Protecting the “citizens” of Russia

by Tammy Lynch

On Wednesday, Russia’s Duma passed in its first reading a significant change to its Law on Defense. The change, which must pass two more readings in the Duma, would allow the country to use its armed forces to “protect its citizens” outside of its borders. It is unclear what “protect” means. Previously, the Law on Defense only allowed Russia’s armed forces to be used outside of Russia for combating terrorist activity and implementing international treaties. The vague wording of this new provision has led to speculation in Ukraine that Russia is creating a legal pretext for intervention of some sort in the country’s autonomous region of Crimea.

Ukrainian officials have complained for months of attempts to distribute large quantities of Russian passports in the region, although it is difficult to prove these allegations. These passports theoretically would allow Russia to claim the need to “protect” its “citizens” against some form of Ukrainian “aggression.” This (again theoretically) would initiate the use of armed forces – even though most of these “citizens” have always lived on Ukrainian territory. Ukrainian officials point out that Russia distributed large numbers of passports in the Georgian separatist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia before sending forces deep into Georgian territory to “protect” these same “citizens”

This change to the Law on Defense would bring Russia’s legislation in line with action already taken in Georgia, as explained by Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov. “The situation that we had in August last year – I am talking about the Georgian aggression against South Ossetia and Russian citizens who live in Southern Ossetia,” he said, “”has highlighted the need to adjust the law.” Georgia hotly disputes that Russian “citizens” were in danger.

Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko immediately reacted to the Duma action by ordering a “readiness check” of all Ukrainian military units. The method of conducting this examination wasn’t specified. But although it will not be completed until 30 September, the results of the exam are easy to predict – failure. The country’s underfunded military is short on new equipment, manpower, parts and fuel.

Still, even government critics appear bullish about Ukraine’s potential to repel a Russian incursion – largely because Russia’s military is “also” underfunded. “In the event of a military conflict in Ukraine, Russia will need many more resources (than in Georgia) and it does not have such resources today,” Mykola Sinhurovskyi said.

But the fact that Russian military intervention in Ukraine is being discussed signals what may be the highest level of tension between the two countries since the early to mid 1990s.

This tension (which appears only to exist at the highest government levels) can be blamed on a number of issues, including President Yushchenko’s focus on Russia and the divided leadership in both countries. But, more than anything, both Russia and Ukraine are preparing for the upcoming Ukrainian presidential election – both exploiting tensions to develop an advantage that can be used later. In the process, worrying precedents involving military troops are being set.

So far, there has been little international response to Russia’s new defense provision. Given the recent dismissive tone toward Georgian complaints, a significant response is unlikely. This means that both sides will be left to their own (potentially dangerous) devices – at least until the election.