Forget the military forces massed on the border and brief incursions into Ukrainian territory and airspace. Russia is invading Ukraine in the shadows. The same special operations forces that appear to be rigging the election in Crimea are quietly escalating tensions inside other parts of eastern Ukraine.
This week the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) arrested a group of people led by a Ukrainian citizen who were said to be scoping out three of its most crucial military divisions in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson.
In Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, press reports from the ground say that Russian provocateurs have attacked Ukrainians who organized anti-Russian street protests.
The forces behind these operations, according to U.S. officials briefed on the updates in Ukraine, are likely the Spetsnaz, the Russian military’s highly trained saboteurs, spies and special operations forces who may change the face—and the borders—of Ukraine without once showing the Russian flag on their uniforms. Or, for that matter, without wearing any particular uniforms at all.
In 1979 the Soviet Union was able to take over Afghanistan with less than 700 Spetsnaz units. These same operatives are now spreading out over Ukraine, according to U.S. officials who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity. One of these officials stressed that while U.S. intelligence assesses there are more Spetsnaz forces surging into Ukraine, there is no reliable number on how many are inside the country and ultimately whether their presence is a prelude to a more formal invasion.
Of course, the situation in Ukraine is fluid, and the intelligence coming from the area is incomplete. Most analysts say only Putin and a small circle of advisers will decide whether Russia's current military incursions become a full-fledged invasion.
On the ground in Ukraine, such confusion reigns that the role of Spetsnaz is hard to confirm. But its involvement would come as no surprise.
In Kiev’s Maidan Square, there’s the camp set up by veterans who fought for the Soviets in Afghanistan when Ukraine was still part of the USSR. Twenty-five years ago, Ukrainian and Russian soldiers belonged to the same army; they were dying shoulder to shoulder in Afghanistan. So the Ukrainian veterans watch closely and understand only too well the tactics used against them now.
For the last two weeks, Oleg Mikhnyuk, the commander of a group of veterans calling themselves the Afghan Hundred, has been receiving reports from southern and eastern Ukraine about the mysterious "Russian presence" on Ukraine's territory. "If in the beginning of March they were just 'little green men' without identity driving armored vehicles all over Crimea, now the invasion is official, as Kherson region is definitely outside of the Russian Black Sea fleet jurisdiction, " Mikhnyuk said. (Putin played his game initially within his self-defined version of a treaty that gives Russia the right to locate military bases in Crimea.)
This evening the crowd in the Afghan veterans’ camp grew quiet as one of their senior officers spoke on his cell phone. Earlier in the day, the foreign ministry of Ukraine declared that the Russian invasion had gone beyond the Crimean peninsula, and the ministry demanded immediate withdrawal of Russian military forces from Ukrainian territory.
On the previous night, locals of Strelkovoye village complained to Afghan veterans about Russian military helicopters circling over Kherson region. On Saturday morning about 50 militants in Russian army uniforms occupied a natural gas substation there. "But our forces immediately reacted and pushed them off our territory," Mikhnyuk said, expressing hopes that no "provocation could cause bloodshed in the future.”
Meanwhile, Petr Mekhed at the Ukrainian ministry of defense declared that "the statement about the invasion came from foreign ministry, and the defense ministry cannot confirm the invasion.”
Meanwhile, reports continue of "unknown armed men" kidnapping Ukrainian civil society activists, and even anti-Russian activities are suspected as “false flag” operations by Putin’s operatives. Saturday afternoon, an Orthodox priest, Nikolai Kvich, was reportedly kidnapped as he conducted a service in his church in Sevastopol church. At about 8 p.m. dozens of masked men stormed the Moskva Hotel in the Crimean capital of Symferopol. The hotel's visitors were told to stay in their rooms while the men armed with machine guns raided the hotel.
Daily Beast correspondent Jamie Dettmer, who was there, says they may well have been Spetsnaz: “They initially claimed it was an anti-terror exercise and then said it was a false tip off. They were aggressive, waving guns, automatic weaponry with silencers on, and they lashed out at a cameraman with rifle butts. Maybe an exercise in intimidation—we don't know."
Few politicians in Kiev seemed to have any doubts that the results of the referendum Sunday will bring Crimea under the Kremlin's control. The question discussed in political circles continues to be whether Russia will use open military force against Ukrainian army bases outside the peninsula, in the rest of Ukraine. With the Spetsnaz deployed, it may not have to.