A Wednesday announcement that Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered 'readiness' military exercises in the areas closest to its border with Ukraine are stirring already anxious concerns that the political upheaval that has gripped the country in recent weeks could continue to spiral out of control as the threat of outside intervention—particularly of a military nature—could dramatically escalate the fragile situation.
As news circulated about the announcement in global outlets, a local protest in the Crimean city of Simferopol—where Russian ties remain strong—Ukrainians upset about the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych clashed with those who supported the protest movement.
Whereas supporters of the opposition coalition whose protests in Kiev led to the removal of Yanukovych last weekend are hoping that the interim government now forming will lead to new parliamentary elections and a new prime minister, those more closely aligned with Russia are not so sure that their rights and interests will be protected now that Yanukovych has fled and key institutions dissolved.
While the U.S. and the European Union have issued warnings to Russia not to involve itself militarily, Russian diplomats have repeatedly said that its interests and allies inside Ukraine will be protected.
In announcing the military drills on Wednesday, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was specific in saying that the drills should not be misconstrued as preparations for any kind of intervention in Ukraine. As the Associated Press reports:
[Shoigu] said the exercise is unrelated to the developments in Ukraine, where tensions remain [...]
But Shoigu added that the exercise will be held near Russian borders, including the border with Ukraine. He also said, according to Russian news reports, that his ministry will take steps to strengthen security of the facilities of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, without elaborating.
Meanwhile, Russian lawmaker Valentina Matvienko, who heads the upper chamber of parliament, known as the Federation Council, indicated that though the Russian government has strong opinions and interests about the continuing situation in Ukraine, there was no plan to intervene militarily.
"Russia has been stating and reiterating its stance that we have no right and cannot interfere in domestic affairs of a sovereign state," said Matvienko, adding that Russia does not support the idea of dividing the country along East-West, or any other lines.
"We are for Ukraine as a united state, and there should be no basis for separatist sentiments," she said.
As the situation continues to develop, foreign policy analyst John Feffer argues in a new piece Wednesday that one striking fact about the complex situation in Ukraine is how despite attempts by key global powers—namely the established Ukraine government, the US, the EU, and Russia—to dictate or control the situation within Ukraine, all were out-manuevered by the opposition forces on the ground in Kiev.
Writing at Foreign Policy In Focus, Feffer sums it up this way: "Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych tried to hang on to power, and failed. Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to maintain Russian influence, and failed. The EU tried to mediate, and failed. And the United States tried to…well..."
Feffer breaks down some of the recent developments and then lays out this explanation:
Ukraine is part of the Great Game left over from the Cold War that the United States is still playing, a game that consists of keeping the Russians down, NATO in, and the oil and gas flowing outward. But the 21st-century chessboard is now very different. The EU is playing a major role, perhaps even the dominant one — and thus the vehemence of Nuland’s dismissal. Russia may well talk tough and spend considerable sums on reviving its military — and the Sochi Olympics elevated Moscow’s international cred a couple notches — but it is a shadow of its former Soviet self. And the United States might privately like to style itself as puppet master — or kingmaker — but these are not the “glory days” of the 1950s for the CIA and the State Department. Washington can’t even control the airing of its dirty laundry, from Wikileaks to Snowden to the Nuland phone call. The United States, particularly in these cash-strapped times, has nothing on the order of EU membership to hold as both carrot and stick over Kiev.
The very fact that Ukrainian protesters can oust their leader and plunge their country into political uncertainty testifies to the diminished influence of the major international players trying to control outcomes in Kiev. But ouster is easy compared to rebuilding an entire country the size of Ukraine. In this ongoing struggle between the street and the elite, let’s hope that the Ukrainians manage an outcome considerably better than their Egyptian, Libyan, or Syrian comrades-in-protest.