Surreptitiously, tensions between Russia and Ukraine has been rising in recent weeks. While the rest of the world’s attention has been transfixed elsewhere, Kiev and Moscow appear to be gravitating towards another standoff at the very least. Or, perhaps the beginning of a new phase of the War in Donbass which is now threatening to reignite after an extended period of dormancy.
Last month, senior Ukrainian military leaders publicly expressed concern that Russia’s moves in Donbass were a threat not only to Ukraine, but also to NATO. Last week four Ukrainian troops were killed by artillery strikes fired by Russian forces. Then, earlier this week, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Ukraine, Ruslan Khomchak warned that a steady buildup of Russian forces is taking place in close proximity to the border.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has suddenly become chatty on the topic of eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to his German and French counterparts on Tuesday and discussed the escalating tensions with Ukraine. Putin views it as Kiev’s refusal to honor ceasefire guidelines agreed to last July. Yesterday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov expressed concern about the tense situation in that area and expressed concerns that Kiev might be looking to restart the conflict. “We express concern over the growing tension and express concern that one way or another the Ukrainian side could take provocative actions that would lead to war. We really don’t want to see that.”
Russia’s words reinforce a growing feeling that the Moscow is probing the resolve of the West, perhaps in preparation for a move in the near future. For the first time in years, Vladimir Putin and his government are facing substantial domestic issues. Upcoming legislative elections later this year and the Alexey Navalny situation continue to influence the Kremlin’s thinking. Rekindling the conflict in eastern Ukraine and causing an escalation that ultimately leads to Russian gains would go a long way towards placating nationalist voters and ensuring a wide victory at the polls in September.
There are also a host of other factors to be considered. However, at the moment anxiety is rising over the eastern Ukraine as the prospect of renewed fighting there has sudden become very real once again.
With the European Union considering levying further sanctions against Russia over the treatment of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin is maneuvering to get out in front of the matter and turn any talk of sanctions into a PR disaster for the EU. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned that Russia is prepared to sever ties with the EU should that supra-national body impose economically damaging sanctions. In an online interview, Lavrov was asked if an EU-Russia break loomed on the horizon and if Russia was prepared for such a possibility. He assured the interviewer that Russia is ready for that and explained how a break in ties could be triggered if EU sanctions “create risks for our economy, including in the most sensitive areas.”
Over the past week Russia and the EU have expelled three of each other’s diplomats. Russia started by expelling three EU diplomats who allegedly attended an illegal pro-Navalny protest. Brussels rejected the accusation and a few days later the favor was returned. Germany, Poland and Sweden expelled three Russian diplomats.
The prospect of Russia severing ties with the EU bloc purely over economic sanctions is quite low. There are other factors at work here which are influencing the Russian government’s tough talk. One is the need for a scapegoat. Historically, in times of internal political discord, Russia looks beyond its borders for an external source to hang responsibility on. Something similar is taking place now. External political support for Navalny cannot be allowed to increase and play a role in domestic affairs. The scope of the protests taking place in the aftermath of Navalny’s arrest has created an opportunity for pro-democracy foreign actors to do just that. This, in turn, has prompted the Kremlin to adopt a swagger and warn the EU that any economic sanctions will bring relations to a halt.
From the EU point of view, actually bringing about sanctions against Russia now would be nothing short of a miracle. The bloc is terribly divided when it comes to crafting policy regarding Russia. To put it simply, member-states still cannot reach an agreement on how to deal with the Putin government. Some governments are looking to reset EU-Russia relations. Just let bygones be bygones and start fresh. At the same time there are other member-states, especially those in Eastern Europe who once lived under Moscow’s thumb, who want to adopt a stronger, less conciliatory stance towards Russia. Until these two sides are willing to compromise, the prospects for a united EU strategy on Russia are not very auspicious.
Protesters took to the streets in cities across Russia on 23 January to challenge the government’s decision to arrest opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Bitter winter weather, the COVID-19 pandemic and the possibility of incarceration did little to deter thousands of people. Russian police and security forces were out in force, arresting over 3,000 demonstrators. This weekend’s gatherings indicate that there will be a large number of similar protests between now and parliamentary elections in September. This weekend’s protests only serve to highlight the resignations of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cabinet following his annual address to the Federal Assembly in which he proposed changes to the constitution which could potentially allow him to remain as the head of the Russian government past 2024 when his final term as president ends. More specific, Putin’s proposed political changes also place Navalny’s arrest under the microscope as many observers inside of, as well as outside Russia are making a connection between the two. After all, where there is smoke, there’s also generally fire.
Navalny was arrested almost immediately after returning to Russia from Germany. The fact that Russian authorities wasted little time moving against him has made the Kremlin appear nervous and vengeful. The action also serves to cast a deeper shadow over Putin and his intentions through the coming months as parliamentary elections approach. The potential for political unrest in Russia in the coming months is quite real. Vladimir Putin has had a hold on Russia for two decades. The majority of Russians continue to support their president, but that support is quite tentative. Putin will be acting to make certain that support does not collapse, while Navalny is undoubtedly working to erode that support and redirect it to his opposition movement.
The coming months promise to be active ones in Russia.