Ukraine’s security service reported this month that it had blocked channels that were being used by jihadists travelling to fight with the so-called Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, adding that they detained an ‘IS recruiter’ from one of the former Soviet republics.
In a statement, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) disclosed that “the Ukrainian security service, prosecutor’s office, police and migration service have blocked several channels for the transit of foreign fighters to the IS international terrorist group throughout state’s territory,” adding that the discovery was made in a wave of security sweeps that were carried out across several major cities in the country. The SBU further reported that an apartment in the government-held northeastern city of Kharkiv was being used as a temporary shelter by alleged IS members who intended to travel to both Syria and Iraq. The statement says that “this ‘transit point’ had four nationals from Asian states,” adding, “two of them had been earlier deported from Turkey in connection with their involvement in terrorist activity.” The SBU also disclosed that they held several fake passports from various countries and that two of them had been waiting to receive forged Ukrainian documents so that they could enter Syria through Turkey. The Ukrainian service indicated that the four were being financed and assisted by foreign countries, however they did not reveal which ones, adding, “two of the foreigners have already been expelled from the territory of our state…Investigations into the other two are continuing.”
The SBU also disclosed that it had also detained an “IS recruiter from one of the former Soviet republics that was being sought by Interpol” pan-European police organization. It reported that security agents had detained another “IS supporter” in the Kiev region who had undergone training in “Syrian terrorist camps.” The individual, who has not been named, is facing a court hearing and has not yet been charged.
In January and June the SBU disclosed that it detained four alleged IS fighters headed for Europe from Central Asia and Russia.
Ukraine has been riven by a 27-month pro-Moscow insurgency in its industrial east that has claimed the lives of more than 9,500 people and left around 400 kilometres (250 miles) of its southeastern border with Russia under rebel control. Ukraine’s security service has been under increasing pressure to show its strength as the pro-Western government in Kiev ties to meet President Petro Poroshenko’s pledge to apply for EU membership by 2020. Some EU nations and leaders however have called the bid far too optimistic as Ukraine not only lacks control of its separatist east and the Russian-annexed Crimea peninsula, but it also remains riddled with other security threats. This includes what appears to be the increasing use of Ukraine and its porous borders to ship IS fighters to stage attacks in Europe or to joint he group in Syria and Iraq.
European Union leaders warned Russia on Thursday that it faces further sanctions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated that Russia will face escalating EU sanctions if it does not take steps to east the crisis over Crimea. Speaking ahead of an EU summit in Brussels, Mrs Merkel indicated that the current political situation also means that the G8 effectively no longer exists.
Tensions in Crimea remain high after its leaders signed a deal with Moscow to split from Ukraine and to join Russia. Following Sunday’s referendum, which the West and Kiev have stated was illegal, Crimean leaders signed a treaty with Moscow on Tuesday to absorb the peninsula, which was an autonomous republic in southern Ukraine, into Russia. Tensions on the peninsula increased Wednesday, after pro-Russian forces took over at least two military bases in Sevastopol and Novo-Ozyorne. Ukraine’s Navy Commander, Serhiy Hayduk, was also detained, however he has since been released. Russia’s lower house is set to vote on ratifying the Crimea treaty on Thursday, with the upper house voting on Friday. The measure is expected to pass with minimal opposition. In a resolution on Thursday, Ukraine’s parliament indicated that the country would “never and under no circumstances end the fight to free Crimea of occupants, no matter how difficult and long it is.”
Western leaders have denounced Russia’s actions in Crimea as a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and a breach of international law. The EU has already imposed sanctions on twenty-one people connected to Moscow’s intervention in Crimea, and is expected to discuss expanding the sanctions, when it meets Thursday, to include political and military figures close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Speaking in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated that Russia will face escalating EU sanctions if it does not take steps to ease the crisis over Crimea. Speaking ahead of an EU summit in Brussels, Mrs Merkel indicated that the current political situation also means that the G8 effectively no longer exists. She added that the EU would “make clear that we are ready at any time” to increase sanctions against Russia “if there is a worsening of the situation.” According to the German Chancellor, the EU will also “draw consequences for the political relations between the EU and Russia, as well as for relations between the G7 and Russia….It is obvious: as long as the political context for such an important format like the G8 does not apply, as is the case at the moment, the G8 doesn’t exist anymore. While the German Chancellor did not specify what the sanctions will be, it does remain unclear whether Germany expects Russia to undo the integration of Crimea into Russia in order to avoid tough economic measures. The G8, which comprises of seven of the world’s leading industrialised nations, and Russia, is scheduled to hold a summit in the southern Russian city of Sochi in June.
The United States has also ordered the freezing of assets and travel bans on eleven individuals, with officials indicating that they are considering expanding these. However on Wednesday, President Barack Obama ruled out US military involvement in Ukraine, stating “we do not need to trigger an actual war with Russia.” United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon is expected to meet with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday before travelling to Kiev where he will meet with the Ukrainian interim government on Friday. The UN Chief has called for a solution to the crisis that will be guided by the principles of the UN Charter, including sovereignty, territorial integrity and the unity of Ukraine.
