What Do Increasing Tensions Between Ukraine and Russia Mean? HURI Experts Respond

August 11, 2016
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Over the past week, tensions between Russia and Ukraine over Crimea escalated. With a background of military buildup across the border with Ukraine and increasing military attacks in the Donbas, Russia's security services have accused Ukraine of armed incursions into Crimea with the intention to carry out terrorist activities. Ukraine has denied both the acts and the intentions, while Putin has suggested that this incident makes the Normandy talks useless. In response to Russian military build-up and training in the Crimea, the Ukrainian military has been put on a heightened alert

Although the intentions and implications of these events are still unclear, and the situation continues to develop, HURI associates and affiliates have offered their thoughts on possible meanings and outcomes. We will continue to add responses as they come in.

Igor Delanoe (9/8/2016) 

The incidents that occurred in Crimea last August and triggered escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine do not come as a surprise. They belong to a gloomy cycle of escalation—de-escalation that led, in the summer of 2014, to the signing of the Minsk I agreement. Fighting continued in Eastern Ukraine, and led to the conclusion of the Minsk II document in February 2015. Speaking about the incidents: On August 10, 2016, Moscow stated it had captured and “neutralized” Ukrainian “saboteurs” from a reconnaissance platoon belonging to the Ukrainian forces. The group reportedly tried to infiltrate the “Russian territory” in Crimea. Whether or not the truth ever emerges about this incident, something did happen. Moscow claimed two servicemen were killed (one FSB agent and one Ukrainian soldier) and one “saboteur” was captured, and certainly overreacted when it referred to “artillery shelling” coming from the Ukrainian side, using such facts for domestic purposes. The Kremlin later slammed the event as an “act of terrorism” and a destabilization aimed at derailing regional stability and the Minsk II process.

This new episode of tensions reminds us that stalling implementation of the Minsk II agreement continues to threaten not only the stability of Eastern Ukraine, but jeopardizes also the credibility of the fragile process for the settlement of the crisis. As demonstrated during the G20 in China, Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin does not want to meet Ukraine’s President P. Poroshenko, since he considers Ukraine responsible for the non-implementation of Minsk II. The reality is that both Russians and Ukrainians share responsibility for what might soon become the failure of the Minsk process and the Normandy format, and this could turn out to be a diplomatic rewind. From Ukraine’s perspective, the Minsk II agreement is not fair and, to some extent, can be considered a threat to its national security. The issue of control of the Eastern border, which Kyiv is supposed to recover after the elections in the Donbas, according to the Minsk II text, is of critical importance for Ukraine’s sovereignty and feeds tensions in the Rada. As a result, lacking a qualified majority in the Parliament as well as political will, P. Poroshenko has been unable to carry out required constitutional reforms, necessary to grant autonomy to the Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts. The separatists are responsible for the majority of the incidents which have occurred on the so-called frontline during the past months, preventing the OSCE from carrying out its missions; Russia does not exert enough pressure on them and is reluctant to promote an agreement regarding the modalities of the local elections. In short, nobody plays the game.

The question is: What’s next? The political discourse and climate in Kyiv remains unfavorable to the emergence of a comprehensive strategy aimed at the reintegration of the Donbas as a full-fledged region of Ukraine. Kyiv seems to have adopted a “buy time” strategy and waits for a new US administration. Whoever the next US President will be, should Washington decide to adopt a stronger position on Ukraine, including supplying weapons, it would then run the risk of alienating European countries, even pushing some of them toward Russia. In Warsaw, Ukraine was reminded that it would not become a NATO member in the foreseeable future but would rather be offered a “distinctive partnership”. In fact, Kyiv is running out of time. The Ukrainian economy is crumbling much faster than Russia’s: In late 2015, the inflation rate was 43.3%, the national debt was around 79% of the GDP, while the average salary dropped to $217 in December 2015 from $453 in December 2013. Betting on more sanctions on Russia cannot be called a strategy. Actually, for many reasons, Moscow might not be interested in lifting the sanctions in the short term, and even in the middle term, since it has engaged in in-depth transformation of its economy with so-called import substitutions, which yet has to prove its efficacy. Persisting tensions between Russia and the West have transcended the framework of the Ukrainian crisis. Should it be settled tomorrow, things would not return to the ante situation anytime soon.

Igor DelanoeIgor Delanoe is the Deputy Director of the French-Russian Analytical Center Observo, a think tank based in Moscow and hosted by the French-Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He is a HURI associate and a research affiliate at the Center for International and European Studies, Kadir Has University, Istanbul; the Center for Modern and Contemporary Mediterranean (CMMC, University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, France); and the Center for International and European Law (LADIE, University of Nice Sophia Antipolis).

