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Parsing Russia’s Tough Talk on Ukraine
Parsing Russia’s Tough Talk on Ukraine
Is Russia Changing Its Calculus in Eastern Ukraine?
Is Russia Changing Its Calculus in Eastern Ukraine?
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of his Security Council amid heightened tensions with Ukraine over Crimea. 11 August 2016. Sputnik/Kremlin/Alexei Druzhinin/via REUTERS

Parsing Russia’s Tough Talk on Ukraine

Moscow’s current outburst, a combination of verbal aggression and military caution, may indicate that it is unsure what to do. 

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.

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 AFP news 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.

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.

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.

Ukraine's President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy greets his supporters as he walks to take the oath of office ahead of his inauguration ceremony in Kiev, Ukraine May 20, 2019. ÊPavel Zmey/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

Is Russia Changing Its Calculus in Eastern Ukraine?

Amid expectations that Russia will test Ukraine’s new president with escalatory actions, it appears that its calculus is to wait for Kyiv’s administration to make the first move – while quietly helping the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics entrench themselves economically.

Five years into a war in its east, Ukraine has elected an unlikely new president: professional comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy. To date, Zelenskyy has hinted at both dialogue with and new punitive measures against Ukraine’s formidable neighbour to the east, but offered little in the way of specific plans for either course of action. Some Ukrainians fear that Moscow might take advantage of this seeming hesitancy to cement its influence in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (D/LPR) – the breakaway statelets in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014. In April, after Zelenskyy’s election, but before his inauguration, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a decree making it easier for D/LPR residents to obtain Russian citizenship. Many in Ukraine saw in this move a threat that Russia would seize the moment of Zelenskyy’s ascent to gain full control of the statelets by either recognising their independence or annexing them – or that Moscow would seek to co-opt Zelenskyy himself. Outgoing President Petro Poroshenko, who lost to Zelenskyy, tweeted that his “inexperienced” rival would allow the Kremlin to “return Ukraine to Russia’s orbit”.

Before Zelenskyy’s election, some in Moscow did express hope that he could undertake a “reset” in Russian-Ukrainian relations. Since then, the mood has become more guarded. Putin has refused to congratulate the new president in Kyiv. Nor has the Kremlin shown any inclination thus far to exploit Zelenskyy’s inexperience through escalation. Instead, Moscow appears to be taking steps to consolidate the status quo in eastern Ukraine even as it tries to figure out the new Ukrainian leader.

Russian officials are baffled by what they see as Zelenskyy’s flip-flopping between overtures toward reconciliation and tough talk.

Russian officials are baffled by what they see as Zelenskyy’s flip-flopping between overtures toward reconciliation and tough talk. He has proposed both a referendum on peace talks with Moscow and tougher U.S. sanctions on the Kremlin for its continued backing of pro-Russian separatists in the east. “Poroshenko was an adversary”, said one official. “At least we knew where we stood. With Zelenskyy, we don’t”. Another said: “We don’t know who stands behind him”. In short, the Kremlin is waiting for Zelenskyy to make the first move.

The decision to wait fits into Moscow’s quietly shifting strategy in eastern Ukraine. From 2014 to 2018, the Kremlin bolstered the D/LPR with military support with the apparent aim of destabilising Ukraine. Its vision of the implementation of the Minsk agreements, signed during talks involving Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France in 2014 and 2015, in which Kyiv would be forced to grant these statelets autonomy on their terms, would have given Russia substantial and lasting influence in Ukrainian politics. Since last year, however, Moscow has changed tack. While it continues to pay lip service to Minsk, its priority has shifted from the military conflict itself to helping the statelets mitigate their financial dependence on Russian support.

This approach aims to entrench the statelets’ nascent institutions while allowing Moscow to avoid costlier moves like recognising their independence or annexing them. It keeps Minsk alive, but unimplemented, such that Russia can continue to accuse Ukraine of failing to abide by its terms. It also lets Moscow off the hook financially, as better developed client economies would have less need for Russian subsidies. If those economies are better integrated with Russia’s own, with gains for each, so much the better. There’s a reason why the Emergencies Ministry, which has been sending convoys of humanitarian aid, has paused its shipments in recent months: to paraphrase one Russian official, it is time for the statelets to stop being dependent on Russian aid and start trying to break even.

The economic embargo that Ukraine imposed on D/LPR in 2017 makes above-board trade difficult, and may push them closer to Russia, albeit via grey zone commercial interactions. For example, according to media reports and Ukrainian specialists interviewed by Crisis Group, anthracite coal and other minerals travelled freely across the line of contact into Ukraine from the start of the conflict in 2014 until the blockade. Now, those sources say, a complicated scheme sends these minerals first east to Russia, then west to Belarus, and from there to other markets – including Ukraine itself.

