EU Referendum

Ukraine: Crimea looks under control


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After overnight headlines on the front page of the Times that put Ukraine on a "war footing", one gets the impression that some sections of the British press are actively rooting for war, lapping up every bellicose move in a grotesque, voyeuristic fashion.

What comes over from reviewing the breadth of coverage is that even the people on the spot in Crimea don't really know what is going on, while different people offer different accounts of the same incidents. Not even the troops on the ground seem to be fully informed of what is happening.

As one local observer puts it, gathering and analysing intelligence on military forces deployed during a conflict is not easy. The information is tough to find, often incomplete, and frequently contradictory — in fact, it can obscure as much as it reveals. But there's no denying that the Crimean crisis has been and continues to be shaped by both the threat and the use of force.

That said, there is some evidence that the death of a Ukrainian officer reported during the Ukrainian-held naval base in Simferopol was the work of a "right wing" Ukrainian nationalist, bent on fomenting trouble. Arrests have been made and the incident is under investigation.

Another Ukrainian base was "stormed" yesterday, and this time naval officers were seen to be leaving peaceably, some carrying their possessions in remarkably unwarlike supermarket carrier bags.

All over the peninsular, it seems, Ukrainian military are being given the opportunity to switch sides and join the Crimean, i.e., Russian, military. Many seem to be taking that opportunity, without obvious rancour from their former comrades. Others are standing fast, watched by heavily armed Russians.

As for hardware, there are the ever-present BTR-80 variants, the occasional GAZ-2330 Tigrs, and the ubiquitous Ural-375 series trucks, equipment of some antiquity. Noticeably absent are BMPs, airborne unit equipment, tanks and any form of artillery. There is little evidence of helicopter movements or combat aircraft making overflights.

The warlike sounds, therefore, seem to be coming mainly from the desk-jockeys, with NATO's secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen making the crass observation that Russia's intervention in Ukraine poses "the most serious threat to Europe's security since the end of the Cold War".

Instead of trying to damp down the fires, Rasmussen is warning Moscow that it would face "international isolation". He has told Putin to halt all military activities against Ukraine and seek a peaceful dialogue with Ukraine's government. "Any attempt to justify the annexation of Crimea through a so-called referendum held at gunpoint is illegal and illegitimate", he says.

While the euro-wuzzies are scraping up the latest bribe, in the form of up to €1 billion in medium-term loans, however, Russian observers are seriously unimpressed by the rhetoric. The US and EU seem to be detached from reality, their sanctions empty threats, says Veronika Krasheninnikova, Director General of the Institute for Foreign Policy Research and Initiatives.

However, sense seems to be prevailing. Ukraine's government is not contemplating a last stand in the Crimea, and has announced it is preparing plans to evacuate its remaining military personnel and their families from the breakaway region. The movement of 25,000 personnel and their families is expected.

Interim prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk also seems to be going out of his way to cool things. After Yushchenko's less than diplomatic intervention on membership of EU and NATO, he rejects the idea that Ukraine's relationships with EU and Russia accord with the "all or none principle". The issue of NATO membership, he says, is "not on the agenda".

He confirmed that signing the political part of the Association Agreement was still planned for 21 March in Brussels. But, he said, "We have postponed the signing of the economic part of the document, taking into account the people's feelings and apprehensions that a free trade zone may have negative consequences for industrial regions - the east first of all". There are to be "additional consultations" on this issue. 

Elsewhere, things may not under control but at least the politicians seem to be talking conciliatory language, while in the potential flashpoint of Crimea, there is no immediate indication the tension flaring into a hot war. The media adrenaline junkies, seeking the most alarmist slants are going to have to look elsewhere for their thrills.

And even here, there is a more measured view creeping in. Stephen Glover deems Putin's cause "reasonable", even if his methods aren't. The people beginning to look "isolated" are the tough-talking western politicians.