Russia reacted unusually strong after a misty shoot-out near the border with Crimea, blamed on 'Ukrainian terrorists'. Putin in Moscow even spoke of Kyivs 'turn to terrorism'. Is it frustration about lack of progress with the Minsk-accords? Is it to cover up new troops deployment in Crimea? Or is it a sign of Moscow's growing agonies?
On 10 August, Moscow announced that a team of Ukrainian saboteurs had attempted to attack Crimean economic infrastructure, a charge that Kyiv denies. The announcement triggered speculation in Western media of a new Russian military offensive in eastern Ukraine, where the Kremlin’s clients have occupied two enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts since early 2014.
The reality is probably more complex. The protagonists in the eastern Ukraine conflict, Russia and its separatist allies on one side, and Ukraine on the other, frequently send reconnaissance and sabotage teams behind each other’s line. These incidents are rarely publicised, and casualties are only grudgingly acknowledged.
This time, however, the Russian leadership chose to make a major incident of the affair, with President Vladimir Putin denouncing the Kyiv government in terms reminiscent of the height of war in 2014. 'I think it’s obvious that Kyiv’s current authorities are not seeking for ways to solve problems through negotiations, but have turned to terrorism, Putin told reporters during a 10 August Kremlin press conference. Accusing Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate of involvement, he said it was “pointless” to pursue meetings with the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany in the so-called Normandy format. The next round of such consultations was due to take place on the sidelines of the upcoming G20 summit in China.
Mixture of messages
Given the hermetically closed nature of leadership decision-making in Moscow, centred around a small group of longstanding Putin associates, it is dangerous to offer sweeping predictions. But on close examination, the message from Moscow is more nuanced. It is a mixture of tough rhetoric and, so far, more restrained action.
What we know at this stage is that, on the night of 6-7 August, Crimea-based Russian units, including Vympel, the Federal Security Service’s elite counter-terror force, clashed with alleged saboteurs acting under the orders of Ukrainian military intelligence. A Vympel officer was killed. A member of the Russian airborne forces reportedly died in subsequent clashes. The incursion and other military engagements were not officially announced until 10 August. Such pauses often indicate that high-level discussions are taking place in Moscow on the appropriate response – and that the discussions may not be proceeding with ease.
On 10 August, Putin summoned the Russian Security Council – the country’s top military and security chiefs and key ministers – to prepare 'scenarios for counter-terrorism security measures', according to the Kremlin. After the meeting, Moscow announced the increase of troops in Crimea, and the Black Sea Fleet stepped up measures to counter sabotage attacks by land and sea and protect vital infrastructure. Moscow has also deployed its advance S-400 air defence missile systems to Crimea, although this decision reportedly was taken before the latest events.
The language that Putin used in his denunciation of the abortive raid was tough and chilling. He described the Kyiv leadership once again as 'the people who seized power', not as legitimate leaders brought to power by elections, as Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and others started to say after the 2014 Ukrainian presidential vote. The alleged incursions were not cast as the work of extremists whom Kyiv has failed to control, but as a sign that official Kyiv policy has shifted to terrorism 'instead of searching for ways to a peaceful solution'. The tone was worrisome, coming from a state which has a track record of depicting its enemies as illegitimate and thus potentially open to removal.
While the security situation in eastern Ukraine has been very volatile, little has changed in the immediate aftermath of the Crimea incident. This is perhaps more significant than Putin’s harsh rhetoric.
For months, several hundred kilometres to the north east of Crimea, thousands of Ukrainian troops have been engaged in intense positional warfare along a 500-kilometre front with Russian-trained and equipped separatist militias, and often with Russian regular forces. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians on both sides have been killed. (See Crisis Group report on Ukraine: The Line.) The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted a worrying escalation of hostilities and accompanying civilian casualties in recent months. Putin, however, made no reference to the fighting in his statement. Neither did other senior officials.
On the ground in the east, there is no conclusive evidence yet of a change in Russian military posture in and around the separatist enclaves. There are no clear signs so far of an increased Russian presence on the front line between the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist entities and Ukrainian-controlled territory.
NATO has not officially warned of a Russian troop build-up along the land border with Ukraine – although an unnamed NATO official told the AFPnews agency that the alliance was watching the situation with concern. Kyiv has placed its troops on high alert, but also reports no sign of unusual activity by its adversaries. Usually reliable bloggers report that new Russian troop units have arrived in the two separatist enclaves recently and medical facilities have been beefed up. The former could well be a standard rotation, and the latter a response to the ongoing violence along the line of separation. Both may have happened shortly before the latest events in Crimea.
Minister of Defense Shoygu held a teleconference to prepare for extensive exercises Kavkaz 2016 in september (foto mil.ru)
If Putin does decide to turn the screws on Ukraine, we can expect a series of well-used statements and manoeuvres. Moscow’s angry rhetoric is likely to extend to the situation in the east, probably with further denunciations of alleged Ukrainian aggression. Large Russian military exercises may be carried out along the border with Ukraine. Senior Moscow officials will warn Kyiv of the high price it will have to pay for its aggression. And Moscow could announce that it is not just skipping the next Normandy format meeting, but pulling out of the process until further notice. All this would point to a further major Russian military incursion.
Turning up the heat
Failing this, it will be reasonable to assume that Moscow is indeed extremely angry – but not necessarily about a Ukrainian sabotage operation. Russia is intensely frustrated by the lack of movement on the February 2015 Minsk agreement, and has sought to put the onus for the lack of progress on Ukraine. The agreement, which imposed on Kyiv a major military defeat at the hands of Russian and separatist forces, is highly disadvantageous for Ukraine. Some key clauses, such as according the entities special status, would be politically explosive, perhaps politically fatal, for President Petro Poroshenko. He has accordingly chosen to delay as much as possible. In response, Moscow is turning up the heat. It is trying to remind Kyiv of the damage its forces could inflict on Ukraine, to force Kyiv’s Western backers to move on Minsk.
Moscow’s current outburst, a combination of verbal aggression and military caution, may also indicate that it is unsure what to do. For months there have been reports of differences among the Kremlin’s top leaders, the so-called parties of war and peace. The day after news of the alleged Crimean incursion emerged, Putin unexpectedly replaced a key, hawkish, member of his inner circle – former deputy prime minister, former KGB General Sergei Ivanov – as the head of the presidential administration. Ivanov was replaced by a former deputy, Anton Vaino, an Estonian-born product of the old Soviet elite who made a discreet career in the Russian diplomatic service before shifting to the Kremlin’s protocol division. The Kremlin debate about Ukraine may still be continuing.
This article was published first by the International Crisis Group