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Russia wresting control of Crimea from Ukraine

Vladimir Putin effectively wrests control of Crimea from Kiev, as Russia’s parliament votes to approve sending troops into the region citing security interests.

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One week ago at the closing ceremony for Sochi’s Winter Olympics, IOC chief Thomas Bach delivered what many saw as a veiled plea to his host, Vladimir Putin seated opposite him in the Fisht stadium by the shores of the Black Sea.

“By living together under one roof in the Olympic Village, (the Games’ athletes) send a powerful message from Sochi to the world, a message of a society of peace, tolerance and respect,” Bach said in his closing ceremony speech.

“I appeal to everybody implicated in confrontation, oppression or violence: Act on this Olympic message of dialogue and peace.”

Taisia Bullard, who was born in central Ukraine, holds a protest banner in front in the Russian embassy in Washington.

Taisia Bullard, who was born in central Ukraine, holds a protest banner in front in the Russian embassy in Washington. Photo: AP

Bach is notorious in his office for changing his speeches at the last minute. The developments in Ukraine would have been weighing on his mind as he weighed his words. The so-called Olympic truce, already fragile, was disintegrating. A Games intended as a symbolic embrace of post-Communist Russia by the global community was starting to sour.

Putin applauded the speech, his face unreadable. According to some unverified reports, Russian troops were already mobilising on the borders of Crimea.

A day earlier, Russia’s deputy prime minister Dmitry Kozak had given a press conference hailing the Games as a big PR win for his country.

The Games made Russia “a lot closer and more appealing and understandable for the rest of the world,” he said. “Today you can see that Russia can keep its word.”

Mere days later, the $50 billion pricetag of the Winter Games is looking like a new world record for wasted spin doctoring.

Russia’s parliament has rubber-stamped the leadership’s determination to keep Crimea a de facto Russian state, by force if necessary.

It appears to be the Georgia playbook. In 2008 – another Olympic year – Russian troops moved in to claim the separatist regions of its supposedly independent neighbour.

Ukraine’s protest movement is not ignorant. They know that in Georgia it was the pro-western president, who ordered his armed forces to retake control of South Ossetia, that provided the pretext for Russia to mobilise troops and warplanes to crush the Georgian military.

But if they do not respond, they could lose Crimea anyway. Many, if not most of the unidentified armed men in Crimea’s commercial airport at Simferopol and the military airfield near Sevastopol are under Russian command, or at least influence.

What is not clear is the end game. Russia may not want Ukraine, or even Crimea. It may calculate that the diplomatic damage may not be worth the prize.

As Chatham House adviser Roderic Lyne says, “Ukraine is not a prize … in its current state (it) is a liability”, not least because of its dire economy.

And it is too simplistic to assume that even the pro-Russian Ukrainians want to return to the motherland.

“A reversion to rule by Moscow has no attractions,” Lyne wrote for Chatham House on Friday. “Personal links with Russia are multifarious, trade with Russia is the norm, Russian investment in Ukraine – in banking, telecoms, natural resources, heavy industry – is huge and a peaceful and open border is highly desirable. But, for the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians, including native Russian-speakers, hard-won national sovereignty must not be surrendered.”

But Russia will not tolerate even the chance of losing its Black Sea Fleet base at Sevastopol. And it keenly desires to prevent Ukraine moving away from Russia’s nascent Customs Union, its economic re-stitching of the old USSR, toward the EU – which it worries would also be a step closer to NATO.

The question is how far it will go, how much pressure it is willing and able to apply, how much diplomatic pain it will endure, to achieve these aims.