UK & World News

  • 1 March 2014, 16:43

Crimea May Just Be The Start For Russia

As Russian troops took control of the Crimea's most important tactical locations and its gunships clattered through the region's skies, France, Germany and Britain all called the Kremlin with the same message: Preserve the territorial integrity of the Ukraine.

One can imagine Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, hanging up on each of them with a sigh and "whatever".

Ceded to the Ukraine in 1954 under the Soviet Union, the Crimea has a majority Russian population and is the headquarters of Russia's Black Sea Fleet made up of some 161 aircraft and 388 warships.

Moscow doesn't see it as part of another county, the Ukraine, any more than it's psychologically capable of seeing the Ukraine itself as genuinely independent.

As president Vladimir Putin reactively sought the permission of parliamentarians to deploy his forces in the Crimea to protect ethnic Russians, the leaders of the new government in the Ukrainian capital Kiev exhumed the horrors of Georgia's recent history.

In 2008 Georgia sent troops into the breakaway ethnically Russian region of South Ossetia after a series of security threats and other incidents from Russian-backed militia there.

The results were disastrous for Georgia, which was thrashed in a five day war and, arguably forever, lost control of the South Ossetia.

Russian troops, and other militia, have moved to separate the Crimea from the government in Kiev.

The new administration knows it would be foolish to counter attack.

Acting President Oleksander Turchinov said: "An inadequate Russian presence on the territory of the Crimea is nothing but a provocation. And Russia's attempts to make Ukraine react in the same forceful way have failed.

"We clearly understand that the plan was to create a new Ossetia on the territory of Ukraine with victims, blood, war and civil conflict."

In the Crimea the local Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov played his cards as predictably as the Kremlin would have demanded.

He announced he was taking command of Ukrainian security forces to preserve the "life and safety of the citizens".

He added: "I appeal to the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, to assist in providing peace and calm in the territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea."

So, in theory the stage is set for conflict.

But the reality is this is Russia's back yard. It has manoeuvred its forces into positions of overwhelming strength and has the support of a significant chunk of the Crimean population for the moves.

So the prospect of a Georgian showdown is rapidly diminished.

But will Russia stop its campaign in the Crimea? Not likely.

The Kiev government needs $35bn (20bn), right now, to stay afloat.

Gazprom, the Russian petrochemical giant, reminded the new administration of an outstanding bill of $1.55bn (920m).

Foreign Secretary William Hague is rushing to Kiev and will be able to offer moral support and backing for hopes for closer integration with the European Union.

But he hasn't got the money, nor does the EU, to offer the Ukraine much beyond encouragement.

Mr Putin has cash. He has the military. And he has centuries of Russian influence to play with.

He is most likely to continue to erode the power of the central government over the Ukraine's largely pro-Moscow east. He can undermine what he does not own.

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