In the past two days, Russia has proved it’s capable of carrying out fast, coordinated military operations across its borders.
Not only have Russian troops invaded and occupied Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, but with deteriorating security in Ukraine’s eastern provinces, there’s a risk that Russia might go farther.
At first, it wasn’t clear who exactly the armed men were—spotted at airports in Sevastopol and Simferopol overnight on Feb. 28. But on March 1, the Russian senate unanimously approved a request from Pres. Vladimir Putin to use the military “on the territory of Ukraine pending the normalization of the social and political situation in that country.”
The operation was already underway. Russian forces had launched a coordinated takeover of key sites, including airports, government offices, television stations and the two land routes connecting Crimea to the rest of Ukraine.
Someone sabotaged Ukrtelecom, which provides phone and Internet service to the peninsula.
According to The Daily Beast, the troops in matching uniforms—armed with AK-74 rifles and PKM machine guns—who seized the airports are members of the Vnevedomstvenaya Okhrana, Russia’s quasi-private Interior Ministry security force. With the airports, now Moscow can send in reinforcements by air.
On Feb. 28, a spokesperson for Ukrainian Pres. Sergey Kunitsyn said 13 Il-76 transports arrived carrying 150 paratroopers each—close to 2,000 troops, total. The Ukrainian border service said eight transport planes landed in Crimea, but it’s unclear if this is a separate force.
If these are airborne troops, they were likely from one or two units. The first is the 45th Special Forces Reconnaissance Regiment, which airlifted on Il-76s into Anapa, Ukraine from their base in Kubika, outside Moscow, over the weekend of Feb. 22.
At the same time, a Russian military units flew from Pskov, near the Estonian border, to Anapa. It’s unclear which unit this was, but Pskov is the home of the 76th Airborne Regiment. On Feb. 28, there were rumors the 76th was in Ukraine.
Airborne regiments are the Russian military’s rapid strike force. They’re highly trained for precisely the kind of operation underway in Crimea. Each regiment possesses a tactical group that remains in a permanent state of high readiness and can deploy at a moment’s notice.
Photographers have spotted Russian helicopters over Ukraine, including Mi-24 Hind gunships. Helicopters and artillery are key weapons for offensive action.
All told, there are thousands of Russian soldiers operating openly in Crimea. The Russian 810th Separate Naval Infantry Brigade from Sevastopol—roughly equivalent to U.S. Marines, has deployed outside the Ukrainian navy’s headquarters. The result is, so far, a bloodless invasion—achieved partly from within, partly from outside.
In addition, citizens have witnessed Russian forces standing alongside unarmed Ukrainians wearing black and orange ribbons commemorating the Soviet victory during World War II. Armed members of Berkut, Ukraine’s disbanded interior security force, are manning checkpoints. The Night Wolves, an ultra-nationalist Russian biker gang, has also joined the blockades.
It’s a major international crisis. But the greatest short-term risk is a bloody escalation involving Ukrainian forces stationed in Crimea.
There are several Ukrainian units on the peninsula, including three anti-aircraft regiments, the 204th Tactical Aviation Brigade and Ukraine’s navy headquarters. These forces are no match for Russian troops.
Ukraine has, at least for now, not directly confronted the Russians.
On March 1, Martin Nesirky, a U.N. spokesman, said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is “gravely concerned about the deterioration of the situation.”
“The secretary-general reiterates his call for the full respect for the preservation of the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Nesirky added.
But Russia has already occupied 10,000 square miles of a major European state.
Update March 1, 3:15 PM EST: According to Reuters, Ukraine’s military is on “full combat alert.”
Retired Adm. James Stavridis, NATO’s former supreme commander, has also written a set of bullet-point recommendations for NATO’s next moves.
Among them, Stavridis advises moving naval forces into the Black Sea, readying NATO’s 25,000-man Response Force, and developing “contingency plans to react to full-scale invasion of Ukraine and to a partial invasion likely of Crimea.”
Update March 1, 4:50 PM EST: The U.N. Security Council is at loggerheads.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.N., Yuriy Sergeyev said the number of Russian troops in Ukraine “is increasing every coming hour” and the Kremlin’s actions represent an “act of aggression against the state of Ukraine.”
“We are not in war,” Sergeyev added. “We are trying to avoid any clashes.”
Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin said troops are acting “on the territory of Ukraine until the political stabilization of this country.” He accused the Ukrainian government of actions that “could lead to very difficult developments for which the Russian Federation is trying to avoid.”
U.S. ambassador Samantha Power’s statements were the strongest so far from an American official. “It is time for the Russian intervention in Ukraine to end,” she said.
Update March 2, 12:45 PM EST: Ukraine is in the early stages of mobilizing its armed forces.
Ukraine has 130,000 active troops and is adding potentially tens of thousands of reserves. Acting Ukrainian Pres. Oleksandr Turchynov just promoted deputy defense minister Mykhailo Kutsyn to chief of the armed forces. It’s worth noting Kutsyn has roots in far western Ukraine.
Meanwhile, there are nonviolent—but tense—standoffs at three Ukrainian military bases in Crimea. This video purportedly shows a Ukrainian officer arguing with Russian soldiers attempting to seize his weapons on March 2.
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