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Parsing Russia’s Tough Talk on Ukraine
Parsing Russia’s Tough Talk on Ukraine
Ukraine-Russia Prisoner Swap: Necessary, Not Sufficient
Ukraine-Russia Prisoner Swap: Necessary, Not Sufficient
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 Zelensky welcomes former prisoners as they disembark from a plane on September 7, 2019 at Boryspil international airport in Kiev after a long-awaited exchange of prisoners between Moscow and Kiev. AFP/Sergei Supinsky
Q&A / Europe & Central Asia

Ukraine-Russia Prisoner Swap: Necessary, Not Sufficient

A long-awaited prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia marks a positive development in their bilateral relationship. Both countries should now build on their recent progress to implement the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements, the surest path to ending the war in eastern Ukraine.

What happened?

After months of rumours and negotiations, Ukraine and Russia finally exchanged dozens of prisoners, all held in connection with the conflict that began when Russia annexed Crimea in early 2014, and which continues violently in Ukraine’s east.

Moscow released 35 Ukrainian citizens. They included four Crimeans arrested shortly after Russia’s February 2014 takeover of the peninsula, along with 24 sailors whom Russian security forces apprehended in the Black Sea last year. Russian courts had charged them with crimes including terrorism, espionage, conspiracy to violate state borders, and, most bizarrely, killing Russian troops in Chechnya in the mid-1990s. Human rights groups and governments decried these detentions, and viewed the sailors as prisoners of war.

Kyiv also released 35 detainees: 22 Ukrainian citizens, twelve Russian citizens and one Moldovan. Best known is Kirill Vyshynsky, who had directed the Ukrainian branch of Russian state news outlet RIA. Arrested on treason charges last year, he renounced his Ukrainian citizenship. According to Moscow and international human rights groups, his arrest and imprisonment were politically motivated. Other prisoners had been charged with fighting alongside Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine or aligning with Russian troops in Crimea. Most controversially, Kyiv freed Vladimir Tsemakh, a Ukrainian citizen and separatist air defence commander who may have helped conceal the missile that shot down flight MH-17 in July 2014, killing all aboard.

How are Ukrainian and Russian publics reacting?

As the 35 men stepped off the plane in Kyiv on Saturday, the runway erupted with cheers, family members sobbed with relief, and President Zelenskyy teared up. Ukrainian media reflected a celebratory public mood. In Moscow, reactions were more subdued. “Our people have been freed!” tweeted the Russian Embassy in Ukraine after the plane carrying the former prisoners left for Moscow. Yet just a handful of officials met them upon landing and only Vyshynsky has received substantial coverage in the Russian press.

Many in and outside of Ukraine were critical of Tsemakh’s release, arguing that he was needed to prove Russian responsibility for launching the missile that downed flight MH-17. But speaking on the runway Saturday, Zelenskyy told reporters that Dutch investigators had questioned Tsemakh prior to release, and the exchange had been delayed to ensure they and their Ukrainian counterparts had the information they needed from him. Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok told his own country’s parliament the same. But the exchange may well not have happened without Tsemakh.

Are any prisoners still being held?

Ukrainian officials say over 200 citizens, including journalists, are held by de facto authorities in the Russian-backed self-proclaimed republics in Ukraine’s east, known as the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. Some of Kyiv's critics say Ukraine holds thousands of political prisoners, a claim that prominent rights groups have not backed up. Ukrainian authorities have indeed arrested large numbers of people in relation to protests and violence linked to the conflict, but Russian officials generally do not champion these prisoners’ cases publicly. According to media reports, representatives of Kyiv and the breakaway regions may meet on 18 September to discuss a trade.

Separately, according to Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman Lyudmila Denysova, 113 Ukrainian citizens are imprisoned in Crimea and Russia for political reasons. They include 89 Crimean Tatars accused of terrorism (critics of Russia say these are false charges premised on silencing opponents of annexation). On 10 September, Denysova said Kyiv was negotiating with Moscow for their release too.

What does this mean for prospects for peace?

The prisoner exchange is the latest and most notable in a series of recent positive steps. Kyiv and Russian-backed entities in eastern Ukraine recommitted to a ceasefire that has, over the past six weeks, brought civilian deaths down to zero. They further agreed to repair a long-destroyed bridge connecting the de facto Luhansk People’s Republic to government-held Ukraine. Kyiv has also spoken of reinstating trade across the front lines, which, apart from rebuilding commercial and social ties, could improve dire living conditions in separatist-held areas. In this context, the exchange signals Kyiv’s and Moscow’s willingness to make concessions. Moreover, the apparent public support for Saturday’s exchange strengthens Zelenskyy’s mandate to pursue compromise and defy hardline critics.

Still, no one should overstate the significance of this event: real progress in ending the conflict requires each side to implement the stalled 2014-2015 Minsk agreements. That means Russia must withdraw its forces from eastern Ukraine and suspend support to groups it backs in that region. Kyiv, for its part, needs to hold elections, implement an amnesty, permit some form of self-governance in these territories and fulfil its other obligations to enable reintegration. The two sides have yet to agree on the sequence of these steps.

What’s next?

Kyiv seeks a meeting of the Normandy quartet, which brings together Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany, to chart a way to peace. Should it take place soon and produce clear steps to advance the Minsk agreements or otherwise improve Russia-Ukraine relations, the meeting could be cause for optimism. Further prisoner exchanges, restoration of legal trade and eased travel restrictions between Ukraine and its breakaway regions (including by repairing the bridge mentioned above), or between Ukraine and Russia, would signal a continued thaw.

Much could derail progress; worst would be a recurrence of fighting in eastern Ukraine. How Zelenskyy responds to domestic pressure from those opposed to further concessions bears watching, as does rhetoric from both Moscow and Kyiv in the coming weeks and months. The EU and its member states, the U.S., and other interested parties can improve prospects for peace by welcoming the steps Ukraine and Russia have taken so far and facilitating further dialogue, including through the Normandy format.


Senior Analyst, Ukraine
Program Director, Europe and Central Asia