As the Ukraine crisis approaches a climactic showdown, with the Crimean referendum on secession to Russia and its predictable outcome taking place Sunday, March 16, Moscow will certainly continue to flex its military muscle to assert its mastery over the disputed peninsula, and demonstrate that Moscow – not the Kiev regime – has the whip hand over the Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov don’t have much hope of a compromise at their last-ditch meeting in London Friday, March 14 – especially after Kerry warned Thursday, March 13: “Contingencies are in place in case Russian forces move further east” into Ukraine, and “There will be serious consequences, if the Crimean referendum goes ahead.”
He referred to US and EU plans to impose sanctions the next day.
The hyped-up trip to Washington by interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk photo-ops with President Barack Obama, Kerry, Senators and Congressmen, did not sweeten the climate of US-Russian relations. Neither did it soften Moscow’s resolve on Crimea.
Indeed President Vladimir Putin’s appetite for more provocations was whetted by Obama’s threat of unspecified “costs,” unless Moscow backed down from its “slapdash” Crimean referendum. He was also intent in challenging the Ukrainian prime minister’s insistence that Kiev is a part of the West.
The Russian leader was more eager than ever to prove their words hollow when compared with real Russian military superiority on the ground, which he puts forward as the only force capable of handling Ukraine and dictating the rules of the game and its outcome.
Angela Merkel was the last hope
The only hope the US and Europe had of averting a showdown rested with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. They counted on her close friendship with Putin and Russian language fluency to open up a fresh channel of understanding between Russia and the Western powers.
But this hope was also dashed. Merkel faced a stony wall when she reached out to the Russian leader for an understanding, in time to avert the sanctions that the EU planned to clamp down on Russia Monday.
Speaking in Warsaw Wednesday, the chancellor echoed President Obama’s line when she commented: “We are in the 21st century. We don’t solve conflicts militarily – we have said that. But we also don’t try to avoid conflicts.”
This comment jarred oddly with the heavy Russian military strength massed in and around the Crimean Peninsula. It included Russia’s Ivanovo paratroopers formation and special mixed units, K-300P Bastion-P (NATO name SSC-5) missile batteries. This weapon is the most advanced of its kind against naval fleets heading for shore, marine landings and enemy command centers in the field, including cyber warfare facilities.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that the missile batteries were transferred from the Russian naval base Novorossiysk on the Black Sea to the Russian naval base in Sevastopol.
Putin puts his trust in his mighty military strength
In the Kapustan Yar district of southern Russia, not far from Ukraine, the Russians have meanwhile concentrated all their air defense power, bringing in units from all over Russia. These units augment the coastguard segments of the Russian Northern Fleet. Advanced S-300 interceptor missile units were also brought in, as well as mobile Buk-M1 anti-aircraft missile batteries.
Kapustin Yar is home to one of the Russian army’s largest missile launch bases. This month, Russia conducted two test-launches from this base: its new S-500 anti-aircraft missile system on March 3, and the RT-2PM Topol (NATO name SS-25 Sickle) intercontinental ballistic missile, the next day.
This massive military buildup was backed by a statement from the defense ministry in Moscow on Saturday March 3 that Russia is considering halting foreign inspections of its strategic weapons arsenal, including nuclear-capable missiles, in response to "threats" from the United States and NATO over the Ukraine crisis.”
"The unfounded threats towards Russia from the United States and NATO over its policy on Ukraine are seen by us as an unfriendly gesture that allows the declaration of force majeure circumstances," said the unnamed high-ranking Russian defense ministry official.
The inspections are mandated by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with the United States and the Vienna Document among Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) member- states.
Russia plans new ballistic missile bases in Ukraine
Putin has answered Merkel’s point about not solving conflicts militarily by practicing the reverse doctrine, which is in effect: “When we face a military threat, we react with military measures.”
DEBKA Weekly’s military, intelligence and Moscow sources all agree that the Kremlin saw the Ukraine coup two months ago as portending a military threat to Russia. It was seen as the opening shot for the positioning of NATO forces and the US missile shield program in Ukraine and the posting of advanced US X-band radar stations along Russia’s western borders.
This eventuality Putin is determined to resist with every means at his disposal, including military.
The Russian ruler furthermore interpreted the interim Ukrainian prime minister’s declaration that Ukraine is part of the West as confirming his worst fears. The next step, Putin believes, will be for President Obama and Chancellor Merkel to go along with this view and welcome Ukraine’s accession to NATO.
He may therefore be expected to kick back by expanding Russia’s military control of Crimea to other parts of Ukraine to advance two objectives:
1. To maximize the distance between the US military presence in Ukraine and Russian borders.
2. To build new ballistic missiles in the Ukraine districts under Moscow’s control. Those missiles would be capable of carrying nuclear warheads and place NATO-US radar stations in their sights. He has already performed this exercise by installing Iskander-M systems (NATO named SS-26 Stone) in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
Putin knows that European sanctions will hurt Russia and his government. But he calculates that if the Ukraine crisis deteriorates in the weeks to come, it will find Russian boots standing on Ukraine soil, while the West will be left with its diplomatic resources and a huge aid bill for keeping the Kiev regime from collapsing.
The Russian president believes that in the final reckoning, the West will come out of the crisis worse off than Moscow.