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As they did in Crimea, gun-wielding pro-Moscow militants are taking over government buildings in eastern Ukraine, posing something of a dilemma for the interim government in Kiev. Without a forceful response, it could risk a repeat of Russia's near-bloodless takeover of Crimea, starting with eastern cities like Donetsk and Slavyansk, or it could fight back and risk giving Russia a pretext to send troops in ostensibly to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine. With the militant activity expanding, President Oleksandr Turchynov chose the former course.
"The Council of National Security and Defense has decided to carry out a large-scale anti-terrorist operation with the use of armed forces of Ukraine," Turchynov said Sunday afternoon. "We won't allow Russia to repeat the Crimean scenario in the eastern region of Ukraine." He softened the news a little bit, promising amnesty to protesters to leave peacefully without firing shots and offering greater local governance to eastern provinces.
Russia responded by calling for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Sunday night, where Russian envoy Vitaly Churkin argued that the world's powers should stop Ukraine from using force. The U.S. incited the anti-Moscow demonstrations in Kiev that led to the ouster of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych, Churkin alleged, "so now the U.S. is going to encourage this criminal use of force?.... In just a few hours' time things might take an irreversible turn for the worse."
The U.S., Europe, and Ukraine countered with evidence that the well-armed militants leading the takeover of Ukrainian government buildings are Russian commandos. But forget about that for a minute.
The idea that Russia would argue that a government doesn't have the right to quell uprisings within its own borders would be darkly comical if the situation weren't so serious. Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded that no other countries interfere as he brutally crushed Islamic separatist movements in Checnhya and Dagestan — though, to be fair, the U.S. at least wasn't overly sympathetic toward Russia's Islamist militants in the post-9/11 Chechen crackdowns. And it was right after meeting with Putin at the Sochi Olympics that Yanukovych started his ill-fated crackdown on the Ukrainian protesters camped out in Kiev's Maidan square.
If any other country were dealing with an armed separatist movement within its borders, Russia would applaud its strong hand and warn other countries to back off. I wouldn't be surprised if Turchynov chose his words — "anti-terrorist operation" — primarily for Russia's benefit.