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.
Twenty-First Century Soviet Union: Could Moscow be Looking Towards Annexing States in Eastern Europe?March 27, 2014 in Russia, Ukraine
With the annexation of Crimea, there have been growing Western concerns of the rising number of Russian troops along the country’s eastern border with Ukraine. Although Moscow has denied that President Vladimir Putin has an ambitious plan to resurrect vestiges of the Soviet empire and stamp his authority over eastern European nations that sought protection from the West following the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall, the presence of 30,000 troops stationed along the border is nevertheless alarming. Furthermore, while Moscow originally stated that it was intervening in Crimea because of concerns over the ill-treatment of Russians there, who make up more than half of the population, since Crimea’s annexation, Russia has done little to ease Eastern European fears of further takeovers. The question now remains, could similar action take place in other parts of the former Soviet Union?
Since the ouster of Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych in February 2014, there have been frequent pro-Russian demonstrations that have taken place in Donetsk as well as in other cities in eastern Ukraine. So far, at least one person has been killed. Russians however have blamed far-right pro-Western demonstrators for escalating tensions throughout the country.
With Russian troops having staged military exercises near the border, and Ukrainian officials claiming Thursday that 100,000 Russian forces have massed on Ukraine’s border, it would not be difficult for them to move across into Ukraine itself.
If Putin is indeed considering more territorial expansion, than eastern Ukraine is likely to be high on his list. The political costs however would be high, with NATO and Western leaders already warning Moscow against further expansionism.
Although Crimea, which was previously Russian territory, became part of the Ukraine in 1954, Ukraine’s eastern border goes back much further, ties which could be used by Putin in any possible future take overs.
A great deal of attention has also focused on Trans-Dniester, a separatist region of Moldova, which has already offered itself to Moscow. Proclaiming independence in 1990, which has never been recognised internationally, Trans-Dniester is majority Russian-speaking while most Moldovans speak Romanian. NATO’s commander in Europe has warned that Trans-Dneister may be Russia’s next target as Moscow has already deployed 1,000 troops to the region, which borders Ukraine, near the city of Odessa.
The southern region of Gagauzia, an autonomous region of Moldova which is made up of four enclaves with a total population of 160,000 also held a referendum in February 2014, in which 98.4% of voters backed integration with a Russia-led customs union. The Moldovan government has stated that the referendum was illegitimate.
Russia’s 2008 brief war with Georgia resulted in two areas breaking away, South Ossetia and Abkhazi. Although Abkhazia had already declared independence unilaterally in 1999, since the 2008 war, the two enclaves have existed in a grey zone as they are not recognized internationally, nor are they formally are part of Russia. Although Moscow’s stated aim at the time was to protect Russian speakers, most residents are native speakers of Ossetian and Abkhaz respectively. Furthermore, most residents hold Russian passports and are opposed to the Georgian government in Tbilisi.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania
Although the Baltic republics regained their independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, Russians account for about a third of the population in both Estonia and Latvia. Due to the fact that both Latvia and Estonia require knowledge of their languages in order to gain citizenship, some Russian speakers born in the countries are either unable or unwilling to become citizens. Many Russian speakers have complained of discrimination, stating that the strict language laws make it difficult for them to get jobs. This treatment was echoed by the Kremlin in mid-March of this year, with officials expressing “outrage” at the treatment of ethnic Russians in Estonia, the same reason, which they gave for intervening in Crimea.
In Lithuania, ethnic Russians make up about 5% of the population and there is no requirement for them to pass a language test in order to attain citizenship.
However what must be noted is that in the case of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, all three Baltic states are members of both the European Union and NATO. Therefore any Russian incursion would have serious consequences as article 5 of the NATO treaty states that an attack on one member state is an attack on all.
Currently, there is no reason why Russia would seek to intervene in Belarus as the country is already closely aligned with Moscow. Furthermore, Belarus is an economic union with Russia, and Russian is an official language. Although only 8.3% of the population identifies itself as Russian, more than 70% speak the language.
Ties between Russia and Kazakhstan go back to tsarist times, when northern cities such as Pavlodar and Uralsk were founded by the Russians as military outposts. Russians currently account for more than half of the population in northern Kazakhstan which, like Crimea, was once a part of Russia itself.
Like Ukraine, Kazakhstan signed an agreement on nuclear disarmament in 1994 in exchange for protection. It has no port like Sevastopol in Crimea, however it does have the Baikonur space facility.
Although Kazakhstan already has close ties with Russia, as it is one of two other members, along with Belarus, of Moscow’s customs union, it has remained officially neutral in the matter of Ukraine.
Other Central Asian Republics
After independence in 1991, large numbers of Russians emigrated to central Asia, with the percentage of ethnic Russians in the region now ranging from 1.1% in Tajikistan to 12.5% in Kyrgyzstan. However it must be noted that the Central Asian economies remain tied to Russia, bot in terms of trade and remittances from migrants working there.
