All (Not) Quiet on Ukraine’s Eastern Front

Revolutionaries in Kiev are cheering the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, but elsewhere in the country a backlash is not so quietly brewing between the country's pro-Western protest movement and those who would much rather see the country remain in Russia's orbit.

Throughout the crisis in Ukraine, analysts have made much of the divide between the country's Ukrainian-speakers in the west and its Russian-speakers in the east. That division has fueled much of the conflict that resulted in Yanukovych's departure from office over the weekend and serves as the basis of the existential question at the root of the crisis: Will Ukraine hitch its fortunes to the West and the European Union or move deeper into the Russian orbit?

Yanukovych's support is particularly strong in Crimea, a region where ethnic Russians constitute a majority of the population, and on Tuesday the speaker of the regional parliament issued a strident call in support of Crimean autonomy. "I share your anxiety and concern about the future of Crimea," Vladimir Konstantinov, a member of Yanukovych's Party of Regions, said. "I declare that I'm not going anywhere and will be here with you. We will fight for an autonomous republic until the end."

A Russian parliamentary delegation visiting the Crimean city of Simferopol on Tuesday welcomed the potential move. "If the parliament of the Crimean autonomy or its residents express the wish to join the Russian Federation, Russia will be prepared to consider this sort of application," said Leonid Slutsky, the head of the delegation. "We will be examining the situation and doing so fast." According to Ukrainian media reports, Russian authorities in Crimea have begun issuing passports following expedited procedures.

The push for quasi-independence comes after days of protests in Crimea, where Yanukovych is widely rumored to be hiding from authorities seeking his arrest. Many there vocally oppose the revolution in Kiev and vocally favor closer ties with Russia. In Sevastopol, which hosts a large Russian naval base, some 10,000 people gathered on Sunday and called for "Mother Russia" to save them from the "fascists" in Kiev.

In this video from Sevastopol on Saturday, police can be seen cordoning off pro-Russian demonstrators and supporters of the Maidan protesters -- the revolutionaries' ubiquitous moniker, which takes after the Kiev square that serves as their headquarters -- in order to prevent clashes.

Thousands of demonstrators in Sevastopol and elsewhere in the east have questioned the true motivations of the Maidan protesters, accused the Ukrainian parliament of carrying out a coup when it removed Yanukoych from power, and called for closer relations with Russia. The differences between the two halves of Ukraine can be seen as well as heard. While Kiev has been draped for the past months with the blue-and-yellow national colors of Ukraine (and, coincidentally, the European Union), demonstrators in Sevastopol hung up a Russian flag on the city council's building.

Key leaders in eastern Ukraine have signaled a willingness to cut ties with Kiev and the West, raising the grim prospect of the country's possible disintegration. On Saturday, members of parliament from eastern Ukraine, regional authorities, and local council members met in the eastern city of Kharkiv and voted to take control of their territories, though they denied that they wanted to secede from the rest of the country. Mikhaylo Dobkin, the regional governor, said during the meeting: "We're not preparing to break up the country. We want to preserve it."

On Monday, Dobkin announced that he would run for president in the upcoming elections, currently scheduled for May 25. The justification for his run speaks to the deep divisions in Ukrainian society. Dobkin said that he had arrived at his decision to seek the presidency "given the fact that the rights of Russian-speaking people are suppressed."

The Russian Foreign Ministry has broadly endorsed that sentiment, issuing a series of scathing tweets on Tuesday decrying alleged Western meddling in Ukraine. 

Outspoken opposition among Russian-speakers in Ukraine's east to the revolution in Kiev has raised fears that Russia may use the guise of protecting those nominal Russians as justification for an invasion -- not unlike Moscow's decision to deploy the Russian military into Georgia in 2008 and seize territory which it continues to hold. "He did this all before in South Ossetia and Abkhazia," warned former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, referring to the breakaway provinces of his country that Russia moved to protect during its 2008 invasion of Georgia. "He is issuing passports, he will want to stage provocations, use his fleet to block the passage connecting Crimea with the rest of Ukraine and establish a Russian corridor."  Saakashvili was in office at the time of the Russian invasion.

But Ukraine's division between a Russian-speaking east and a pro-Europe west is not quite as clear cut as some commentators have argued. In Kharkiv, thousands of supporters of the Kiev protesters showed up on Saturday in the eastern city of Kharkiv to counter pro-Russian protests. Supporters of the Maidan movement also put in an appearance in the Crimean city of Sevastopol on Saturday. And these were not the first Maidan protests in that part of the country. Since the anti-government upheaval began in November, sympathetic demonstrations have occurred in several eastern cities.

Vasiliy BATANOV/AFP/Getty Images


Israeli Jets Bomb Syria-Lebanon Border … Wait, What Border?

On Monday, Lebanese media reported that Israeli warplanes bombed a target near the town of Nabi Sheet, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley along the border with Syria. Then, subsequent reports offered conflicting information about which side of the Lebanon-Syria border had been hit.

Israeli jets have only begun striking so close to the Lebanese border within the past month. Lebanese media reported at the end of January that an airstrike had hit a Hezbollah communications post in southern Lebanon, but Hezbollah officials denied the attack. Israeli officials have refused to comment on any of the air force's sorties into Syria and Lebanon.

Since the start of Syria's civil war in 2011, Israel has conducted at least six airstrikes in Syria, which have targeted military research facilities and advanced missile systems that Israeli officials believe could be transferred to Hezbollah. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, said it believes Monday's strike targeted a Hezbollah rocket installation.

Anywhere else in the world, bombing a neighboring country would amount to a significant escalation -- but not so along the rapidly fading Lebanon-Syria border.

The border -- to the extent that it even exists -- has done little to stop the flood of Lebanese fighters pouring into Syria and fighting on both sides of the conflict. Hezbollah has sent thousands of their paramilitary forces to assist the Assad regime. Portions of Lebanon's north, from Tripoli and east to the border, have become conduits for Free Syrian Army fighters and supplies. The border bleeds both ways: Syrian jets and artillery have frequently targeted Lebanese towns like Hermel and Arsal, going after Syrian rebels. With a rash of bombings in Beirut and recurring gunfights in the streets of Tripoli, the Syrian civil war has also made itself felt far behind the border.

Syria has a long and complicated history with Lebanon. The two countries were once part of the same Ottoman province, and some Syrian leaders still feel wronged by the province's enforced division after World War I. Syria has remained a looming presence in Lebanese politics since the two countries' independence from France in 1943. Following the conclusion of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, Damascus managed the government in Beirut until popular protests ousted Syria from the country in 2005. Since then, the Syrian government has continued to maintain close ties with Hezbollah and other Lebanese political groups. But diplomatic relations have remained strained -- it took four years for the countries to exchange embassies -- and, as a result, the border became more real.

The Syrian civil war has changed that once more, and the Lebanese government seems unwilling or unable to regain control of the border -- or what was the border. Whether Israeli bombs hit Hezbollah targets a few hundred feet inside Lebanon won't matter much.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images