Much has been made about the presence of Russian troops —including what appear to be special forces units— in southern Ukraine. But peace and stability in the region are not threatened only by the actions of foreign troops; they are also threatened by the attitude of the armed forces of Ukraine, whose stance is likely to determine the outcome of the current crisis. The government of Ukraine has called all military reservists in the country to mobilize in order to “ensure the security and territorial integrity of Ukraine”. But what guarantee is there that the Ukrainian armed forces will remain united while the country is splitting in two —or three, counting the Tatars? At least 20 percent of Ukraine’s citizens consider themselves ethnically Russian, and there is little reason to believe that the ranks of the Ukrainian military, which reflect the ethnic makeup of the country’s divided population, will prove immune to rapidly intensifying sectarian tensions. Already Russian news outlets report that “the majority” of Ukrainian armed forces personnel stationed in Crimea have “switched to the side of local authorities” of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. The secessionist government’s Deputy Prime Minister, Rustam Temirgaliev, said on Sunday that the Ukrainian armed forces in the breakaway region “have all but surrendered” and that many “are expected to take military oath soon”, declaring their allegiance to the Crimean Republic. Presumably these are ethnic Russians who are abandoning the Ukrainian military and joining that of the secessionist movement in Crimea out of nationalist allegiance.
On Sunday afternoon, news agencies reported that Rear Admiral Denis Berezovsky, who was appointed head of Ukraine’s Navy on Friday, had voluntarily defected to the ethnic Russian side. Russian media aired video footage of Berezovsky pledging his allegiance “to the people of Crimea”. The Admiral’s defection, which occurred on only his second day on the job as commander of the Ukrainian Navy, prompted Crimea’s secessionist Prime Minster, Sergey Aksyonov, to announce the official creation of “Crimea’s Navy”, consisting of ships that have defected from Ukraine. One such ship appears to be the Hetman Sahaidachny, a frigate that was until recently in the Gulf of Aden, participating in a Western-led counter-piracy operation. On Sunday, as the frigate was returning to the Black Sea, its captain, Rear Admiral Andrey Tarasov, announced his intentions to disobey all orders from Kiev, while submitting himself to the authority of the Crimean government.
Gangs of rival protesters clashing in the streets of Kiev, Kharkov, and other Ukrainian cities, with stones and baseball bats is one thing. But if the Ukrainian armed forces split along ethnic lines, then civil war will become unavoidable. Under such a scenario, Russian and the West will in all likelihood be unable to prevent an armed conflict that will irreparably undermine the collective security of the entire Eurasian region.