Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Ukraine-Russia: Putin fans flames of invasion

Ukraine-Russia: Putin fans flames of invasion
Published 7 May 2014 

Over the weekend and amid escalating tensions in Ukraine's eastern regions, the port-city of Odessa bore witness to harrowing scenes of anarchy which culminated in the death of 42 people in a blaze at the Trades Unions House.

The mass media has portrayed this chaotic event as a post-football-match altercation between 'pro-Moscow' and 'pro-Kiev' factions sparked by Molotov cocktails and aided by an inert and ineffective local police force. Sporadic violence is of course never so cut and dried, as explored by a BBC analysis of the trajectory of events leading to the Trade Union building being set alight.

Of course, as has been the case with much of what is happening in Ukraine, reliable information is difficult to both access and ascertain. Footage of the weekend clashes can be accessed here (Warning: NSFW). Meanwhile, reports have surfaced over the last few days which may implicate the Kremlin in financing and instigating tensions in the region. Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) has accused former Prime Minister Sergiy Arbuzov and former Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Klymenko of financing those who started the riots. Intercepted phone-calls (see preceding link, in Russian with subtitles), if proven to be genuine, confirm this link. Footage of balaclava-clad pro-Russian activists armed with AK-47s shooting into crowds has also come to light.

The pressing question for geopolitical observers of the region is now whether this event will at last serve as a pretext for Putin to invade. The groundwork is certainly indicative of such a possibility. [fold]

The Russian Foreign Ministry has in recent days provided the Kremlin with a report on human rights violations in Ukraine, and in a five-hour televised question-and-answer session earlier this month, Putin stated: 'I would like to remind you that what was called Novorossiya back in the tsarist days were not part of Ukraine back then. Russia lost these territories for various reasons, but the people remained.'

Before forecasting Putin's next move, a history-refresher of Soviet military strategy might be beneficial. Paul R Gregory writes in the Hoover Digest:

On Christmas Day 1979, U.S. intelligence detected waves of Soviet military aircraft flying into Afghanistan. Two days later, KGB troops dressed in Afghan uniforms staged a night-time attack on the palace where Moscow's former protégé Afghan President Hafizullah Amin was hiding, executed him, and occupied strategic locations throughout Kabul in a 45-minute operation. A radio broadcast, purporting to be from Kabul but actually coming from Uzbekistan, announced that Amin's execution had been ordered by the Afghan People's Revolutionary Council and that a new government had been formed, headed by Soviet loyalist Babrak Karmal. Soviet ground forces and paratroopers invaded the same evening, and, within five weeks, five divisions were in place. So began the Soviet Afghanistan war.

Kiev is organising presidential elections for 25 May. However, given the current state of events, the interim government will face significant difficulties in conducting the vote in many parts of the east. Further trigger-points will undoubtedly be this week's anniversary of Soviet victory in World War II and a planned referendum on secession by the self-declared 'People's Republic of Donetsk', to be held next Sunday.

Mao Zedong once famously stated: 'A spark is enough to light a prairie fire.' With Putin's untiring exultation on the right to send troops to defend Russian-speakers if 'deemed necessary', the 'Odessa Massacre' may well prove to be the spark that Russia has been waiting for.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

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