Ukraine Update 10 April: Setting The Stage Part 1

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.

The Burgeoning Multilayered Crisis in Ukraine

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.

Poroshenko, Russia, and the Upcoming 2019 Presidential Election in Ukraine

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In two and a half months Ukraine will hold a presidential election. Voters will go to the polls and decide if Petro Poroshenko will remain in office for another term, or if one of the many public figures challenging him will be chosen to succeed him. Judging from the most recent polling data, Poroshenko should be concerned. His popularity has dropped below ten percent and shows no sign of reversing itself anytime soon. Poroshenko’s failure to curb the rampant corruption in  government is the main contributing factor to his anemic approval ratings. Most Ukrainians view the government as being no less corrupt than it was before the 2014 revolution, not a good sign for the incumbent president. There are other issues holding Poroshenko down. The war in the east is a major one. It continues on with no end in sight, and the current president has been ineffective when it comes to rallying the West around Ukraine’s cause.

To be fair, Poroshenko has not performed incompetently on the foreign stage, or when  comes to the War in Donbass. However, his leadership has not enabled Ukraine to build a strong network of international diplomatic support. Nor has it helped to bring about a favorable permanent conclusion to the conflict in the eastern part of  the country. Instead, Ukraine remains mired in a stalemate on the frontlines, and in diplomatic circles abroad. There’s a very good chance that Ukrainians will hold Poroshenko responsible for these setbacks when they go to vote on 31 March. But if they decide that he is not the right man to lead the country into the future, it brings about two critical questions to which there really are no answers for: Who will be selected to replace Poroshenko, and how will Russia respond to a new leader at the helm in Kiev?

The second question is the more crucial of the two. In all likelihood, the candidate who wins March is not going to tilt the balance of influence back in Russia’s favor. Therefore, he or she is going to have to find a way to  contend with a more assertive Russia, and do so in a manner that neither compromises Ukraine’s position or escalates the situation. Russia’s actions in the past three months appear to be designed to place and keep Kiev at a disadvantage in the time leading up to the election, and in the period immediately following.

There is still plenty of time remaining between now and the election. Events in Ukraine and the Black Sea should be watched closely and with luck a clue of Russia’s future intentions could pop up.

Russia Closes Kerch Strait and Seizes 3 Ukrainian Warships

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The tense situation in the Sea of Azov have finally spilled over following a gradual rise in tensions over the past six months. Today, Russia blocked all maritime traffic beneath the Crimea Bridge which spans the Kerch Strait. The strait is the only passage into the Sea of Azov. The reason behind the closure was the approach of Ukrainian naval vessels. Kiev failed to give notice that the ships were planning to use the strait, according to Russia. The Ukrainian government denied this and called the Russian move “an act of aggression aimed at deliberately escalating the situation in the waters of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait.”

The incident began when a Russian coast guard vessel allegedly rammed a Ukrainian tug boat. The tug was escorting a pair of Ukrainian Navy artillery boats from Odessa to Mariupol. Accusations were traded between Kiev and Moscow. After the incident between the ships, Russia closed the strait, and seized the Ukrainian ships shortly thereafter.

An agreement signed in 2003 gives both Russia and Ukraine rights to the  Sea of Azov, though Russia controls both sides of the strait. Throughout most of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, there has been no overt action by Russia to restrict Ukrainian seaborne commerce in and around Crimea, and the eastern Black Sea. That policy appears to have come to an end today.

The Kerch Strait is closed for business.

Author’s Note: I’ll post more about this tomorrow, and as events play out through the week.

Future DIRT Project: Reevaluating the Crimean Annexation & War in Donbass Four Years Later

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Four years ago this week, events were taking place in Ukraine that would pave the way for a new era in Euro-Russian, and US-Russian relations. The Maidan revolution in Kiev had reached its zenith. Vikor Yanukovych was removed from his post of president of Ukraine by the nation’s parliament. The deposed former president fled the capital and made his way to the eastern Ukraine, expecting to be welcomed with open arms. To his surprise, the reception he received was cold, and it was made clear that his presence was not welcomed. Days later, Yanukovych turned up in Russia. The general consensus is that he fled Ukraine to avoid prosecution, however, he publicly stated the reason for fleeing had more to do with self-preservation, claiming that his car had been attacked by armed men when leaving Kharkov for a meeting.

While the Yanukovych drama played out, and a new pro-West government assumed power in Kiev, Russian special forces were arriving in Crimea. The ‘little green men’ as the global media called them, wearing no identification or insignia, spread out to secure key points across the Crimean peninsula. One of those sites was the Crimean parliament building, where the parliament was in emergency session. With Russian troops in close proximity, the body voted to dissolve the Crimean government and replace Prime Minister Anatoli Mohyliov with Sergey Aksyonov, who belonged to the Russian Unity political party. The die had been cast and Crimea was on its way to being annexed and absorbed by the Russian Federation. On 19 March, 2014, the Russian Duma approved a constitutional amendment establishing Crimea and Sevastopol as federal subjects, and the annexation became official.

The Crimean annexation and Yanukovych melodrama were but separate acts in a much larger theatrical piece; the build up to the climax, if you will. That climax would occur in eastern Ukraine with the outbreak of fighting between pro-Russian separatists, and Ukrainian government troops. What began as a series of small firefights around the Donetsk Airport escalated into a major confrontation that has seen Russian weapons, military supplies, and even troops introduced into the war on behalf of the separatists. The fighting continues on today with no end in sight.

Four years have gone by, and it is time to reexamine the effect those events have had, and continue to have on the geopolitical situations in a number of areas, and world affairs as a whole. Crimea and the start of fighting in Ukraine proved to be the catalyst for a resurgent Russia. From the Baltic, to Syria, Moscow has reaped the benefits of 2014, shaping an aggressive foreign policy based on diplomacy through intimidation, the use of hybrid war, and when necessary, limited overt military action.

*Author’s Note: After the Poland 2022 project I will begin a comprehensive reexamination of events of winter and spring 2014 the effect they have had on the world since.*