Ukraine crisis: Russian nationalists dream of empire’s rebirth

 

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Listening to the choir of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in the sunshine at Yalta, Ilya Drozdov, a key figure in the Duma’s committee to “reintegrate” former Soviet states, confidently told me: “Crimea will join us within a few weeks, the east and the south within four or five months.

“Remember Lenin, ‘Russia without Ukraine is like a body without a heart’. The only way those currently in power in Kiev stop this is by force and that will bring consequences.” The deputy head of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s right-wing party was wrong on the time frame: President Vladimir Putin signed the document to annex Ukraine just eight days later.

In Simferopol, the Crimean capital, another Russian MP, Leonid Slutsky, was keen to quote Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser to Jimmy Carter: “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, with Ukraine, it automatically turns into an empire.” The head of the committee on relations with former Soviet states said: “Some other parts of what they call Ukraine will join Russia soon, because people there want to; it is, of course, in the interest of the West to stop this happening, they will be using the so-called government in Kiev.”

These could be taken as the wishful drum-beating of ultra-nationalists. In the same speech in which he announced the annexation, Mr Putin stressed that Russian troops would not be going into other parts of Ukraine: this has been repeated since by the Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov. It has been repeatedly stated by Russia watchers that with the West seemingly accepting the Crimean fait accompli, it would be logical for the Kremlin to desist from further Ukrainian adventures.

And yet, the latest protests in the east show far more organisation and determination compared with those of just a few weeks ago. They sing the same verses from the hymn sheet in Donetsk, Kharkiv, Luhansk; the call for a referendum and a plea for Russian “peacekeepers” to defend them. This strikes a chord with the repeated demands from Moscow that Ukraine should give a voice to the regions and adopt a federal structure and pledges that ethnic Russians will not be abandoned: the Kiev government does not need reminding that President Putin obtained authorisation from parliament to deploy troops not just for Crimea, but Ukraine.

The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said “it’s clear that Russian special forces and agents have been the catalyst behind the chaos of the last 24 hours” and this “could potentially be a contrived pretext for military intervention as we saw in Crimea”.

The Kremlin had its own version of foreign hands in the Ukrainian government’s “anti-terrorist” operations. The Foreign Ministry said: “We are particularly troubled by the circumstances that some 150 American specialists from the privately owned military organisation Greystone dressed in the Sokol [police] unit’s uniform have joined the operation.” Pro-Russian crowds in Kharkiv chanted “Blackwater”, “mercenaries” and “faggots” at members of the security forces. Greystone was reportedly founded in 2004 as an affiliate of Blackwater.

The Russians have provided no evidence of the involvement of American contractors. Knowing their reputation, I would have thought there would have been considerably more fatalities than had taken place so far.

The operations by the Ukrainian government forces had recaptured the security service headquarters in Donetsk and Kharkiv. But there is now a siege at the administration building in Kiev and reports of protesters taking hostages and positioning explosives in Luhansk. We wait to see whether people such as Mr Drozdov and Mr Slutsky were just dreaming of the rebirth of a Russian empire or revealing the Kremlin’s real intentions.

 

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