Creeping Russia Takeover in Crimea Seen More Likely Than Assault

A creeping Kremlin takeover of Crimea by ostensibly local ethnic Russian forces is more likely than a military assault on all or parts of Ukraine, U.S. and European intelligence officials and analysts said.

The officials, who requested anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said Russian intelligence services have maintained assets and sympathizers in Crimea, especially in the port city of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

“Moscow knows an army invasion would cause too many problems, so they’re operating just below the waterline to make it look like a bottom-up movement led by ethnic Russians,” Joerg Forbrig, a senior program officer at the Berlin bureau of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., said in a phone interview. “They’re avoiding the impression of an open military intervention, but that’s what it is.”

At the same time, the intelligence officials said, while he’s kept a low profile so far, Russian President Vladimir Putin still appears to view the crisis in Ukraine as a zero-sum competition with the West. Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron in a phone call today that the escalation of violence in Ukraine must stop, the Kremlin said in an e-mailed statement.

‘Extremely Careful’

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he called Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov today to discuss reports of Russian military activity in Crimea. Kerry, speaking to reporters in Washington, said he told Lavrov that “it is important for everybody to be extremely careful nto to inflame the situation.” Lavrov said that Russia doesn’t intend to violate the sovereignty of Ukraine, according to Kerry.

Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said Russian troops are “directly involved” in the Crimea as armed soldiers occupied the region’s main airport in Simferopol. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said servicemen from the Black Sea fleet blocked Belbek airport. Zerkalo Nedeli weekly cited a Crimean official as saying eight Russian military helicopters landed on the peninsula.

“It would be a last resort if there are Russian casualties in Crimea,” Forbrig said. “There could also be provocations aimed at trigging a Russian intervention. Something might happen at an office, a government building, to the infrastructure or even an attack on a military memorial to create a pretext for the Kremlin to move in.”

Russia will probably remain “just below that level” to try to get what it wants, he said, adding that he doesn’t rule out a larger-scale Russian invasion of Crimea or other parts of Ukraine.

Russian Base

Russia’s Crimean Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol, established more than two centuries ago, allows Russian ships to reach the Mediterranean in a day through the Bosporus instead of the weeks it takes for the northern fleet, based on the Kola Peninsula near the Arctic Circle, according to a report by Christian Le Miere of London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, or IISS.

Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, when the USSR gave it to Ukraine, then a Soviet republic. Russians comprise 59 percent of Crimea’s population of about 2 million people, with 24 percent Ukrainian and 12 percent Tatar, according to 2001 census data. Of the entire country’s 45 million people, 78 percent are Ukrainian and 17 percent are Russian.

There’s precedent of Putin using the military on the country’s borders to support its citizens. In 2008, Russia routed Georgia in a five-day war over the separatist region of South Ossetia, which has since declared its independence. Moldova, on Ukraine’s southwest border, also has a pro-Russian secessionist region, Transnistria.

Invasion Unlikely

“An all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine is probably impossible because much of Russia’s military is in bad shape and Ukraine is a huge country; it’s not like grabbing South Ossetia,” Jan Techau, head of the Brussels office of the Carnegie Endowment and a former research adviser at the NATO Defense College in Rome, said by telephone.

Russia, which is holding military exercises with tanks and warplanes near its border to Ukraine this week, began revamping its army four years ago. The changes, which include shifting from mass mobilization for a major conflict to a smaller, more nimble force with a higher state of readiness, are still incomplete, according to ‘The Military Balance 2014,’ published by the IISS.

‘Hard’ Goals

“Considerable work remains to be done,” the IISS said. “Moves to create light, medium and heavy brigades remain at an experimental level.”

Russia’s conscription goals “are hard to meet” and the target for 425,000 contract soldiers by 2017 is lagging as soldiers fail to sign up in numbers needed, the report said. There were 241,400 contract soldiers in 2013, the IISS said.

“It’s not clear that its troops would be in a state to carry out an intervention in Ukraine even if the Russian government wanted to,” Anna Maria Dyner, an eastern European analyst at the Warsaw-based Polish Institute of International Affairs, which advises Poland’s government, said in a telephone interview.

Russia’s 2013 State Defense Plan puts the nation’s total troop level at 80 percent of the planned strength of 1 million soldiers, “the first official admission that armed forces” are below the 1 million mark, the IISS said.

Ukraine has about 182,000 military personnel.

Russian soldiers in Ukraine are based only in Crimea and aren’t supposed to move around without prior notification and agreement from Ukraine’s government. The Black Sea fleet is the second-smallest of Russia’s five naval organizations and comprises a destroyer and a cruiser, minesweepers, submarines and other vessels, the IISS says.

Economy Concerns

Dyner said economic concerns are an even bigger reason discouraging Russia from overt intervention in Ukraine. The Kremlin doesn’t have “a huge amount of money to spend on such a big operation,” she said. More fundamentally, she added, Russia’s slowing economy is a factor.

“Ukraine is an important gas transit country to Europe and a conflict would probably damage pipelines, further harming ties with the West,” Dyner said. “This would damage the Russian economy, which is the last thing Putin wants right now, just as they’re thinking about reforms amid weak growth.”

Ukraine is criss-crossed with Soviet-era pipelines that carry about half of Russia’s deliveries of natural gas to Europe. Russia’s state-run OAO Gazprom has a quarter of the European market. Putin has used natural gas to pressure Ukraine, and Russia halted gas flows to the country in 2006 and 2009 amid disputes over prices and volumes, leading to shortages throughout Europe.

In the latest crisis, Russia offered cheaper gas to bolster pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych before his ouster.

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