But even if the situation did not deteriorate to that point—and it is entirely possible that the Russian authorities may be content not to push things beyond the brink—the Ukrainian authorities would be put in an awkward position, forced to choose between responding to a provocation and losing support or not responding and risking that the situation could spiral out of control.
By Paul Goble
In recent weeks, Moscow has stepped up its efforts to use ethnic minorities, Russian and non-Russian alike, in neighboring countries to put pressure on those governments in a way that allows it maximum deniability. Russia’s involvement with the Gagauz minority in Moldova is a classic case (see EDM, April 2; turkist.org/2013/07/gagauz-pespublika.html). Now it appears that the Russian authorities are focusing their attention on Crimea, once again fishing in the troubled waters of extreme Russian nationalism.
These developments are especially dangerous because they allow the Russian government to simultaneously play one of these groups off against another, even as its security services work to undermine the authority of the government involved. In this case, Ukraine is being undermined, not only among its own citizenry but also in the eyes of Western supporters who, in many cases, may be inclined to blame Kyiv for problems not of its own making.
Moscow’s current efforts are to use extreme Russian nationalists in Ukraine who earlier had been exposed as working for the Russian interior ministry against nationalist groups in the Russian Federation. And this has drawn fire from self-described “patriotic” groups in Ukraine (rusi-voin.livejournal.com/9392.html; pn14.info/?p=135879; oficer2011.livejournal.com/79182.html). Allegedly, “Russian chekists have created in Ukraine a pseudo-Russian National Unity” (rusi-voin.livejournal.com/9392.html) organization, totally under the control of Moscow and capable of being directed against Ukrainian nationalist groups in Crimea, other Russian nationalist groups there or the Crimean Tatars, as Moscow’s policy requires.
These three above-cited articles provide details about individuals and groups who have been shifted from the Russian Federation to Ukraine and now are recruiting followers. They conclude that this suggests “the Kremlin is preparing major anti-Ukrainian provocations in Crimea.” In the nature of things, the evidence is contradictory: making such charges serves the interests of those who do so, and consequently, many will be inclined to dismiss this as nothing more than an unfortunate reflection of the hothouse environment of extremist groups. But the information these sources provide—including names, dates, and photographs—suggests that under all this smoke about a Moscow operation in Crimea, there is some real fire and that these flames deserve to be taken sereiously.
The most likely outcome of Moscow’s use of extremist Russian nationalist groups in Crimea would be to provoke either the Crimean Tatars or the Ukrainian government in Kyiv—or perhaps both—into taking harsh actions that would further radicalize ethnic Russian opinion on the peninsula. If that happens and open clashes ensue, some in the Russian Federation might seek to use that outcome as the occasion for justifying Russian intervention, confident that the West would view what had come before that as being the fault of the Ukrainian government and thus take a hands-off approach.