Pro-Russian activists have taken control of the headquarters of Ukraine’s navy in the Crimean city of Sevastopol.
Reports in Crimea have indicated that pro-Russian forces appear to have taken control of the Ukrainian base in Sevastopol, the port city which houses Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Television footage depicted around 200 people, some armed, breaking down the gates and going in to negotiate with senior Ukrainian personnel. On the ground sources have indicated that no shots were fired during the take over however Ukrainian Navy Chief Serhiy Hayduk has reportedly been detained and the Russian flag is now flying over the base. Although officials in Kiev ordered its troops to stay in place, a number of Ukrainian servicemen were later seen leaving the base carrying their belongings. Others are believed to still be inside, refusing to surrender.
The reported takeover of the Ukrainian base came one day after Ukraine’s army indicated that a soldier had been killed in an attack on a base in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol. Russia also indicated that one member of the pro-Russian “self-defence” force in Crimea had also been killed. The reports however have not been independently confirmed. Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk warned Tuesday that “the conflict is shifting from a political to a military stage.”
The latest developments in the on going crisis come one day after Crimean leaders signed a treaty with Moscow, effectively absorbing the peninsula into Russia. Russia’s constitutional court has approved the accession treaty, and there is minimal doubt that parliament will also give its full backing. The move on Tuesday followed Sunday’s referendum, which approved Crimea’s split from Ukraine. The vote, which showed 97% of voters in favour of joining Russia, has been widely condemned by the West. The West and the Ukrainian government in Kiev have indicated that the hastily organized referendum was illegal and will not be recognized. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has stated that the EU must send “a clear warning” to Russia, adding that the G8 group should discuss whether to expel Russia “if further steps are taken.”
The US and the EU are amongst those who have already imposed sanctions on several officials from Russia and Ukraine who have been accused of being involved in Moscow’s actions in Crimea. Brussels and the White House have stated that the sanctions will be expanded, with Moscow warning that this move was “unacceptable and will not remain without consequences.”
Amidst the growing tensions, Ukrainian Defence Minister Ihor Tenyukh and First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Yarema travelled to Crimea on Wednesday to try to defuse the tensions however they wee prevented from entering. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is heading to the region, and will meet with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday and with Ukraine’s interim leaders in Kiev on Friday.
On Wednesday, days ahead of a planned referendum, leaders of the G7 group of nations called on Russia to stop its efforts to “annex” Ukraine’s Crimea region, stating that if Russia takes such a step, they would “take further action, individually and collectively.” The G7 leaders also indicated that they would not recognize the results of a referendum in Crimea, which will be held this weekend, to decide on whether to split from Ukraine and join Russia. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s national security chief has warned of a major Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s borders.
The European Union (EU), along with the Group of Seven (G7) industrial nations, which includes Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States, urged Russia to “cease all efforts to change the status of Crimea.” A statement released by the White House indicated, “in addition to its impact on the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea could have grave implications for the legal order that protects unity and sovereignty of all states.” According to officials in the US, Sunday’s referendum has “no legal effect” as it is in “direct violation” of Ukraine’s constitution. Officials added “given the lack of adequate preparation and the intimidating presence of Russian troops, it would also be a deeply flawed process which would have no moral force.”
The G7 leaders have repeated their calls for Russia to de-escalate the crisis by withdrawing its troops from Crimea, to talk directly with Kiev and to use international mediators in order to “address any legitimate concerns it may have.” Meanwhile European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso indicated that he hoped EU countries would keep their “very united and firm position because we don’t want to see, one century after the First World War, exactly the same kind of behaviour of countries annexing other countries.”
Other European leaders have also weighed in on the on going crisis. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has stated that it may be time for the EU “to consider the possibility of having second phase sanctions” against Russia. During a joint news conference with Mr Tusk, German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated that the EU could sign the “political part” of a long-awaited agreement on closer ties with Ukraine later this month. In a further public indication of Western support for Ukraine’s new leadership, US President Barack Obama is set to meet with interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk later in Washington.
Despite the looming referendum, diplomatic efforts with Russia are continuing. US Secretary of State John Kerry has stated that he will travel to London to hold talks with Minister Sergei Lavron on Friday. According to the Kerry, he will present him “with a series of options” for resolving the crisis. France’s President Francois Hollande has also spoken by telephone with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, indicating that both agreed to “continue the discussion” on resolving the crisis. Despite Russia indicating that it may want to continue diplomatic discussions with the West, troop movements in Crimea demonstrate the Russia is unlikely to back down despite threats of sanctions.
Ukraine’s national security chief Andriy Parubiy indicated Wednesday that Moscow had not withdrawn its troops after carrying out military exercises near Ukraine’s eastern and southern frontiers last month. He further noted that the Russian army “is only two to three hours” from Kiev, adding that Ukraine’s “units are positioned to repel attacks from any direction.” Sources have indicated that Russian troops have been seen massing on Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders, with Ukrainian officials describing the situation as “critical.” He has accused Moscow of sending “subversive agents” into those areas to try to create a pre-text to deploy troops in the same way it has done in Crimea. Mr Parubiy has also indicated that Kiev’s parliament will vote on Thursday to establish a National Guard of 20,000 people, recruited from activists involved in the recent pro-Western protests as well as former military academies, in order to strengthen Ukraine’s defences. He indicated that the National Guard would be deployed to “protect state borders, general security and prevent ‘terrorist activities.’”
