KIEV: Mounting separatist tensions in Ukraine’s Russian speaking Crimea peninsula have reached dangerous levels and could lead to fresh domestic turmoil or even spark an outright invasion by giant neighbor Russia, analysts say.
Pro-Moscow gunmen seized control of the government headquarters in the regional capital Simferopol Thursday, sparking warnings from Ukraine’s interim leader that any troop movements at Russia’s Black Sea fleet – based in Crimea – would be seen as “military aggression.”
While some Ukraine watchers say war is unlikely, others see similarities in the unrest currently sweeping Crimea and the situation in Georgia in 2008, when Russia fought a brief armed conflict with Tbilisi over the breakaway of the Moscow-backed Georgian region of South Ossetia.
“There is a serious danger,” said Andreas Umland, a Kiev-based political analyst at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. “There are separatist tendencies, there is Russian interest in the region and there are clashes.”
The current situation is “reminiscent” of the one that preceded the five-day war between Russia and Georgia, he said, after which Moscow recognized South Ossetia and another Georgian separatist region, Abkhazia, as independent countries and stationed thousands of troops in the territories.
Adding to tensions, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered snap military drills near the border with Ukraine, prompting wider Western concerns over the situation.
The unrest in the southern Ukrainian peninsula is a fresh threat for a country desperately trying to recover from three months of turmoil that saw Moscow-allied President Viktor Yanukovych ousted after protests against his rule exploded into bloody clashes in Kiev.
And while the new, pro-West authorities have been broadly welcomed in Ukrainian-speaking regions around Kiev and in the west of the country, which lean more toward the European Union, they have been rejected by much of the pro-Moscow population in Crimea – which belonged to Russia until 1954, when it was handed over to the then Soviet republic of Ukraine.
Crimea has long been viewed as a potential flashpoint and has remained close to its giant neighbor, with the Russian navy – stationed there for some 200 years – granted long-term lease on bases there.
Nearly 60 percent of Crimea’s population is ethnic Russian, and many residents have been angered by what they view as the illegitimate ouster of Yanukovych.
But analysts are divided over whether this localized form of separatist unrest will escalate and spark a full-scale Russian invasion.
Prior to the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, Moscow handed out Russian passports to residents in South Ossetia, and the Kremlin claimed it was intervening to protect its citizens and peacekeepers stationed there since a separatist war in the early 1990s.
Umland said that “an escalation in Crimea, dead people, particularly if Russians are killed” could also be a trigger for Moscow to come to the rescue.
In another parallel, Georgia was set on integrating the Western NATO alliance – a move strongly opposed by Russia – and Ukraine’s new authorities are now leaning toward the EU, which also displeases Moscow. Domestically, Putin is also struggling with corruption and social problems.
“He needs a distraction from his domestic failures, and he may need a little war to distract his population,” Umland said.
More than that, the ouster of Yanukovych – whom Moscow had always backed in the hope of bringing Ukraine closer into its fold – is a huge foreign policy defeat for Putin, said Andy Hunder, director of the London-based Ukrainian Institute.
“Russia wants to be a superpower on the world stage, and without Ukraine, it will be more of a Eurasian power than a European power,” he said.
But others say outright war and partition would not be in anyone’s interest, least of all Russia’s.
“If Crimea went to Russia – and that’s a big if – it would be a lose-lose for everyone,” said Balazs Jarabik, senior fellow at the Central European Policy Institute.
He said any secession would spark “an ethnic conflict [in Crimea] with the Tatars,” the Turkic ethnic group that have been present in Crimea since the 13th century and now make up around 12 percent of its 2 million inhabitants.
Tatars suffered hugely at the hands of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who deported them to Siberia and central Asia after World War II, where many died of disease or starvation.
Those who survived came back to Crimea at the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and are still hugely resentful, well-organized and firmly against any rapprochement with Russia.
In an interview with AFP Thursday, their leader Refat Chubarov pointed the finger at Russia for “everything that is currently happening in Crimea.”
Ultimately, Russia may just be posturing and reminding all those concerned that it has interests – including huge commercial ones – in Ukraine, according to Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Foundation in Moscow.
“Russia does not want problems with its relations with Ukraine to be resolved by armed force, but it will no doubt resort to pressure and economic levers ... to maintain its control in Crimea,” she said.