A report is doing the rounds that the chief of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Aleksander Vitko, has issued an ultimatum to the Ukrainian Armed Forces: surrender or face a full assault. ‘Surrender or face annihilation!’ would have sounded better – Yield of die!, better even than that – though perhaps the Russians are going soft. Yet whatever Russia’s intentions, it would seem this report is not quite true (according to BBC sources).
Yet Russian forces are still de facto in control of Crimea. In other words, they have peacefully invaded another country and seem unwilling to leave.
The pretext is pretty flimsy. The Russians claim to be assisting vulnerable Russians living in Crimea, who are in danger of attack from the ultra-nationalists who are supposedly behind the revolution. There is a report that the ousted President of Ukraine, Mr Yanukovych, is the one who has asked Russia to intervene militarily, but that is almost certainly part of Russia’s pretext.
In their eyes, Yanukovych is still the President of Ukraine (they have a point). This being the case, they are perfectly entitled to come to the assistance of a legitimate government. It is the new authorities who are illegitimate (again, they have a point).
I don’t really buy this, though. And I don’t think many countries with a free press buy it either (although, Russian media suppression is coming in useful right now, that’s for sure). The Russians are not acting out of genuine concern. They know what they are doing and they know they are exploiting the situation in Ukraine for their own purposes.
But this is the point. And this is why the protesters were ill-advised in ousting President Yanukovych. He was a bad egg, certainly, screwing as much money out of the country while in power as he could. But he was democratically elected and so held power in just the way the West wants governments to hold power. His removal by protesters was an attack on democracy, and it gave Putin just the sort of excuse he needed.
It also proved the point I made earlier – that revolutions, no matter how well-intended, tend to incite undesirable and unintended consequences. And this is what it looks like. Ukraine has well-known civilisational and cultural divisions; the uncertainty of the coup or revolution or legitimate protest – whatever we call it – has made people jittery and exacerbated those divisions. Hence where we are now.
Several Ukrainian military commanders insist that they have been given an ultimatum by Russia to surrender early on Tuesday. If this is true, if they resist and if Russian forces attack them, we will see the full implication of what’s been happening over the last few months. I don’t blame the protesters for wanting a better government, but they opened a can of worms when they chose to oust the elected President with undemocratic methods.
We can only hope that saner heads prevail now.