As a days-old peace deal slowly falls apart, Russia and Ukraine are inching closer to military conflict.
The United States and other Western nations say the ball is now in Moscow’s court. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has not shown signs of enforcing the agreement that would pull back pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. In fact, he says forces under his control in the area don’t exist. What Putin has shown, however, are signs the international community has seen before — ones that came just before he annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, a takeover that the rest of the world has largely determined to be irreversible.
“There’s no question that the playbook that Russia is employing includes that play,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said recently. “We’ve seen it before. And some of the provocations and pretexts that we’ve seen come straight out of that playbook.”
Here’s what that playbook looked like in Crimea last month — and how it’s taking shape in eastern Ukraine now.
Step 1: Foment some civil unrest in the territory.
Last month, as a new government in Kiev took shape that Moscow refused to recognize, pro-Russian demonstrations sprung up in Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula that Russia eventually annexed. Moscow was largely believed to be fueling the public outcry for secession from Ukraine. This month, pro-Russian separatist groups have seized government buildings in at least 10 cities in eastern Ukraine.
Step 2: Start bringing uniformed troops into the territory, but don’t admit they are yours. In fact, repeatedly deny claims that those swarms of men clad in combat gear belong to your military.
Last month, unmarked troops began pouring into Crimea, their Russian identities revealed in tweets and videos. This month, troops resembling Russian special forces arrived in Ukrainian city squares. And there’s evidence against Putin’s claims this time, too. A series of photos published in The New York Times on Sunday suggest Russian military and intelligence forces are indeed on the ground in eastern Ukraine.
Step 3: Get authorization from the Russian Parliament to use military force “if necessary” in the territory you want to take over.
When former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country in late February, Sergei Aksyonov, the pro-Russia prime minister of Crimea, immediately appealed to the Kremlin for help. Within hours, the Russian Parliament had authorized the use of military force in the peninsula.
Last week, during a question-and-answer session, Putin said that the Russian Parliament had authorized military action in Ukraine.
Step 4: But say that’s what you really don’t want to do.
Last month, Putin insisted that he did not plan to seize the Crimean peninsula. Last week, he said of Ukraine, “I really hope that I do not have to exercise this right and that by political and diplomatic means we will be able to solve all of the sharp problems.”
Step 5: Wax poetic about Russia’s historical claim to said territory.
“Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia in the hearts and minds of people,” Putin said last month. Last week, Putin referred to eastern Ukraine as “new Russia,” adding that no one knows why the region became part of Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Step 6: When there’s enough public support in the territory, hold a referendum.
Last month, Crimea voted in a Moscow-backed referendum to secede from Ukraine, a decision deemed illegal by Ukraine and most other nations. This time around, however, Ukraine might actually allow such a vote. Last week, acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov said he was not opposed to a national referendum that would grant greater autonomy to eastern Ukraine, an option many have deemed may be the only way to get Russian forces to stand down.
Step 7: Once the results are in — and they are, unsurprisingly, in your favor — annex the territory.
Fewer than 48 hours passed between Crimea’s vote of secession and Putin’s announcement that Russia would annex the peninsula. Within hours, workers were already stripping the Crimean parliament building’s signage and raising Russian flags.
Eastern Ukraine has strong cultural and economic ties to Russia. Should there be a referendum there, the results are likely to sway toward becoming part of Russia.
Step 8: A month later, admit for the first time that you sent troops into that territory when it all began.
Last week, Putin calmly dropped this tidbit of information into televised conversation, acknowledging for the first time that Moscow had deployed Russian troops to occupy and annex Crimea.
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