After what Moscow regards as the western-backed takeover of Kiev, the Kremlin’s choreography has been impressive.

Days after the end of Vladimir Putin’s Sochi Olympics, the borders of Europe are shifting. Or, more accurately, military forces suspected of acting on Moscow’s orders are creating a new cartographic reality on the ground.

Overnight, alleged undercover Russian special forces seized control of Simferopol airport, in the administrative capital of Crimea. The move comes less than 24 hours after a similar squad of shadowy, well armed, Russian speaking gunmen seized Simferopol’s parliament building and administrative complex. If anyone was in doubt as to what this meant, the gunmen left a clue. They raised a Russian flag above the parliament building.

Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, described the operations in Crimea in apocalyptic terms. What was unfolding in the south was “an armed invasion and occupation in violation of all international agreements and norms”, he posted on Facebook. That’s certainly how it seems.

Moscow’s military moves so far resemble a classically executed coup: seize control of strategic infrastructure, seal the borders between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine, invoke the need to protect the peninsula’s ethnic Russian majority. The Kremlin’s favourite news website, Lifenews.ru, was on hand to record the historic moment. Its journalists were allowed to video Russian forces patrolling ostentatiously outside Simferopol airport.

Wearing khaki uniforms — they had removed their insignia — and carrying Kalashnikovs, the soldiers seemed relaxed and in control. Other journalists filming from the road captured Russian helicopters flying into Crimea from the east. They passed truckloads of Russian reinforcements arriving from Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

The Kremlin has denied any involvement in this very Crimean coup. But Mr. Putin’s playbook in the coming days and months is easy to predict. On Thursday, the Crimean parliament announced it would hold a referendum on the peninsula’s future status on 25 May. That is the same day Ukraine goes to the polls in fresh presidential elections.

The referendum can have only one outcome: a vote to secede from Ukraine. After that, Crimea can go one of two ways. It could formally join the Russian Federation. Or, more probably, it might become a sort of giant version of South Ossetia or Abkhazia, Georgia’s two Russian-occupied breakaway republics — a Kremlin-controlled puppet exclave, with its own local administration — “protected” by Russian troops and naval frigates. Either way, this amounts to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, de facto or de jure.

From Mr. Putin’s perspective, a coup would be payback for what he regards as the western-backed takeover of Kiev by opposition forces — or fascists, as the Kremlin media calls them. The Kremlin argument runs something like this: if armed gangs can seize power in the Ukrainian capital, storming government buildings, why can’t pro-Russian forces do the same thing in Crimea?

There are, of course, signal differences. Despite the presence of radical Ukrainian nationalists, the vast majority of opposition demonstrators in Kiev were ordinary citizens. They were fed up with the corruption and misrule of President Viktor Yanukovych and his clique. It was a bottom-up revolution. The protesters were armed with little more than homemade shields, rubbish helmets and molotov cocktails.

In Crimea, by contrast, the shadowy Russian troops are equipped with the latest gear — they are professionals, not amateur homegrown revolutionaries. Ukrainian officials point to the GRU, Russian military intelligence. And the warp-speed tempo of events in Crimea is being dictated from the top, not the bottom — from Moscow, rather than the street.

The choreography has been impressive. Within hours of the airport seizure, Russian MPs proposed a bill in the state Duma simplifying procedures for getting Russian passports to Ukrainians. The goal, the MPs said, was to protect a “brotherly nation”. Russia’s most important opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, meanwhile, has been placed under house arrest for two months and denied access to the internet. The Kremlin, that most risk averse of entities, has everything covered.

It only remains to be seen what role Mr. Yanukovych will play in this fast moving drama. Despite having fled the country, he insists that he is still Ukraine’s legitimate president. Russia refuses to recognise Kiev’s new pro-western interim government as a legitimate partner. It is likely to continue to treat Mr. Yanukovych — whose regime is accused of plundering $70bn from Ukraine’s treasury — as the head of a government-in-exile. It may even seek to return him to Crimea to continue his “executive” functions. Given Mr. Yanukovych’s love of bling, Crimea’s sumptuous Livadia Palace — where Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met to discuss Europe’s 1945 postwar carve-up — might serve as his new HQ.

Spare a thought, meanwhile, for Crimea’s Tartars. They are the peninsula’s original Turkic-speaking Muslim inhabitants. Well-educated and politically organised, they now number 300,000, 15% of Crimea’s population. They want to remain part of Ukraine. They support Kiev’s new pro-EU leadership.

They also have their own awful folk memories of Russian colonisation and exile: in 1944, Stalin deported the Tartars and other smaller groups to central Asia. They mostly came home after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Understandably, they may now fear being cast once again in the role of fifth columnists. So far the Kremlin has said nothing about their rights.

All of this presents the West with one of its biggest crises since the Cold War. Russia has mounted a major land grab of a neighbouring sovereign state. How will the West react?

Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2014

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