Ahead of the controversial Crimean referendum taking place Sunday, March 16, the Ukraine interim government claimed Saturday that its forces had repelled a Russian military operation to invade Strikove in the Kherson province adjoining the peninsula. This province is strategically valuable because it is the source of Crimea’s water and electric power, which Kiev could cut off. But only in theory, because then Moscow would equally cut off gas to Kiev.
The Kiev claim of a military engagement with the Russians is roughly as credible as its account of 80,000 Russian troops massed on the borders of Crimea and poised to invade additional parts of eastern Ukraine Monday, the day after the referendum. The interim parliament was accordingly summoned into emergency session Monday at 10:00 a.m. Kiev time.
debkafile’s military sources report this figure is highly inflated. There are no signs of an imminent Russian invasion; nor a call-up of reserves to fill out the Russian units permanently stationed in areas close to the Ukrainian border. The Russian army’s only unusual posture in the days leading up to the referendum was to stage military exercises and keep the small units taking part constantly on the move – so as to create the impression of a large army in motion. They also ran convoys of 10-15 armored trucks back and forth, which look massive when filmed.
These movements were intended as psychological pressure to deter Kiev and the West from any plans they might entertain to disrupt the referendum or interfere with its outcome.
Moscow’s only blatant military act in the run-up to the vote occurred Friday, March 14, when a Russian cyber unit intercepted a US MQ-5B Hunter drone 12,000 feet over the Crimean peninsula by using radio-electronic technology to break its link with its US operators. The drone was downed almost intact.
This was a hands-off warning from President Vladimir Putin to Washington on the Crimean referendum. It underlined the message Foreign Minister Sergey Lavov carried to US Secretary of State John Kerry when they met in London Friday, which was: “We must respect the will of the Crimean people in the forthcoming referendum” – meaning its will to join Russia.
Kerry repeated Obama’s message that the US deemed the referendum illegal and would not accept its outcome.
After talking for six hours, the two ministers were unable to bridge the gap. They could only agree to pick up their dialogue from Monday, when the vote was out of the way, when Putin’s intentions for Ukraine’s future became know and after the European Union’s ruling institutions had met to punish Russia by fairly limited sanctions.
After that, the two big powers might take another stab at reaching a compromise for Ukraine.
Meanwhile, neither was giving any quarter. Saturday night, the US tabled a resolution at the UN Security Council declaring the referendum invalid and urging countries not to recognize the results. Russia predictably cast its veto and China abstained. US Ambassador UN Samantha Power said the vote highlighted Russia’s isolation.
By Sunday, the Crimeans were set for their referendum with no discernible obstacle to deter them.
Our military sources saw no evidence of unusual military preparedness among Ukraine’s European neighbors to the west, in US bases on the continent, or in the Ukrainian army. No one in the West is sure up until now what proportion of its commanders will obey the interim government at crunch time and carry out its orders.
Partly, because of this uncertainty, President Barack Obama turned the Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy P. Yatsenyui down during his visit to the White House Wednesday, March 12, when he requested US weapons and financial aid for his armed forces. He also asked for access to US intelligence coverage of Russian military movements.
All that the US president was ready to offer was iron rations for Ukrainian troops. If nothing else, at least they won’t go hungry.
But one or more of the forces currently in suspended animation may snap into unforeseen action during the referendum or after it's over..