Huseyin Oylupinar (8/15/2016) 

Until confirmed by independent sources, we can hardly make a balanced analysis of the intentions of the parties involved in the alleged Russian foiling of the Ukrainian “intrusion” into Crimea. Yet, the timing and conditions around the event might provide some basis to make sense of possible intentions. Recent Russian claims of a Ukrainian “intrusion” come at a time when Crimean Russian media have been bombarding the Crimean society, particularly in July 2016, with news that the Ukrainian side is prepared to conduct covert operations in Crimea. In these news pieces, Crimean Russian authorities claimed that they foiled Ukrainian covert operations aimed at disrupting the construction of the bridge over the Kerch Strait. While reporting on this earlier Ukrainian “intrusion,” Russian Crimean authorities claimed readiness to meet such potential threats from Ukraine with appropriate means. On this background one can argue that the recent alleged Ukrainian “intrusion” hit the news at a time when the Crimean society was made receptive to such developments.

If the Russian claims are taken into consideration against the backdrop of Crimean domestic circumstances, the alleged Ukrainian intrusions can be viewed as attempts to channel Crimean society's attention to the “aggressive” outside world, that is, Ukraine. Such channeling might appear useful and timely for the Russian authorities simply because they are falling short of delivering the expected radical and positive changes. After two years of Russian rule, Crimeans from all ethnic backgrounds are becoming more reactionary in discussing economic, political and social failures of the local Crimean government and the government in Moscow. Crimeans have become socially active and vocal citizens under the Ukrainian administration. In near future, their growing reaction to failed promises may very well surpass the voices of those who favor Russian control at all costs. The corruption in administrative offices, conflicts within the Crimean government, ruthless competition among those who led the local movement in favor of the Russian occupation to gain more of the spoils, the opening up of the Crimean market and its subsequent capture by mainland Russian capital, decreased tourism income, pro-Russian Crimean Tatars' disillusion with the local and Moscow government for the promised privileges and benefits – these are all factors that may lead the Russian administration to brand Ukraine as a “terrorist” enemy of the Crimean society and deflect attention from domestic problems.

Branding Ukraine as a “terrorist” state in order to gain an upper hand in international negotiations is a weak card for Russian administration to play. The Russian Federation gained control of the peninsula by regular Russian military units. What follows after has to be considered on the premise of the laws of war. From this perspective, until either Ukraine agrees – with international agreement – to a new border formed after the Russian Federation gained control of the peninsula or, alternatively, Russia evacuates the peninsula and agrees for the antebellum borders, the Ukrainian government holds the legal title over Crimea and remains the sovereign state. Even though the Russian Federation maintains that the “annexation” is legal, Russian decision-makers are well aware of the implications of International Law; that is to say, based on the laws of war, the Russian administration understands that the occupation is a provisional one. The fact that the large majority of UN members do not recognize the Russian claim for the annexation strengthens Ukraine's position as the rightful sovereign over Crimea. The implication of all these factors on the alleged Ukrainian intrusion into Crimea is that Ukraine, as the sovereign state, holds rightful and legal position to regain the control of the peninsula by taking all measures, particularly those of pure military nature and including covert operations of all sorts, that are defined as legitimate acts by the law of armed conflict. Therefore, Russian attempts to brand Ukraine as a “terrorist” state and complaints of intrusions, even if proven by independent bodies, can hardly produce a legal basis for furthering Russia’s position in diplomatic negotiations.

Huseyin OylupinarHuseyin Oylupinar is a former Eugene and Daymel Shklar Research Fellow and Ukrainian Studies Fund Fellow at HURI (Fall 2015). His research focuses on Ukrainian-Turkish Relations, Crimea and Crimean Tatars, Inter-ethnic Relations, Ukrainian National Identity, and Ukrainian Collective Memory. During his HURI fellowship, Oylupinar researched the topic "Fate of the Crimean Tatars: The First and the Last Annexation in Perspective."

Mark Kramer (8/13/2016)

Actions taken by the Russian government over the past two-and-a-half years vis-à-vis Ukraine, starting with the forcible annexation of Crimea and the fueling of a civil war in Donbas, have provided the context for this summer’s tensions between Moscow and Kyiv. Russia’s pernicious role in Ukraine during this time, glossed over by a barrage of lies, propaganda, and disinformation, has been undeniable.

