The “frozen conflict” between Ukraine and Russia is once again heating up. Moscow has several cards to play – most of them alarming for anyone west of their joint border.
Of all the territory the Russian Empire lost after the collapse of communism in 1991, Ukraine hurt the most. Kyivan Rus, which took its name from Kiev, was the first Slavic state and is regarded by Russians as the birthplace of their nation, and of Orthodox Christianity. It was also seen, until recently, as a huge buffer zone between Russia and potential enemies. In recent times this includes NATO. Russia’s only warm water port (Sebastopol in Crimea) was leased from Ukraine and so when the country flipped into the western sphere of influence in 2014 Moscow immediately went into action. It annexed Crimea and fomented an uprising in the Russian-speaking enclaves of the Donbas region resulting in Kyiv losing control of 7 per cent of its territory. The initial fighting, and subsequent skirmishing, has killed 14,000 people. So far this year at least 20 Ukrainian servicemen have been killed by shelling.
Moscow would prefer to recreate the entire buffer zone by ensuring a government entirely subservient to Russia is in office, but failing that, variations of military action are cards it can play.
The least likely choice for President Putin is a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. At the least it would result in sanctions dwarfing those already in place and Russia cannot afford that. It would also require a huge force, fighting for a long time against battle-hardened forces now trained and partially armed by the US.
Another option would be along the lines of the 2008 war with Georgia. Moscow encouraged the breakaway region of South Ossetia into making a series of provocations. This led to Georgia cracking down militarily which Russia used to justify its invasion to “defend its citizens” – meaning Russian speakers. It’s worth noting that the “Putin Doctrine” asserts that Moscow has the moral obligation to protect ethnic Russians wherever they are. Since 2014 Russia has issued thousands of passports to Russian speakers in the Donbas region and in recent weeks has accused Ukraine of preparing an offensive.
Putin can also use his “little green men” – militia going to the Donbas allegedly without official backing or, even less plausibly, Russian soldiers deciding to spend their holidays in Ukraine, as we were told happened in 2014.
A notch down from that might be to openly introduce “peacekeepers” into the self-declared Luhansk and Donetsk Peoples Republics. Western governments, and Ukraine, say there are already Russian units there with heavy weapons, a charge the Kremlin denies. At the very least Russia wants to maintain what is a thin buffer zone, and the more troops it has on the ground the less chance of Kiev risking a full assault to retake the territory.
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One way or another the Russian leader is testing the new American president. So far Joe Biden has met the challenge, calling Putin “a killer” and affirming “the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression”.
This is not only about Ukraine. The tensions are part of the Kremlin’s wider bid to reverse the strategic losses it suffered in the 1990s. Up on the Baltic Coast it is strengthening its military in the exclave of Kalingrad. From there it is just 90 kilometres across the Suwalki Gap to Belarus where last year Moscow helped President Lukashenko beat back demonstrations following what was regarded as his stolen electoral victory. Part of the price he paid was allowing more Russian military exercises in Belarus. It’s a long way from the Belarus border with Ukraine down to the Donbas but from Moscow’s perspective at least part of the gap in the approaches to Russia are plugged.
Down from the Donbas, on the Sea of Azov, is the port of Mariupol which Russia would dearly like to control as it would rid the sea of the Ukrainian navy. Militarily, it would be easy to link Donbas to Mariupol and then swing west to take control of a canal which used to supply water to the Crimean Peninsula, but which was cut by Ukraine in 2014. Troops could then move further west to the Russian-speaking port of Odessa, which in Russian hands would mean Ukraine no longer had access to the sea. And finally, from Odessa it is a short hop to the Moldavian breakaway region of Transnistria, home to 1,500 Russian troops.
Donbas is a part of that potential long-term jigsaw, and with Putin suffering in the polls and facing parliamentary elections in September a successful, limited military adventure could be to his advantage.
Of course, it could also backfire. If it got out of hand even the Germans might take a hard line on sanctions. Chancellor Merkel has been weak on Moscow for years, but she might not be able to resist demands to cancel the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project so vital to Russia’s economic and strategic aims. Naked aggression might also open the door to seriously consider Ukraine’s requests to join NATO. In Russian eyes Ukrainian membership would be incredibly provocative; it would of course also commit NATO powers to go to Ukraine’s defence in the future.
Ukraine’s President Zelensky has his own agenda. He also has plummeting ratings. Provoking Russia into limited action, then ensuring the Americans became more involved (short of fighting) could reverse his fortunes.
There is a negotiating process hosted by France and Germany called the “Normandy Format” and no doubt minds have been concentrated. Both sides say the other is building up forces, American troops in Europe are on alert. Perhaps it’s posturing by all sides, but posturing in a war zone is dangerous.