- 21 November 2013 – President Victor Yanukovych abandons deal on closer ties with the EU in favour of closer co-operation with Russia
- December 2013 – Pro-EU protesters occupy Kiev city hall and Independence Square.
- 20 February 2014 – At least 88 people are killed in 48 hours of bloodshed in Kiev.
- 21 February 2014 – President Yanukovych signs compromise deal with opposition leaders.
- 22 February 2014 – President Yanukovych flees Kiev. Parliament votes to remove him and sets presidential elections for 25 May.
- 27 – 28 February 2014 – Pro-Russian gunmen seize key buildings in Crimean capital Simeferopol
- 1 March 2014 – Russian parliament approves President Vladimir Putin’s request to use Russian forces in Ukraine.
- 6 March 2014 – Crimea’s parliament asks to join Russia and sets a referendum for 16 March.
On Tuesday, Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula voted for full independence from Ukraine ahead of a referendum to join Russia. Meanwhile, France has threatened sanctions against Moscow, which could be implemented as early as this week.
Yanukovych Remains Defiant
The latest escalation, in what has developed into Europe’s worst crisis in decades, came moments after ousted pro-Kremlin leader Victor Yanukovych defiantly vowed to return to Kiev from Russia, declaring that he was still the leader of the former Soviet country. Speaking to reporters in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, Yanukovych, in what is his first public appearance since February 28, stated “I remain not just the sole legitimate president of Ukraine but also commander-in-chief,” adding “as soon as the circumstances allow – and I am sure there is not long to wait – I will without doubt return to Kiev.”
In light of the upcoming referendum, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned that if Moscow failed to respond to Western proposals on the standoff, sanctions against Russia could come as early as this week. On Tuesday, Western officials are also expected to meet in London in order to finalize a list of Russian officials who may face asset freezes and travel restrictions over their role in endangering the sovereignty of Europe’s largest state.
Independence and Referendum
On Tuesday, Crimea’s parliamentary assembly took another dramatic step by issuing a declaration proclaiming the region’s full independence from Kiev rule. The body had earlier voted to actually join Russia, with the latest move appearing to be primarily aimed at creating a legal framework for becoming a part of Russia as a sovereign state.
Crimea has been a tinderbox since Russian forces seized control of the Black Sea peninsula, which has been home to its Black Sea Fleet since the 18th century, with help of Kremlin-backed militias days after Yanukovych fled Ukraine last month in response to three months of deadly unrest. The strategic region’s self-declared rulers are recruiting volunteers to fight Ukrainian soldiers while Russia’s parliament on Tuesday prepared legislation that would simplify the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea after Sunday’s vote. However the pro-European leaders in Kiev have rejected the referendum and are appealing to Western powers for both diplomatic backing and pressure on Moscow to release its troops stronghold on the rugged peninsula of two million people.
NATO Launches Surveillance
Meanwhile NATO announced Monday that it will deploy AWACS reconnaissance aircraft, which will overfly Poland and Romania, as part of alliance efforts to monitor the crisis in Ukraine. The Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) will fly missions from their home base in Geilenkirchen, Germany, where seventeen are housed, and from Waddington in Britain. The AWACS aircraft are one of the most sophisticated command and control vehicles in the NATO armoury, capable of monitoring huge swathes of airspace, with diplomatic sources indicating that the AWACS were routinely deployed and on that count, there was nothing unusual in their use in this case. However a diplomatic source has indicated that it is unusual that the deployment has been announced publicly.
According to a NATO official, the flights “will enhance the Alliance’s situational awareness,” adding “all AWACS reconnaissance flights will take place solely over Alliance territory.” The official also noted “this decision is an appropriate and responsible action in line with NATO’s decision to intensify our on-going assessment of the implications of this crisis for Alliance security.” Flying over Poland and Romania the AWACS planes should be able to see far into Ukraine’s airspace.
As the Ukraine crisis has deepened, with Russian intervention on the Crimean peninsula, former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe have become increasingly nervous at President Vladimir Putin’s apparent willingness to up the ante. The situation risks becoming more difficult if Crimea, which is now controlled by pro-Russian leaders, votes in a March 16 referendum to break all links with Kiev and become a part of Russia. Poland and the Baltic states especially have taken a hard line as events have unfolded and last week, Warsaw called for urgent consultations with its NATO allies on the situation. In response to Putin’s move into Crimea, which is home to a large Russian-speaking population and the Black Sea fleet, the US is sending a dozen F-16 fighter jets and 300 service personnel to Poland as part of a training exercise. Last week, Washington also deployed six additional F-15 fighter jets to step up NATO air patrols over the Baltic states.