Vladimir Putin is flexing his muscles and testing Western resolve.
The security situation continues to deteriorate in eastern Ukraine. Ceasefire violations spiked on Friday, with a high number of explosions. Two Ukrainian soldiers were killed. In a worrying development, Russian troops have been moved to the border with Ukraine and Crimea.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that no one should be concerned about this – which is precisely why one probably should. 2014 left many in Ukraine and the West painfully aware of how far Russia is willing to go to protect its interests, particularly when it claims otherwise. US European Command has raised its alert status to the highest level. NATO and Ukraine’s Western partners have made it clear that they are watching – a signal that they hope will in itself help to deter aggressive action.
Russia wasted no time in trying to build a defensive pretext, so that if it escalates further, it can blame someone else for provoking it. According to Peskov, military activity is to ensure Russia’s own security, in response to increased military activity of NATO countries. The fact that any concern from NATO is a response to Russia’s build-up is irrelevant to the Kremlin’s chronology. Russia may be genuinely concerned about Ukrainian forces escalating, but it is understandable, given Russia’s recent history in the region, to suspect that this represents intimidation tactics. The cover of military exercises provided the opportunity to reinforce troops in both eastern Ukraine and Crimea. In response to reaffirmed support from the US for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Peskov was more explicit, warning that Russia would need to ‘take extra measures’ to protect itself should the US station troops in Ukraine to defend it, or if NATO strengthens its presence in neighbouring countries.
It is logical that Russian moves are intended to put pressure on Ukraine to make concessions in a potential settlement of the conflict in the country’s east. There has been increasing frustration in Moscow at Ukraine’s desire to amend the 2014/2015 Minsk Agreements and its resistance to implementing key political elements of the agreement. A central demand from Russia is that Ukraine engage in negotiations directly with the representatives of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). This is crucial to Russia’s sustained narrative that it is not a party to the conflict, but instead a mediator in what it likes to inaccurately label as an exclusively internal Ukrainian conflict. Since Vladislav Surkov was replaced last year by Dmitry Kozak as Putin’s chief negotiator on Ukraine, this has become a more noticeable focus of the Russian position.
Russia has been frustrated with Ukraine’s President Zelensky. When Zelensky was elected, he came to power as a political novice, promising that he would stop the shooting in the Donbas and negotiate directly with Russia to end the conflict. Zelensky’s intentions seemed to be sincere, and the Kremlin was hoping to extract concessions. Zelensky indeed made some quick deals on humanitarian and security issues, in contrast to his predecessor. Yet as time has gone on and the Ukrainian government has realised how prickly the details of political settlement are, a stalemate has returned to negotiations. The deterioration at the front line shows that ‘freezing’ the conflict in eastern Ukraine is far harder than Zelensky thought.
Recent events are not just about the Donbas, however. Movement around Crimea is of significant concern. Although Russian militarisation of Crimea is nothing new, some think that Russia may want to pressure Ukraine on water. Ukraine blocked a key water canal following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, depriving the peninsula of a majority of its water supply. Although Russia claims it will address this issue by summer, many are sceptical as to whether this is possible. The water issue is not a new problem, and some analysts doubt that this is the reason for a build-up, but it is a clear point of conflict. Fighting in the Donbas could be additional pressure to detract from defence on Crimea. Of course, it could also be vice versa, with Crimea being a pressure point to detract from the Donbas.
It is not just about Ukraine either. The Black Sea is an arena for potential conflict given the presence of Russian and NATO forces there, highlighting Crimea’s strategic location. Russia has also increased its activity elsewhere in Europe. NATO jets scrambled 10 times at the end of March to respond to an unusually high number of Russian bombers and fighters conducting complex manoeuvres near Allied airspace. Ukraine is a flashpoint in Russia–West relations. No doubt Russia wants Western partners – particularly France, Germany and the US – to pressure Ukraine to implement the Minsk Agreements, or at least make concessions to the LPR and DPR. Russia likely wants to test the resolve of Joe Biden’s administration on Ukraine, particular as tensions have risen after Biden publicly stated he thinks Putin is a ‘killer’.
One positive for Zelensky is that Russian moves have resulted in a flurry of calls in support for Ukraine from Western partners. This included the long-awaited Zelensky–Biden call, with the two heads of state discussing the situation. US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin reaffirmed ‘unwavering US support’ for Ukraine’s sovereignty, and reiterated the US’s commitment to building the capacity of Ukraine’s forces. The EU and the UK also reaffirmed their commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty.
The question that remains is what Ukraine’s Western partners will do if Russia does significantly up the ante in either Donbas or Crimea, or both. There has been sustained support for Ukraine’s military. The US recently pledged $125 million in military aid, yet this is a long-term solution, not a response to escalation. There will no doubt be strong statements, attempts at diplomacy as well as sanctions. Yet these will be insufficient to fully deter Russia. Putin’s insistence on discussing the Donbas in a recent trilateral call with Germany and France, without Ukraine’s participation, shows how Moscow can use ‘diplomacy’ for its own PR. It seems unlikely that there would be any direct troop support from the West to Ukraine if things significantly worsen. Russia is no doubt banking on the West and Zelensky compromising if it comes to it, in order to avoid a return to war.