(By Deutsche Welle) With the immediate threat of a civil conflict in Kyiv averted, Ukraine’s crisis has now shifted to the Russian-majority region of Crimea. The region could become a flashpoint between Moscow and the West.
President Vladimir Putin placed combat troops in western Russia on alert Wednesday (26.02.2014), amid rising tensions between pro- and anti-Kremlin protesters in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, where Moscow stations its Black Sea naval fleet.
Meanwhile, NATO defense ministers have reiterated their commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence.
“NATO allies will continue to support Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, territorial integrity, democratic development, and the principle of inviolability of frontiers, as key factors of stability and security in central and eastern Europe and on the continent as a whole,” the defense ministers said in a joint statement after their meeting in Brussels on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the US did not view the volatile political situation in Ukraine as a Cold War-style confrontation with Russia.
“This is not a zero-sum game, it is not a West versus East…,” Kerry said after meeting with British Foreign Secretary William Hague in Washington. “This is about the people of Ukraine and Ukrainians making their choice about their future,” Kerry added.
But there’s very little that the US and EU can actually do to help maintain Ukraine’s territorial integrity, according to Joerg Forbrig, an Eastern Europe expert with the German Marshall Fund. He cites the war between Georgia and Russia in 2008, in which Moscow’s military intervention led to the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Tbilisi’s control. While the West engaged diplomatically, it was unable to prevent the division of Georgia.
“The West has very limited means of enforcing this message,” Forbrig told DW. “What we can clearly rule out is that the West would rush to the help of the Ukrainian government to safeguard this integrity.”
Protests in Simferopol
Demonstrations by thousands of pro- and anti-Russian protesters descended into fist fights outside Crimea’s regional parliament in Simferopol on Wednesday, according to news agency reports. On Tuesday, the Associated Press had reported that dozens of protesters chanted, “Russia, save us,” while calling Ukraine’s interim government “bandits.”
“There have been visits by Russian officials, members of parliament, to encourage these separatist Russian longings by promising passports, support, even an incorporation with Russia proper,” Forbrig told DW.
According to Moscow, Wednesday’s military drill – which involved 150,000 troops – was unrelated to the political developments in Eastern Ukraine. But Russian expert Jeffrey Mankoff said the maneuvers were likely intended to send a political signal to Kyiv.
“By holding up the prospect of intervention of one kind or another, it’s a way for Moscow to signal to the Ukrainian elite that it should be cautious in terms of how it moves forward with setting up a government,” Mankoff told DW, adding that actual military intervention is highly unlikely due to the risks associated with sparking confrontation with the West.
Nevertheless, Mankoff said that for too long leaders in the EU and US have believed that Kyiv would inevitably integrate into the West.
“There was a tendency to assume that Ukraine’s European future was a foregone conclusion even though, looking at opinion polling in Ukraine, there’s clearly a split,” Mankoff said. “There are a lot of Ukrainians who are at least cautious about moving toward the EU.”