It has been an active weekend and Monday with regards to Ukraine and the buildup of Russian military forces in close proximity to the border. Overall, it appears more people are beginning to take the threat of armed conflict there seriously. With the movement of Russian military forces continuing on with no end in sight, and diplomatic efforts to calm tensions not yet producing results, the situation in and around Ukraine remains volatile.
Senior advisors to the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia are holding meetings today in an effort to reduce tensions in eastern Ukraine and discuss a restoration of the ceasefire between Russian-supported separatists and Ukrainian forces. Another topic expected to be discussed will be laying the ground work for a summit intended to resolve the issues at the core of the crisis between Ukraine and Russia. Quite frankly, the subject matter of these meetings seem to make it clear that Germany and France are tip toeing around the heart of the matter: Russia’s military buildup and the Kremlin’s intentions.
The weakening health of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny is becoming a concern across Europe. As scrutiny on Navalny’s condition has intensified, he has been moved to a prison hospital. Navalny is now 20 days into a hunger strike that has weakened his health state, as have the conditions of his imprisonment. The situation has brought on international warnings that the Russian government will face consequences should Navalny die in prison. The Russian government said today it would retaliate against further sanctions and rejected foreign countries’ statements on the Navalny case. “The state of health of those convicted and jailed on Russian territory cannot and should not be a theme of their interest,” a government spokesperson said.
Great Britain will be sending warships to the Black Sea in May amid the rising tensions in the area. A pair of ships, one Type 45 destroyer and one Type 23 frigate, will detach from the Royal Navy’s carrier task force in the Mediterranean and head north through the Dardanelles and Bosphorus into the Black Sea. A timetable for the expected move has not been revealed in detail. The British move comes just a few days after the Biden administration cancelled the planned movement of two US destroyers into the Black Sea.
The crisis continuing to develop in and around Ukraine is a multilayered creature.
The past week has seen tensions escalating in eastern Ukraine, as well as a resumption of low intensity fighting there. Ukrainian forces and Russian-supported separatists have been involved in a series of engagements in violation of the ceasefire. Meanwhile, on the other side of the border a sizeable buildup of Russian land forces continues. Another buildup of forces is also going on in Crimea, which could very well become the centerpiece of the emerging crisis. The Ukrainian government has sounded the alarm over the buildup and some NATO nations have started to take notice of the situation around the border and respond.
NATO has insisted that Russia is engaged in efforts to undermine efforts to reduce the tension in eastern Ukraine. US European Command has raised the alert level of US forces in Europe in response to developments in the east. On Friday, US President Joe Biden spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and affirmed the US commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Apparently, a new buildup of forces is now going on along Ukraine’s northern borders with Russia, and according to certain sources, Belarus as well. If these reports are accurate it all but confirms that Russia is moving to apply overwhelming physical pressure on the Ukrainian government, at the very least. It is obvious what the worst-case scenario would be in this instance.
Finally, there is Crimea. The peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014 is in the throes of a water crisis at present. For months now, cities and towns in Crimea have been rationing water. Despite being surrounded on three sides by water, Crimea has always had to rely on outside sources for clean water. The Northern Crimea Canal was completed in 1971 and diverted water to Crimea from a reservoir in southern Ukraine. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Ukrainian officials wasted little time in blocking the canal, which was providing 85% of the peninsula’s drinking water at the time. The lack of water has been affected by the large numbers of Russian citizens relocating to Crimea since 2014. At present, the water situation is becoming critical and could play a role in Russia’s strategic planning and political plans in the coming weeks ahead.
General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, US Army, is the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). As the senior military man in NATO, he shoulders the responsibility for making certain the alliance can defend its member-states from outside aggression. If SACEUR says he needs additional forces placed under his command to counter Russia, Brussels and Washington should listen carefully.
Yesterday, while testifying in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Scaparrotti warned of the growing Russian military threat and made it clear that he is not satisfied with the “deterrent posture” of the US troop presence in Europe. Put simply, the general is saying that he does not have enough troops on hand to defend the Baltic states, and Poland if the balloon goes up. Although it’s fair to say that no general officer is ever satisfied with the amount of forces under his command, and always calls for more troops, Scaparrotti’s comments yesterday were far from hyperbole. Last month this blog discussed the balance between US and Russian forces in Europe and many of the points made there are evident in Scaparrotti’s testimony. Next week I will wrap up the series and talk about this more, but for now it is SACEUR’s comments about Ukraine that need to be looked over right now.
The general also wants to bolster the Ukrainian military’s defenses. Along with the Javelin anti-tank missiles sold by the US last year, Scaparrotti supports providing other advanced systems to Kiev. Presidential elections will be held in Ukraine at the end of March, and there is growing concern that Russia will attempt to destabilize the elections. Perhaps by instigating a flare-up between the separatist forces it supports and Ukrainian troops in the east. The ceasefire there continued to hold, but only by a thread. It would not take much to push the region into a major conflict whether intentionally or not.
Scaparrotti views strengthening Ukraine’s forces as a safeguard against Russian action in the east. SACEUR also wants to increase the US and NATO naval presence in the Black Sea. In November 2018, Russian warships opened fire on Ukrainian vessels near the entrance to the Sea of Azov, opening a naval phase to the conflict. He wants additional guided-missile destroyers to be made available to patrol the Black Sea. Beyond providing a larger presence at sea, there’s little NATO can do to aid Ukraine’s fledgling naval forces.
In any event, Ukraine is not an alliance member and SACEUR’s main concern is defending NATO members from Russian aggression. However, Scaparrotti is perceptive enough to understand that the longer Russia remains tied down in Ukraine, the less time Moscow will have to consider new adventures against the Baltics or Poland.
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.
Russia’s strategy of destabilization followed rapidly by concession in regards to pivotal matters in the Ukrainian Crisis came to life once again over the weekend. On the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, activity was ramping up on two fronts as Russian overtures and efforts for a new ceasefire clashed with orders from Moscow which have the appearance of being a potential stepping stone towards the first formal diplomatic recognition of the Donetsk People’s Republic and its sister breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine.
On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his country will begin temporarily recognizing passport and ID documents issued by the self-proclaimed republics in eastern Ukraine. The decision caused near-immediate backlash from Kiev and beyond. Ukrainian President Poroshenko condemned Russia’s action while other members of the Ukrainian government reacted angrily with a consensus growing that this move is contradictory to the spirit of the Minsk Agreements and will undermine any future ceasefires.
On that note, a new ceasefire was agreed upon by the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers with assistance from their French and German counterparts. The latest ceasefire goes into effect on 20 February, 2017, which means that the ceasefire is technically in effect right now. The core of this ceasefire attempt will be the withdrawal of heavy arms from eastern Ukraine. The move was negotiated in the first Minsk Agreement two years ago, but never implemented. Along with the withdrawal of heavy arms, this ceasefire promises the withdrawal of foreign troops, local elections and the reestablishment of Ukrainian control of its eastern border. These are also elements which were negotiated as part of the Minsk agreement. Including them in this ceasefire draft offers the impression that the Russians might possibly be serious about implementing measures that will end the fighting in eastern Ukraine permanently.
Ukraine promises to be a regular headline for the near-future.