Russia's plans for Crimea were long in the making

And the US knew that Russia was laying the ground to make a move on the strategically useful peninsula. Doing something about it is another matter.

Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters
Armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, stand guard outside a Ukrainian military unit in the village of Perevalnoye outside Simferopol, March 11, 2014.

The Crimea region of Ukraine is headed toward a referendum this Sunday, with the peninsula, home to a majority Russian-speaking population and a major Russian naval base, already out of Ukraine's grasp.

Russian soldiers posing as Crimean "self-defense" forces are thick on the ground, and the referendum has been written to make separation from Ukraine a foregone conclusion. Voters are being given a choice between independence or unification with Russia, and the pro-Russian legislators who control the regional government are already laying the groundwork for joining the country. Russia seems fine with this.

How did we get here so quickly? Russia has been preparing for this contingency for years – which comes as a surprise to no one who had been following the situation closely. While there have been howls from corners of Congress that the US intelligence community failed to see this coming, Russian contingency planning over Crimea has been known to the US government for at least seven years.

A Dec. 7, 2006 cable from the US Embassy in Kiev, leaked to Wikileaks by former US soldier Chelsea Manning, outlined the ways in which Russia – alarmed by NATO expansion to the east and afraid of Ukraine possibly joining the European Union – was setting the table in Crimea. Ukraine's so-called Orange Revolution, which brought a government to power that looked west more than east, had happened just two years prior.

Russia had been busy in the meantime.

The author of the cable, titled "The Russia Factor in Crimea - Ukraine's Soft Underbelly?" writes on how Ukrainian officials were dismissive of Crimean separatism at the time, but:

Nearly all contended that pro-Russian forces in Crimea, acting with funding and direction from Moscow, have systematically attempted to increase communal tensions in Crimea in the two years since the Orange Revolution. They have done so by cynically fanning ethnic Russian chauvinism towards Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians, through manipulation of issues like the status of the Russian language, NATO, and an alleged Tatar threat to "Slavs," in a deliberate effort to destabilize Crimea, weaken Ukraine, and prevent Ukraine's movement west into institutions like NATO and the EU. While the total number of pro-Russian activists in Crimea is relatively low, the focus is on shaping public perceptions and controlling the information space, so far with success.

Give that diplomat a star. In the past few weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin's government has, as predicted, made trumped-up claims that its actions have been necessary to protect ethnic-Russians in Crimea (never mind that there have been no reports of attacks against them) and effectively used the Russian-language media it controls to frighten the region's people.

As Sabra Ayres wrote for the Monitor from Simferopol, Crimea, earlier this month:

It was an altogether different scene from the media reports running on the predominately Russian news outlets broadcast across Crimea. Russian news channels, such as Russia 24, run hourly reports depicting a deteriorating situation in Ukraine, with editorial suggestions that the lives of the peninsula’s ethnic-Russian population are under threat.

... The televised claims of Ukraine in chaos and promises of Russian troops coming in to save the Russian population has built up support in Crimea for Mr. Putin’s actions and the Russian military has encountered a population that has largely accepted with open arms.

The diplomat wrote of Russian financial outreach to groups in Crimea and the use of disinformation and intelligence operations from Russia's Black Sea Fleet, based in Ukraine's Sevastopol under a lease agreement, to foment and strengthen anti-Kiev sentiment.

The author also noted that the area was fertile ground for pro-Russian inclinations. That is a result of Stalin's purging the peninsula of its ethnic Tatars and smaller minorities in 1944 – and replacing them with ethnic Russians from eastern Ukraine and Russia proper. Many Tatars, eager for independence from the Soviet Union, backed Nazi Germany during the war. Today, "up to 70 percent" of Crimea's  population is ethnic Russian. 

The cable reads: "While there has always been overwhelmingly pro-Russian sentiment in Crimea's population, the beginning of systematic, organized efforts by pro-Russian groups backed by Russian money is a relatively new phenomenon, most Crimean observers claimed. [Oleksandr, then a member of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council] Lytvynenko stated that the Russian [Black Sea Fleet's] sizable intel unit, part of the GRU (Russian military intelligence), was active in deliberately fostering interethnic tensions in Crimea to ensure that a state of constant simmering tension was maintained. This included money to local groups carrying out Moscow's wishes, information campaigns, and occasional logistic support, including for the May-June anti-NATO protests in Feodosia.

This cable doesn't speculate as to where all this could be heading. But an Embassy Kiev cable from October 2009 does. The cable, "Ukraine-Russia: Is Military Conflict No Longer Unthinkable?" was written in the context of Russia's lease on the Sevastopol naval base expiring in 2017 (the lease was extended until 2042 shortly after now-deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych came to office in 2010). But it's still a good read on Russia's strategic concerns in Crimea.

"Recent Russian actions have spurred a public discussion within the Ukrainian elite about Russian intentions toward Ukraine," the author writes. "The overall impression is that Russian military action against Ukraine, while still unlikely, is no longer unthinkable."

The cable quotes two articles from former Ukrainian National Security Advisor Volodymyr Horbulin, in which he argued "that Russia has many non-military levers with which to influence Ukraine (above all, by stirring up trouble in the Crimea)" and "he did not rule out the use of military force, especially if Ukraine's new president proves not to be as pliable as the Kremlin may hope."

The new president, Yanukovych, turned out to be sufficiently pliable. But his flight to Russia late last month as angry crowds surged against him in Kiev's Maidan has brought a clique to power that are far less reliable from Russia's perspective.

Today, Russia is successfully consolidating its position in Crimea and Mr. Putin seems unconcerned about how the US sees things. Why would he? Either a Crimea incorporated in the Russian Federation, or a weak independent state that will probably be reliant on financial transfers from Moscow to replace those lost from Kiev, will suit him.

Did the US see this coming? As a possibility, yes. But could that knowledge have been used to head off Russian action on its doorstep, in an area of both emotional and strategic importance to the country? It's hard to see how.

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