By Peter Apps
Vladimir Putin might or might not intend to escalate his war with Ukraine in the next few days. But whatever his plans, he is certainly making it look as if he may.
As Ukrainians prepare to celebrate a quarter-century of independence from the Soviet Union on August 24, Moscow is making it clear that their sovereignty only exists as long as Russia chooses to allow it.
Russia’s sabre rattling isn’t just aimed at its immediate neighbourhood. As usual, Putin’s messaging is also aimed firmly at the West. Just as with the 2008 Georgia war in the dying days of George W Bush’s presidency, the Russian leader wants to make the point that Moscow can act with relative impunity along its borders and there is little Washington can do to stop it. (Then, as now, the eyes of the world were focused on the Olympics at the moment war erupted.)
Since Russia’s surprise annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, the West has ploughed much greater resources and attention into countering Moscow. Most of that, however, has been focused on shoring NATO’s defences, particularly around the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Ukraine is not a member of NATO, meaning there is no binding treaty obligation to come to his defence. The United States and European states have been doing what they can to build Ukraine’s military capability through training and non-lethal supplies, but for now it is highly unlikely that Kiev’s allies would mount a military defensc if it were attacked. If things are about to get hot, that puts the outgoing Obama administration in a very difficult position.
Both Western nations and Ukraine have been doing what they can to build capability and tactics against Russia’s “hybrid warfare”, in which it uses disinformation and deniable forces to maintain maximum ambiguity. In Ukraine, however, Russia has also been willing to use much heavier firepower, tying together the use of unmanned drones and colossally powerful artillery and rocket launchers to defeat even sophisticated Western-style tactics and equipment. The result has been an increasing stalemate – but if Moscow wanted, it probably could overrun Ukrainian forces along the border.
Still, escalating matters further would bring risks for Russia. While Moscow might have the capability to deliver an immediate defeat to Ukrainian forces, war is always unpredictable. If Kiev’s forces perform better than expected, Putin could be left with a politically damaging military embarrassment. Nor do most military analysts believe Russia has the intent or capability to hold down significant swathes of Ukrainian territory beyond the Russian-speaking border areas.
Significant Russian military action against Ukraine could see further financial sanctions imposed on Moscow, as well as possibly nudging the United States and its allies towards further military aid – perhaps including the supply of lethal weaponry. Russian aggression would also probably generate greater focus on expanding NATO forces in Eastern Europe – not something Moscow wants to see.
These tensions could even have a direct impact on the US presidential election. There has been widespread speculation Putin would rather see a Donald Trump victory, particularly following suggestions Russian state intelligence agencies were involved in hacking Democratic National Convention emails. Another high-profile crisis with Russia might highlight the gaffe-prone Republican nominee’s lack of foreign policy experience and bolster Democratic rival Hillary Clinton – quite possibly exactly the opposite of what Putin might want.
On the other hand, Putin might believe that taking action now, in the dying days of the Obama administration, gives him much greater flexibility to attempt to improve relations with whoever wins in November.
Even before Moscow accused Ukraine’s intelligence services of conspiring to launch “terrorist” attacks in Crimea, there were already worrying signs that the two-year-old conflict might be about to explode once again.
Recent days and weeks have seen a notable escalation of violence in the Russian-speaking Donbass region, particularly around the towns of Donetsk and Maripol. The area saw heavy fighting particularly in the aftermath of Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and conflict has been endemic since then.
On Thursday, Ukraine said it reported 67 separate attacks and incidents blamed on Russian-backed separatists in the last 24 hours alone. Perhaps more importantly, there are reports of Russian troops massing along nearby border regions.
Russia’s warnings, could be simply sabre rattling, an attempt to destabilise Ukraine. Never particularly stable its domestic politics are currently particularly in flux even as its economy shows modest signs of recovery.
The current pro-western government of President Petro Poroshenko moved towards prosecuting several key members of the ousted pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovitch government for corruption. If nothing else, Russia might want to persuade Ukraine not to take such matters too far.
For now, it is not possible to tell if there is any truth in Russia’s claims of Ukrainian special forces attempting to infiltrate the Crimean Peninsula, in Russian hands since 2014. Washington, however, has made it clear it does not believe the allegations. Certainly, fabricating such an incident would fit within Russia’s tradition of using propaganda as a key tool of military statecraft.
If Poroshenko is seen to have pushed things too far with Moscow, that might open the door further to Ukraine’s fastest rising political talent, former helicopter navigator Nadiya Savchenko. The former helicopter navigator spent two years as a prisoner in Russia before being pardoned by Putin and released. Now an opposition member of Parliament, she favours a more conciliatory approach to Russian-backed separatists – and has also made it clear she sees herself as a potential candidate for the presidency.
Ukraine had hoped its 25th anniversary would be a chance to showcase international support for the country. Putin might rather use it to demonstrate that the sport at which Russia excels is not part of the Rio Olympics. It’s winning wars with neighbours.
Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters