Russian Military Occupies Crimean Peninsula In Ukraine: A Guide To What Happened On Friday

The conflict in Ukraine escalated at an alarming rate on Friday as Russian military units moved into the Crimean peninsula, occupying multiple airports and shutting down roads. The interim Ukrainian government referred to the action as an “armed invasion and occupation” and called for an emergency meeting at the United Nations to resolve the crisis. Meanwhile, Russian lawmakers introduced legislation to incorporate Crimea into the Russian Federation, and President Obama warned that there would be consequences to any foreign military involvement in Ukraine.

Things are heating up pretty quickly. Here’s what’s going on.

“AN ARMED INVASION AND OCCUPATION”

Some quick backstory: Last week, Ukrainian protesters in Kiev toppled President Viktor Yanukovych after he opted to strengthen the country’s ties with Russia instead of the European Union. Yanukovynch ultimately fled the country; he’s now holed up in Russia and claiming to still be president, while Ukraine’s parliament has set up an interim government and aligned itself with the European Union. The Crimean peninsula is an autonomous region of Ukraine that’s largely (but not entirely) pro-Russian in sentiment.

All right. So, in the wee hours of the morning Friday, heavily armed men in unmarked camouflage uniforms occupied multiple transportation points in Crimea, including two airports and the road linking them. They didn’t act violently or attempt to take control of the airport’s operations, but simply patrolled the area with AK-47s and made their presence visible. The men haven’t identified themselves but are presumed to be either Russian military or private military units contracted by the Russian government. In an eery twist, they’re staying completely silent when approached or asked who they represent.

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In addition, a group of civilians have occupied the Crimean parliament and raised a Russian flag over it. They’re wearing black-and-orange bands, which symbolize the Soviet victory in World War II, and actually occupied the same two airports briefly for around a half hour early Friday morning. Once the armed men arrived, the civilians occupiers left.

In any event, Russia admitted later in the day that it had indeed sent troops into Crimea, the official reason being to protect the enormous Navy base it maintains in region. That base is home to the Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and around 15,000 Russian soldiers are regularly stationed there. In addition, 10 Russian military helicopters flew into Ukrainian airspace, and numerous news outlets ran pictures showing Russian tanks trundling down Crimean streets.

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It’s unclear how many Russian troops — other than the 15,000 at the naval base — are currently in Crimea, but one estimate puts the number at 2,000. Oh, and one more thing: Communication lines in Crimea, including Internet and telephone communications, have been severed.

U.S. RESPONSE

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All of this activity elicited an aggressive reaction from President Obama. Speaking from the White House midday, Obama harshly condemned Russia for its incursions and warned that there would be consequences if they continued:

[W]e are now deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine. Russia has a historic relationship with Ukraine, including cultural and economic ties, and a military facility in Crimea, but any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia, or Europe.

It would represent a profound interference in matters that must be determined by the Ukrainian people. It would be a clear violence of Russia’s commitment to respect the independence and sovereignty and borders of Ukraine, and of international laws. And just days after the world came to Russia for the Olympic Games, it would invite the condemnation of nations around the world. And indeed, the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.

Obama didn’t specify what those repercussions might consist of, but National Security Advisor Susan Rice later affirmed that there would be “grave consequences” if Russia intervened. The State Department, meanwhile, warned all Americans to hold off on non-essential visits to Ukraine if possible.

In addition, Obama said that his administration has spoken to and affirmed its support for “the Prime Minister of Ukraine” — a de facto recognition that the interim government, and not Yanokovych, is the legitimate leader of the country.

MEANWHILE, IN KIEV

The interim Ukrainian government, which is less than a week old, immediately appealed to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for help in dealing with “the deterioration of the situation in the Autonomous Republic of the Crimea, Ukraine, which threatens the territorial integrity of Ukraine.” The UNSC subsequently called an emergency meeting to address the conflict; however, both Russia and the U.S. have permanent seats on the Security Council, and each can single-handedly veto any resolution the council issues, so the prospects for a strong action either way seem unlikely.

AND OVER IN RUSSIA...

The official Russian position is that Yanukovych is still the legal president of Ukraine. However, it’s unclear how deep this support extends. In a conversation with British Prime Minister David Cameron, President Vladimir Putin agreed that the Ukrainian presidential elections planned for May 25th “are the best way to secure a positive future” for the country. But those elections were called by Ukraine’s interim government — and Yanukovych has denounced them.

At the same time, Russia also started issuing passports to former members of Berkut, the Ukrainian security force that suppressed the protests in Kiev. In addition, members of the Duma — Russia’s version of the House of Representatives — have introduced legislation that would allow Russia to essentially annex parts or all of Crimea and issue expedited Russian passports to Ukrainians.

THE FUTURE

What comes next? It’s impossible to say, as the situation is very fluid. One positive sign is that, while Russian troops are maintaining a presence, there haven't been any reports of violence yet. It's possible that Russia could simply maintain a permanent presence in Crimea, which is what it did in 2008 in breakaway regions of neighboring Georgia. It's also possible the Russians could just leave, though that seems a bit more unlikely absent significant pressure from the West. No one can really say at this point.

One thing’s for sure: The G8 summit planned for June is now in jeopardy, and if the U.S. doesn’t boycott it, as some expect it will, the interactions between Obama and Putin will sure be awkward.