13 April has been a day of dialogue, discussion and warnings between the United States and Russia over the situation in eastern Ukraine, as well as the deployment of US warships to the Black Sea.
President Biden spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone today and Ukraine was one of the topics discussed. Arms control and security issues dominated the call, predicably enough. Biden called on Putin to deescalate the tensions relating to the Russian troop buildup along its border with Ukraine. The US president also proposed a US-Russia summit meeting be held in a third country “in the coming months to discuss the full range of issues facing the United States and Russia,” according to the White House press release. In short, Biden did not take the opportunity to discuss the Ukraine crisis at length or warn Putin against moving on Ukraine. A missed opportunity on the part of Biden and the White House.
Meanwhile, around the same time, a Russian official was labeling the United States as an adversary of Russia. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also warned the US to keep its warships away from the Crimea ‘for their own good.’ He called the deployment of US Navy ships into the Black Sea a provocation intended to test Russian nerves. “We warn the United States that it will be better for them to stay far away from Crimea and our Black Sea coast. It will be for their own good,” Ryabkov was quoted as saying.
He was not the only member of the Russian government to speak today. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated the Russian military buildup is a response to threats from NATO. The military exercise now currently underway near the Ukrainian border is part of a series of readiness drills and will continue for two weeks. Shoigu made the comments during a visit to a naval base at Gadzhiyevo, on the Kola Peninsula.
As time goes by, it continues to appear probable that Russia is preparing for some level of military activity in the eastern Ukraine. What is not yet certain is the extent. Will Russia decide on a limited operation centered on a small number of objectives? Or perhaps a largescale infusion of men and material into the eastern Ukraine to prepare the separatists fighters for the next phase of the conflict. Of course, there’s the ever-present possibility of Russia deciding the time is right to launch a major offensive aimed at defeating Ukraine militarily and repositioning nation-state permanently back under Kremlin control, and in the Russian sphere of influence.
Before hostilities can commence, Russia has some matters to attend to first. Foremost is making certain it has a justifiable provocation in hand at the moment the first troops cross the border. History has demonstrated countless instances of false flag operations undertaken on the part of the aggressor to create a casus belli blanket for their upcoming military operations. The Gleiwitz incident and the Shelling of Mainila are two well known such operations from World War II. At present, Russia is working to create an escalation of the fighting in eastern Ukraine to bring about grounds for an intervention. Whether or not the escalation is the result of a design matters little. The sharp rise in tension will culminate in a false flag type of event that creates the illusion of the situation in eastern Ukraine teetering on the brink. It is at that moment when Russian military forces will make their appearance. No sooner.
The timeline for the escalation and provocation will be determined by the Russian military buildup. It will not occur until the troops are in place and prepared to move. By most indications, Russian forces are not quite there yet. More time is needed. However, when the troops are ready, events will occur rapidly. From the point in time when the provocation becomes a reality to the moment the balloon goes up, a period of 24-36 hours will have passed, at most.
The false flag provocation will undoubtedly be centered somewhere in eastern Ukraine or, to rise the emotions of Russian citizens, at a point in Russia, not very far from the Ukrainian border.
It’s becoming evident the Russian government is preparing for future action against Ukraine, should the situation call for it. Apparently, what is not so visible is the fact that Russia’s words and actions over the past week are components of a pattern engineered to make certain that a situation calling for military action develops. All indicators are pointing to the probability that the decision for action against Ukraine has already been made by the Kremlin, for whatever reason. At present, however, the stage is being set.
The military buildup in southern regions of Russia is progressing. Units are arriving in staging areas and encampments around Voronezh and Rostov-on-Don as the number of troops closer to the Ukrainian border and in Crimea increases each day. Ukraine’s government is greatly concerned by the troop movements and has raised the alarm. Moscow has pointed to a series of military exercises taking place as the reason for the increased activity, as well as reminding Kiev that Russia does not need permission to move its military forces within the national boundaries of Russia. Over the past two days, Russian government statements and media reports have centered on alleged Ukrainian efforts to escalate conflict in eastern Ukraine, and the responsibility Russia has to safeguard the well-being of all Russian-speakers abroad.
Translation: Military preparations are nearly complete, meaning the time has come to sharpen the rhetoric and start to set the stage for a manufactured crisis to serve as a justification for whatever actions are expected to come in the not-too-distant future.
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.
Russia is withdrawing its military officers assigned to the Joint Centre for Control and Coordination of Ceasefire in Donbas which is tasked with overseeing the brittle truce between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian military forces in the eastern regions of Ukraine. Kiev has labeled the move a ‘provocation’ and warns the action will undermine efforts to impose a permanent ceasefire in the region. The Russian foreign ministry claims the pullout is happening because Russian officers are being prevented by Ukraine from carrying out their duties. This action comes on the heels of a fresh round of fighting in eastern Ukraine that resulted in the deaths of three Ukrainian soldiers yesterday. The Ukrainian military has also announced that while it intends to continue operations at the JCCCC, it is withdrawing its monitors from occupied territory in the east amid concerns for their safety.
With the political crisis currently underway in Kiev, the Ukrainian government is growing increasingly distracted by the Saakashvili affair. Yesterday’s escalation in fighting, and Russia’s decision to withdraw its monitors should not come as a surprise. Moscow has a well-documented history of using Ukrainian political turmoil to gain an advantage in the ongoing conflict. The uptick in fighting, and the withdrawal are likely the first preparatory moves for a future Russian gambit. What’s happening now is akin to Moscow positioning their knights properly on a chessboard.
The next move remains to be seen. Perhaps with Ukrainian monitors departing the east an effort to resupply separatist forces will soon get underway in preparation for an offensive in early 2018. With Europe’s attention fixed on political happenings in Berlin at the moment, and President Trump in no rush to make a decision on supplying the Ukrainians with weapons, Vladimir Putin clearly senses an opportunity here. He is correct in all likelihood and is poised to move swiftly and take proper advantage of it.