Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov on April 15 said a military operation had begun to take control of cities in eastern Ukraine and quell the unrest fomented by pro-Russian militants. Mr Turchynov said the operation began in the early morning hours in the Donetsk region.
A clampdown on the new “people’s republics” shows Kiev is not willing to let what happened in Crimea leak into mainland Ukraine. The interim government is moving swiftly to break apart the protests before they can coagulate into a broader movement.
Some of the protesters in question stormed the Regional Administrative Building in Donetsk and demanded that regional legislature hold an extraordinary session to decide whether their region should join the Russian Federation.
Over the past week, more and more pro-Russian protests have flared around Ukraine, mostly in the east.
Some of these protests appear to be separatist rallies and many have turned violent, such as the one in Donetsk, which included an estimated 2000 people. Gunfire and masked men were also recorded in Slovyansk. Unauthorised checkpoints have also appeared on some roads.
After the groups take control of buildings, they tend to also declare the formation of interim independent statelets. The group occupying a government building in Donetsk announced a new “Donetsk People’s Republic” in a statement to media. Groups in Lugansk have done the same.
So far the mostly pro-Russian demonstrators control only isolated buildings in at least six towns. Importantly, no significant land area is been claimed by the various groups. It appears that control of physical land is not their intended goal.
Rather, the movement is doing its job by attracting political and ideological attention from international media. This is certainly part of an larger political game being conducted between Kiev and Moscow behind the curtain.
A Russian hand?
All the locations experiencing unusual protests fit usefully into any Russian-backed destabilisation plan for Ukraine. The cities all border Russia and contain very high proportions of ethnic Russians.
What connects the demonstrations is not their attachment to the mass protests earlier in the year. That particular phase is now all but over.
Instead it is the almost identical calls each time for independence from Ukraine that has lead Western governments to publicly air their suspicions that Moscow is behind the protests.
The government in Kiev said that the “people who are holding the buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk are being used by the enemies of Ukraine.” Such a statement points an indirect finger at Moscow.
Ukraine’s Right Sector was pivotal in removing former President Viktor Yanukovich, and the government in Kiev has been trying to incorporate the group as best it can. But many of the demonstrations occurring now bear a striking resemblance to what happened in Crimea before Russia intervened.
In Crimea, presumably “local groups” seized government buildings and demanded the regional government join the Russian Federation. These groups essentially gave Moscow the perfect pretext for sending Russian troops into Crimea to take control.
Now the same thing appears to be happening in eastern Ukraine. While unrest in this region is unlikely to result in an outright Russian military involvement, Moscow is showing Kiev and the West that it can destabilise Ukraine without military intervention.
The Russian military is still building up its reinforcements on the border with Ukraine but this is probably only a precaution rather than an outright invasion force. Russia certainly has the capability to invade and occupy their neighbour but their overall strategy would probably not benefit from such an action.
Any invasion would extend only so far as to control the eastern region of Ukraine. This is where the majority of inhabitants claim greater Russian affiliation and where Russian is also the most commonly spoken language. If they were to invade, the Russian military would probably only drive as far as the Dnieper River.
The way ahead
Of course, if it got to this point, the Russians would begin to experience the pain of protracted insurgency from Ukrainians not politically aligned with Moscow.
US and Nato forces are very familiar with the obstacles of an uncontrollable population from their time in Afghanistan and Iraq, as are the Russians in the Caucasus. While Moscow needs to control Ukraine for its own strategic benefit, it knows better than to walk into a trap.
Instead, the best option is still to maintain direct economic pressure on Ukraine by controlling energy flow, and maintain implicit military pressure by fomenting unrest and positioning troops in case the worst-case scenario arrives.
An indication Russia is preparing to go further would be the appearance of well-armed and organised “self-defence” groups bearing no insignia, suddenly taking control of key military and municipal buildings. At this point it would be clear Russia is using the same tactics it employed in Crimea.
The interim government in Kiev, despite the political constraints on the ground, needs to be careful its crackdown on protest groups doesn’t give Moscow a catalyst for intervening in greater Ukraine.
Russia has already shown it can override a sovereign nation’s integrity and it probably wouldn’t take much to do it all again. Although, Ukraine would be a different ball game for Russian President Vladimir Putin than Crimea turned out to be.