Because Russia denies being a party to the conflict and says it offers nothing to the D/LPR but humanitarian aid and moral support, it is difficult to verify how exactly Moscow is assisting the coal trade or any other commerce. But for over a year now, Kremlin-connected observers have noted the growing influence of the deputy prime minister, Dmitry Kozak. Kozak, who is responsible for Russia’s energy sector, oversees a government commission that manages humanitarian aid to rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine. Russian investigative reporters have linked his role to a Russian decision to prioritise business integration with the statelets, including allegedly facilitating coal trade from Ukraine’s east.

Asked about the prioritisation of economic above military ties, one Russian official said that the current D/LPR leadership is not as militaristic as its predecessors. In November 2018, the self-proclaimed statelets held elections, which were not recognised outside of Russia and which Moscow allegedly choreographed. Denis Pushilin, who became DPR leader, is widely believed to be less ideologically passionate, less popular and thus easier to control from Moscow than his assassinated predecessor Aleksandr Zakharchenko. Much the same applies to the LPR’s new leader, Leonid Pasechnik, who took over after a power struggle in 2017 and retained the leadership in last year’s election.

The Kremlin’s offer of Russian passports to D/LPR residents may also be intended to strengthen the breakaway region’s economies and ties to Russia. One Kremlin adviser said the measure had been in the works for some time. Domestic political pressures in Russia might also have played a role. Many Russians know that life in D/LPR is difficult, as Crisis Group has reported. During a widely watched call-in show featuring Putin last June, D/LPR residents phoned to complain about how hard it was to settle in Russia after fleeing the war. On the air, the president ordered the Interior Ministry to make it easier for them to obtain citizenship. Issuing passports strengthens D/LPR residents’ ties to Russia. If more residents go to work in Russia, they may well send remittances home, another boost to the local economy, even as they provide cheap labour to Russia.

While Ukrainians are surely right to distrust Russia’s intentions in the east, Moscow’s actions so far do not suggest a plan of escalation.

While Ukrainians are surely right to distrust Russia’s intentions in the east, Moscow’s actions so far do not suggest a plan of escalation. The passport move does signal Moscow’s resolve to bolster ties with Russian speakers in Ukraine. But Zelenskyy’s election was likely not its impetus. “We’re not orienting our policy around Zelenskyy”, a Russian official said. Overestimating Moscow’s appetite for escalation could have its own negative consequences. If Kyiv interprets Moscow’s move to expedite passports as escalatory and pushes back, even if only rhetorically, it risks feeding a spiral of both words and action, rendering the escalation prophecy self-fulfilling.

Instead, the new administration in Kyiv and its European supporters could take advantage of Moscow’s waiting game, and use the time to construct a better policy for engaging the people of the east. Kyiv should also decide on what terms it wants to deal with Moscow in order to move toward real peace, including how it wants to move forward on Minsk. Zelenskyy’s administration is already taking tentative steps in this direction: at a 5 June meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group, formed in 2014 to broker Russian-Ukrainian talks over the rebel-held east, Kyiv’s representatives explored several proposals for a truce, including lifting the embargo. Moscow sounded encouraged, but said it wanted to hear more specifics.

In Kyiv, Zelenskyy faced blowback, however. Because the Trilateral Contact Group meeting came so soon after his election, his offer raised concerns among some Ukrainians that the new president is making concessions to Russia in hopes of sealing a fast truce. Already, some politicians in Kyiv call his proposals a capitulation to Russia.

The president can prove them wrong. First of all, he should avoid rushing proposals in hopes of clinching a fast deal; Moscow in any case is unlikely to commit to concessions in return anytime soon. Secondly, no deal will be viable absent Ukrainian consensus on the conditions under which it can implement its commitments under Minsk. He needs to involve political parties and civil society in Kyiv in formulating proposals for a truce. He also needs to ensure that any proposal is a means of restoring Kyiv’s control over the breakaway regions. Whether he seeks to lift the embargo or agrees to a ceasefire, he must do so with a view to how this helps restore Ukraine’s ties with its citizens in the east and its social and territorial integrity. And, indeed, restored Ukrainian economic relations with this region would push back against Moscow’s efforts and help bring it back into the fold.

Moscow is still sizing up Ukraine’s new president. Zelenskyy should convince his own base that he is developing a plan for eastern Ukraine that will serve Ukraine’s long-term social and political cohesion.