A Russian Reconquista

Russian President Vladimir Putin's Nationally Televised Question-And-Answer Session

In case anyone doubted his intentions, here’s what Putin said on live TV today:

“The Federation Council granted the president the right to use military force in Ukraine,” he said, referring to the upper house of parliament. “I really hope that I do not have to exercise this right and that we are able to solve all today’s pressing issues via political and diplomatic means,” Putin said.

Putin referred to the region in question by its tsarist name “Novorossiya”, or “New Russia”, as it was referred to in the 19th century under tsarist rule, and suggested it was a historical mistake to hand it over to Ukraine.

He also admitted that Russian soldiers had been in Crimea prior to the referendum, though he still claims there are none in eastern Ukraine:

“Our servicemen stood behind the back of Crimea’s self-defence forces,” Putin said. “They acted politely, but resolutely and professionally. There was no other way to hold the referendum in an open, honest and honorable way and allow the people to express their opinion.”

But Julia Ioffe explains that the Russian invasion has already begun, and looks at some reasons why Ukraine isn’t really fighting back:

Who would do the shooting?

After the massacre on the Maidan in February, the new government in Kiev disbanded the Berkut, the Ukrainian special police who shot at protesters. Many were then publicly humiliated across Ukraine, having to apologize from city stages on their knees. This has created three problems. First, there are rumors that some of the former Berkut fighters, feeling betrayed and embittered—and unlikely to see this government as legitimate—fled to Russia, were outfitted by Moscow, and sent back to fight. Second, in disbanding Berkut, Kiev lost some of its best fighters, then ones that could potentially flush city buildings of special forces. Third, the move created uncertainty in the ranks of the rest of the Ukrainian police and armed forces: if they obey orders to fire now, will they be thrown under the bus later?

Jason Karaian highlights the dire financial situation of Ukraine’s military:

Today, the defense ministry trumpeted its 100-million-hryvnia ($8.9 million) fundraising drive, a big chunk of which came from mobile users donating 5 hryvnia at a time via a special text number. Meanwhile, the Finance Ministry also announced the issue of 1.1 billion hryvnia ($97 million) in war bonds to help finance the cash-strapped military. … On the ground, Ukraine’s military is badly outmatched by Russian forces. That was true even before Russia seized a number of ships in Crimea and, it was reported today, pro-Russian forces commandeered armored personnel carriers in eastern Ukraine. If the military escalation continues, it will take more than phone-in fundraisers and novelty bond issues for Ukraine to mount much of a defense.

Scarce resources are weakening the Ukrainian military in other ways, too. Reuters reported today on soldiers who claimed to have defected from Ukraine, citing a lack of resources and support from Kiev. “They haven’t fed us for three days on our base,” one said. “They’re feeding us here. Who do you think we are going to fight for?”

Anna Nemtsova has more on the defections:

[F]or now the Ukrainian military units ordered to put an end to the separatist movement in Donesk Oblast have refused to fight the protesters. Earlier on Wednesday outside Sloviansk, a crowd of pro-Russian demonstrators managed to convince a few dozen Ukrainian paratroopers from the same 25th Brigade to surrender. Ukrainian flags were taken off their four armored vehicles and locals presented with the flags of Russia and of the People’s Army of Donbas, the separatist militia. After switching sides, the soldiers drove to Lenin Square, where pro-Russian operatives have occupied the administration building since last week. Most of these militiamen claimed they were from Crimea; none of them spoke a word of Ukrainian. Still, they treated the surrendered Ukrainian paratroopers with courtesy and served them a nice meal inside the administration building.

The Ukrainian solders at Pchelkino Station were shocked when they heard that their colleagues had given up their weapons and their armored vehicles to pro-Russian protesters. But eventually they were convinced to do the same.

Eli Lake and Josh Rogin note the increasing possibility that Putin will make a move for Odessa:

Odessa is not only Ukraine’s most important remaining port for access to the Black Sea. It has also allegedly been a key avenue for Russian companies to export, sometimes with illicit or controversial purposes, goods overseas. Russian arms to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad allegedly flowed through Odessa, for example. … The loss of Crimea and the Russian takeover of other waterways in Eastern Ukraine “puts even more pressure on Odessa as Ukraine’s last sea shipment lifeline, not just for the navy but for Ukrainian industry,” said Druckman. “There should be concern from the perspective of Ukraine losing access to the Black Sea.”

Gauging the exact level and nature of Russian interference inside Odessa is difficult. The Ukrainian domestic intelligence services claim to have arrested Russian intelligence officers there and pro-Russian militias in Odessa are organizing rallies daily.

(Photo: A shop assistant cleans a TV screen during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nationally televised question-and-answer session in a shop in Moscow, Russia on April 17, 2014. By Dmitri Dukhanin/Kommersant via Getty Images)