While it therefore seems unlikely that Moscow would seek to intervene in the region, the post-Crimea turmoil could still have an affect on the area. As the Russian rouble falls, and sanctions hit Russian businesses, jobless migrants returning from Russia could cause trouble for the governments in Dushanbe or Bishkek.
Armenia and Azerbaijan
Although Armenia has no Russian population to speak of, and Azerbaijan has just 1%, both countries tread a geopolitical tightrope between Russia and the West. Furthermore, since Aremenia gained its independence in 1991, Russia has retained a military base at Gyumri.
As was the case in Ukraine, Armenia had been preparing to sign an association agreement with the EU, however in September 2013, officials in the country announced that Armenia would be joining the Russian-led customs union instead.
Azerbaijan on the other hand is less economically dependent on Russia as it exports oil and natural gas to the EU. A pipeline that ends in Turkey effectively allows it to skirt Russian territory.
Russia would like to keep both countries in its sphere of influence, however in the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia is more likely to use economic, as opposed to military, measures.
Poland and the Baltics
Outside of Russia’s direct neighbours, countries such as Poland and those in the Baltics have also caused unease, with a sense that they too are under threat.
Although leaders in Poland have played down the danger, repeatedly reassuring the public, there remains a widespread sense of insecurity throughout the country.
While during an event to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Poland joining NATO, Prime Minister Donald Tusk stated that he saw no direct threat to his country, a view that has been echoed by Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski, an opinion poll has shown that 59% of respondents believed Russia’s foreign policy presented a threat to Poland’s security. Some have stated that they “…feel threatened by Russia because we’re next. Ukraine is first, then the Baltic countries and then Russia’s President Putin will make something bad here.” These fears have been echoed across the country, with one resident stating “now they want to attack Ukraine but we are neighbours so I don’t think Poland is safe, especially because we have a shred history with Russia, and they were always aggressors.” While these remarks to not directly indicate that most Poles fear that Russia is about to launch a military attack on the, their shared history however has generated a widespread mistrust of Russia and its leadership.
During the 18th century Catherine the Great annexed eastern Poland, with the country not regaining its independence until the end of World War One. However after just two decades of freedom, the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland just two weeks after Nazi Germany marched into western Poland in 1939. While the Red Army liberated Poland from the Nazis in 1945, this liberation was seen by many as a simple transfer of power, from one enemy to the next. Upon removing Nazi troops out of Poland, Joseph Stalin quickly installed a Soviet-backed communist system throughout the country, with the last Soviet troops leaving Poland in 1993.
According to Marcin Zaborowski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, “…there is a sense that certain boundaries have been crossed, that precedents have been created and because of that its not clear where Putin is going to stop,” adding that “this clearly unprovoked aggression against another state is in breach of international law. It doesn’t seem wise to hang on to the belief Putin’s not going to go further.”
Poland’s growing insecurity however is not solely tied to the country, but is also shared by the Baltic countries, which were also incorporated into the Soviet Union after World War Two.
Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite warned last week that Russia was trying to redraw the post-war map of Europe, adding that while Ukraine is likely to be the next on Putin’s list, Moldova, the Baltics and Poland would be next.
Estonia and Latvia both have large Russian minorities, which is of concern considering Putin’s justification for occupying Crimea has been to protect ethnic Russians there.
In response of growing fears of a possible Russian takeover of Poland and/or the Baltics, the United States has announced that it is increasing its military cooperation with Poland and the Baltic states. Officials have indicated that the US is sending six more F-15 fighters and a KC-135 refuelling tanker to increase its support for NATO’s patrolling of Baltic airspace.
In Poland, about 300 US air force personnel and 12 US F-16 fighters will be deployed for a joint training exercise. This is a significant boost to the 10 US airmen who are already stationed in the country. However the United States response will not solely focus on military aspects, but will also concentrate on the energy issue, which has developed out of the Ukrainian crisis. According to sources in Poland, “our prime minister and president have said we have to work more intensely towards energy independence. Energy is vital because the threat is not just of a military nature, its also about turning the gas taps off.” Poland has already experienced this switch-off as much of Russia’s gas supplies to Europe transit Ukraine while on its way West. In 2009, a price dispute between the Ukraine and Russia halted supplies to many European countries.
Despite the 2009 issue, Poland and the Baltic countries remained dependent on Russian gas supplies, with Poland last year importing 60% of the gas consumed by industry and households from Russian gas company Gazprom. According to Poland’s Prime Minister Tusk, Central and Eastern Europe’s dependence on Russian gas effectively gave Putin too much leverage. However after years of stating that it should liberate itself from independence of Russia’s gas supplies, and not doing much about it, Poland is now diversifying its gas sources.
By the end of this year, Poland is set to complete construction of a liquefied natural gas terminal to import gas from Qatar. It has also increased the capacity of interconnector pipelines with German and the Czech Republic in order to boost supplies from those markets. Poland also hopes to start producing its own shale gas in the future.
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.