The Russian military buildup for Ukraine was detailed exclusively by debkafile on Monday February 24.
That day, Moscow began flying and shipping out of Sochi the Russian special forces which had guarded the Olympic Games over to Russian bases in the Crimean Peninsula, mainly to Sevastopol.
We also reported Russian cargo plane squadrons parked at the huge Rostov on-Don air base facing the key pro-Russian power center of Donetsk in southeast Ukraine. Rapid intervention forces there (“Spetznaz”) were placed on combat alert.
Intensified Russian military movements were observed that same Monday near the Russian city of Belgorod, just 40 kilometers from the Ukraine border and north of Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkov, another pro-Russian bastion opposed to association with the European Union.
Two days later, Wednesday, Feb. 26, the Russian military buildup was finished and combat-ready forces deployed at designated positions around the borders of Ukraine.
It was then that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that he had been instructed by President Vladimir Putin to place armed forces in central and western Russia, the air force and the Baltic and Northern fleets on combat alert. Their readiness for immediate action would be tested in an urgent four-day drill.
In a televised statement after a meeting of the Russian general staff, Gen. Shoigu said that the forces “must be ready to bomb unfamiliar testing grounds.”
Sevastopol is the main springboard for Putin’s Mid East strategy
That day, violent clashes erupted between pro-Russian and pro-European Ukrainians in the Crimean capital of Simferopol, the peninsula’s financial hub which also controls its road system.
The most vociferous anti-Russian protesters were Crimean Tatars gathered in from around the capital to demand that the new leaders in Kiev assert their authority over the peninsula.
Alarm bells jangled in Moscow. The minority Tatars, who ruled Crimea in the 18th century, have never given up on their historic aspiration to rid the region of Russian influence and return to power.
The Tatar protest was seen in Moscow as capable of kindling violent separatist movements among the dozens of small nations which make up the Russian Federation.
Putin therefore resolved to quench this spark before it took hold. The unidentified armed men in military uniform who seized the government and parliament buildings in the Crimean capital at daybreakThursday were sent to achieve this purpose.
The Russian ruler will never abandon the Crimean Peninsula – and especially the Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol, for another pressing reason: It is the main springboard for Russia’s Mid East policies and its military role in Syria.
If Russian control of Crimea came into question, or was overtaken by the pro-European forces which seized power in Kiev, Moscow’s diplomatic and military game plans for Syria and partnership with Tehran would go by the board.
Sevastopol is the key to Russia’s supply system for the war in Syria.
Forging the link between Ukraine and Syria
The Russian ruler never imagined at the start of 2014 that the danger to his Mediterranean and Middle East policies would come from the Black Sea region. The turmoil in Kiev certainly took him by surprise, especially when it veered out of control.
(See a separate article revealing how the Europeans misjudged its consequences.)
But DEBKA Weekly’s Moscow sources disclose that, in the last days of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin saw he could make good use of the event for action to start turning the clock back in Kiev.
But first, he determined to cement Russia’s grip on the Crimea, even if this necessitated military intervention in the Ukraine crisis and dividing the country between a pro-Russian entity in the south and east and a pro-Western state in the west.
Turning to his diplomatic agenda, Putin forged a link between the tumult in Ukraine and the war in Syria.
Hours before the Russian military drill was announced, one of the biggest battles of the Syrian war was waged in the rural district of Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, a place which came under deadly Syrian chemical attack last year.
Syrian government and Hizballah forces carried out a deadly ambush on Islamist rebel fighters outside the village of Otaybeh, killing more than 200 Saudi, Qatari and Chechen members of the Nusra Front and Jaish al-Islam.
Moscow produces Yanukovych as Ukraine’s still legitimate ruler
This ambush was pulled off, scoring the highest number of enemy fatalities of any single engagement in the Syrian war, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report, thanks to the secret data and operations plan supplied by Russian intelligence.
The message from Moscow was that if the US and the West are over-supportive of the Kiev “mutiny,” Russia will no longer adhere to the understandings and red lines negotiated for the Syrian conflict and Bashar Assad’s status by Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and binding on Presidents Obama and Putin.
And Moscow would not hesitate to strike out in other parts of the Middle East as well.
Thursday, the new men in Kiev made an effort to get an administration up on its feet. Parliament appointed a new “unity government”, naming former Economy Minister and opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenuk provisional prime minister.
However, the Kremlin countered with its own card. Deposed Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych surfaced for the first time since he fled Kiev five days ago as his country’s only legitimate president under Russian protection.
Russia’s global cooperation is paramount for Obama
As a muscle-flexing exercise, he promised a news conference Friday, Feb. 28 at Rostov on-Don, home base of Russia’s elite Spetznaz, which is on alert for action to secure Crimea.
Later Thursday, John Kerry stepped into the picture with a telephone call to Sergey Lavrov to say he favors dialogue between the two powers to stabilize the situation in Ukraine.
Russian officials, in a statement by the foreign ministry, emphasized the importance of fulfilling agreements, first of all the “Ukraine peace deal signed last Friday, Feb. 21, by Yanukovych and the opposition, notarized by the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and Poland and approved by the US.”
In other words, the price for Moscow’s cooperation in stabilizing the Ukraine government and de-escalating the Russian military buildup around Ukraine and pointing at Crimea, may be to swallow Yanukovych’s return and let the European scheme for Ukraine fade into the past.
That Washington was willing to seek Moscow’s cooperation – and even possibly pay a high price to win it – – showed how highly Barack Obama rates the preservation of his understandings with the Russian president on the wider international issues of diplomacy on the Iranian nuclear question and the war in Syria, DEBKA Weekly’s sources report. Their inter-power collaboration on global issues – and Putin’s willingness to uphold it – are the bedrock on which President Obama grounds his foreign policy.
Will Washington accept the status quo ante to resolve the crisis?
The Obama administration mostly stayed aloof from the British-led European moves on Ukraine, unwilling to risk what it regards as headway on the Iranian and Syrian issues by stepping into a conflict touching on Russia’s very borders and affecting its strategic interests.
But then, Thursday afternoon, Russia raised the military stakes by sending fighter jets to patrol the border with Ukraine, shortly after armed men seized control of government buildings and the parliament in the Crimean capital of Simferopol and flew the Russian flag over them.
Local witnesses assured our sources that the armed men were actually Russian paratroopers and carried heavy anti-tank weaponry.
At that point, the Obama administration sent John Kerry to pick up the phone to Sergey Lavrov to negotiate an end to the crisis, before the Russian military buildup gets out of hand. Moscow’s price for collaboration has yet to be negotiated before the upheavals besetting Ukraine subside. It may entail swallowing the return of Yanukovych to Kiev.