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A Salute to the Unknown Soldiers Swarming Crimea

Russian soldiers in Crimea wear uniforms and drive vehicles without Russian insignias. That may be the only reason no blood has been shed.
March 5, 2014, 2:45pm
Photo via AFP/Getty Images

One of the most interesting and telling features of the Crimean crisis is the absence of something. Specifically, it's fact that the Russian troops now stationed across the peninsula are wearing uniforms and driving vehicles without any flags or other sorts of Russian markings. (And you thought it was bad when unmarked cop cars nail you for speeding.) Until this poor guy spilled the beans on camera, the troops hadn’t responded to questions about whether they were part of the Russian Army, and they hadn't provided details about where they came from or to whom they reported. This deliberate and unusual measure provides some hints about what Russia is up to and how it might proceed in days to come.

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This soldier is not wearing any identifying apparel, but identified himself as a Russian.

Russia’s supporters have laid out four rationales for why Russia has invaded Crimea. One, it’s full of Russians who asked the Russian army to come save them. Two, Moscow ascertained there was an impending humanitarian disaster that demanded an immediate response. Three, Russia’s warm-water naval base in Sevastopol is strategically important. Four, Crimea basically belongs to Russia — it’s only “technically” Ukrainian because Russia gave it to Ukraine as a gift in 1954. These rationalizations (or excuses) all lay out plausible reasons for Russian troops to intervene, and yet the Russian forces in Crimea have done all they can to not look very Russian at all.

Very early on, the story was that the guys showing up with guns were some sort of spontaneous militia consisting of shockingly energetic locals who up and decided to slap on some camouflage, grab some machine guns and assault rifles, and start seizing airports across the Crimean peninsula. Not that anybody ever bought that story, but the already weak pretense got too preposterous entirely when the “militias” started showing up with attack helicopters, self-propelled artillery, and other decidedly non-homebuilt weapons systems.

What appear to be Russian helicopters fly toward Sevastopol on February 28.

The lack of markings on soldiers' uniforms and vehicles didn’t fool anyone, but it allowed for a couple of delicate legal fictions. First, since these "mystery” soldiers weren’t clearly coming from another country, it gave latitude for discretion to the Ukrainian military. Armies are generally up to speed on what to do when another army invades. However, the Army didn't have any good script for what to do if was confronted with was the sudden appearance of several thousand special-forces-y … illegal immigrants?

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As these unknown soldiers surrounded Ukrainian military installations attempting to get the units inside to stand down, the lack of official Russian marking also gave the local Ukrainian commanders a bit of an out. The "foreign" troops haven't demanded a surrender, per se, nor did they demand that the Ukrainians put themselves under Russian command. Rather, Ukrainian military personnel were told to give oaths of loyalty to the “Crimean People." That way, they didn’t technically cease being loyal to Ukraine, they were just announcing their higher loyalty to a small portion of Ukraine. It may sound trivial, but giving the Ukrainian soldiers a way out that allowed them to retain some measure of honor may have prevented bloodshed. Thus far.

A Crimean referendum on independence is scheduled for March 30 (or earlier). The Russian parliament also has a bill under consideration that would allow a foreign region whose citizens vote to become a part of Russia to do so. The lingering uncertainty in both these provisions might mean that Russia hasn’t come to a final decision on its own end game.

There are some reasons why Russia might want to keep Crimea in Ukraine — doing so vastly complicates Ukraine’s foreign policy situation and would effectively block Ukrainian membership in NATO, so the complete annexation of Crimea isn’t a foregone conclusion.

If, instead, Crimea opts for independence, becoming a frozen state — one that is technically independent but without wide diplomatic recognition — the Ukrainian units that have pledged loyalty to the Crimean people will probably serve as the basis for a ready-made Crimean military.

Legally, this kind of tippy-toe invasion is a bit strange, and could generate further unexpected complications or bizarre fallout. However, this all indicates that Vladimir Putin hasn't simply lost his marbles, as some people, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have suggested. Instead, he's given a fair amount of thought to both the legalities of what Russia is doing as well as to what he's ultimately hoping to gain — or willing to accept — in the end.