Just in case you’d lost track of the conflict in Ukraine amid all the other conflicts around the world, things are starting to get tense again around Crimea. Russia is claiming that it foiled a Ukrainian plot to infiltrate Crimea and carry out terrorist attacks against Crimean infrastructure over the weekend. A couple of Russian soldiers were reportedly killed in some kind of Ukraine-Crimea border clash, but what that clash entailed or even whether it really occurred is unknown. Kiev is denying the terrorism accusation (and, as far as I can tell, that any kind of border clash actually happened) and Washington is backing their denial. While you can’t necessarily trust the denial, you also can’t really trust the accusation–remember what I said about supposedly foiled terror attacks, plus this is Russia we’re talking about. The way these things usually work is that the accuser needs to provide evidence to support the accusation before you start worrying about whether or not the denial holds water. So far, Russia hasn’t done that. It’s also noteworthy that even some Russian media, and Russia isn’t exactly the paragon of free press, are questioning whether this attempted infiltration actually happened.
What the Russians have done is that they’ve begun escalating their military presence in and around Crimea. It just sent advanced air-defense missiles to the peninsula, although that was already scheduled to happen before this latest ruckus. But yesterday Moscow announced that it would hold “war games” in the Black Sea, and those were not already scheduled. Then today, Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev floated the possibility that Moscow could break diplomatic ties with Kiev, which would be a serious escalation. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has naturally put Ukraine’s forces on high alert both near Crimea and around the breakaway eastern region of Donbas, accusing Russia of increasing its military footprint in the area to something approaching 40,000 men. The US and EU, naturally, are trying to call for deescalation, but both Ukraine and Russia, naturally, are going to do what they want without much regard for Washington’s concerns, or Brussels’.
This sort of thing starting to look like a pattern with Russian President Vladimir Putin. As the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing were just getting started, Putin (who was then Prime Minister) was sending Russian forces into the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea began so quickly after the end of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi that Ukrainian paralympians protested it during the Paralympic opening ceremonies. If there’s an Olympics going on or just wrapping up, there’s a decent chance that Russia is or will soon be engaging in some kind of military adventure. Though, to be fair, it can be argued that Putin was reacting to events in 2008 and, maybe, that he’s reacting to events now.
If this latest escalation is being precipitated by Putin–in other words, assuming that the story about the terrorist plot really is bullshit–then it’s not entirely clear what he’s after. It’s always been speculated that he’d like to create a Russian-controlled corridor connecting the Donbas region to Crimea, but that would almost certainly require escalating to an open war with Ukraine and it’s hard to imagine that Putin’s prepared to go there–if he were, then it’s not clear why he hasn’t gone there already.
What may interest him more is a renegotiation of the terms of the February 2015 ceasefire agreement reached in Minsk between the Donbas rebels and Kiev. Putin is frustrated that Poroshenko hasn’t done more to implement the terms of the agreement, which call for devolving power to Ukraine’s states and for holding elections in Donbas, but Poroshenko insists that he can’t implement the agreement until the rebellion ends. Putin’s goal in Donbas doesn’t seem to be annexation, but rather the establishment of a semi-autonomous Russian client that he can use as a level to manipulate Ukrainian politics. But as long as the rebellion is still going on, even though the fighting has been kept to a minimum for months now, Putin is still unable to get out from under Western sanctions and to push for international recognition of his annexation of Crimea. So if I had to guess, I’d guess that Putin wants to put Kiev back on its heels and improve his own position in advance of a demand to tear up the Minsk agreement and renegotiate it.
This isn’t a bad time for Putin to attempt something like this. The US would still probably like to reach some kind of accord with Russia in Syria, which may make the Obama administration more pliable on Ukraine, though recent events in Aleppo appear to have really scuttled all those recent US-Russia talks about sharing intel. It is also true that Kiev’s ongoing inability to confront its own problems of corruption and ultra-nationalism–the country’s dysfunction cost Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Washington’s Man in Kiev, his job as PM back in April) is starting to alienate Poroshenko’s Western allies. So it’s possible that a new round of talks wouldn’t go very well for Kiev, particularly if it’s being forced to rebut terrorism charges and is looking at a huge escalation of Russian forces on its borders.
Russia is also looking at new parliamentary elections in about a month, and a little saber-rattling seems usually to get the Russian electorate to fall in line. And, of course, there’s the conspiracy theory gaining currency among American liberals that says that everything Putin does is designed to get Donald Trump elected president in November. I guess new tension in Ukraine could have some bearing on American politics. But if Putin is actively manipulating events to help Trump, it’s worth noting that a) he’s doing a really shitty job of it, and b) reminding Americans that Russia is a geopolitical bad actor is unlikely to inspire more of them to support a candidate now seen as pro-Russian.