulsion from the Group of Eight leading democracies, a boycott of future Russian-hosted events like the recent Sochi Winter Games, and other tough measures.

"To send troops into a neighboring country, with no adequate reasons and without a clear-cut mission is worse than a crime, it's a terrible mistake," he says.

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