Nevertheless, it is also worth emphasizing that much of the responsibility for Ukraine’s current plight lies with Ukrainians themselves, especially the political elite in the country. Twenty-five years ago this month, in the wake of an aborted coup in Moscow, the Ukrainian parliament adopted a resolution of independence. A few months later, Ukraine formally gained its independence, and it has been largely responsible for its own destiny ever since. Unfortunately, Ukraine’s quarter-century of independence has been largely squandered. Of the fifteen former Soviet republics, Ukraine is the only one other than Moldova that has never returned to its pre-independence level of per-capita income. World Bank statistics reveal that per-capita income in Ukraine in late 1991 was around $4,300, whereas today it is barely $2,700 in inflation-adjusted terms. High-level corruption and debilitating political conflicts have thwarted efforts to carry out much-needed economic reforms.

In 1991 many observers expected — or at least hoped — that Ukrainians would join together in building a well-functioning, prosperous state. Those expectations proved wholly unfounded, as the 25-year record attests. Even over the past two-and-a-half years, in the face of an exigent challenge from Russian President Vladimir Putin, high-level corruption in Ukraine has failed to abate and Ukrainian political elites have continued to engage in crippling squabbles and in-fighting. For the Ukrainian government, economic reform has ranked far lower in priority than the renaming of streets and monuments in honor of organizations that perpetrated mass atrocities during and after World War II. One begins to get the impression that Ukrainian political elites — and the millions of Ukrainians who have brought them to office — lack the commitment to build a strong, cohesive state even when confronted by threats to the country’s survival.

Until Ukrainians decide once and for all that they will no longer put up with a dysfunctional state and will hold public officials accountable for their performance in office, Ukraine will remain vulnerable to Russian encroachments. Even as Ukrainian officials take steps to counter Russia’s latest actions, the fate of Ukraine in the longer term will depend on Ukrainians’ willingness to embark on a transformation of their state. 

Mark KramerMark Kramer is Director of Cold War Studies at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow of Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He was also a participant in HURI's symposium "Twenty Years After Ukraine's Nuclear Disarmament."


Nadiya Kravets (8/11/2016)

Over the last three years of Russia’s occupation and war in Ukraine, the month of August has seen escalation of military and political tensions, so in that sense I am not surprised by the recent military and diplomatic escalation, especially as Ukraine prepares to celebrate its 25th year of independence on August 24th.

What is rather surprising is the accusation that the recent incident in the Crimea was masterminded by the Ukrainian military security services. On the background of talks in Europe about the possibility of the removal of sanctions for Russia, any unilateral actions by the Ukrainian government would be extremely irrational and politically costly vis-a-via its relations with the European and American allies. At the moment, Ukraine’s state survival depends on the goodwill of the West and the Ukrainian authorities understand this perfectly well. They also learned from neighboring Georgia that the West will only support small states facing Russian aggression if there are clear signs of being a victim and not an aggressor in the conflict. So how else does one explain what occurred in the Crimea?

I see two plausible explanations, both of which are used by the Russian authorities for the same political end. First possibility is that this event was orchestrated by the Russian security services themselves. It is a well-known counterintelligence ploy to create a pre-text for a forthcoming military aggression or a political move, and Moscow has practiced this many a time during its Soviet and post-Soviet operations. Second explanation, is that some form of indigenous radical underground opposition has been organized in the Crimea, whose residents face an increasingly oppressive regime, and they carried out the alleged attacks while the Russian authorities decided to use the ploy for broader political purposes. Regardless of who the perpetrators were, Moscow is utilizing this incident for the domestic and international audiences.

In regards to the former, the statement from the FSB, one of Russia’s security services, revealed that upcoming parliamentary elections in Russia on September 18 are of great concern to the authorities: "The aim of this subversive activity and terrorist acts was to destabilize the socio-political situation in the region ahead of preparations and the holding of elections,” as cited by the BBC. Thus Russian authorities are likely seeking to buttress the “rally around the flag” effect to maintain regime dominance, and the narrative of the 'enemies from within' could open a domestic popular front for the Kremlin ahead of elections.Is the Kremlin prepared to re-open the Crimean offensive to achieve the desirable popular effect? It is hard to say, but the possibility of civil unrest in Russia surrounding the elections makes military escalation with Ukraine more rather than less likely.

In regard to the international audience, the Kremlin is likely seeking to ‘test the waters’ regarding West’s ongoing commitment to Ukraine and find out what response could be expected both from the governments and the broader public. That is why it is very important for the West to rebuke these accusations and send a strong signal that no amount of maskirovka will change the fact that Russia illegally occupied the peninsular and for that reason sanctions will remain in place.

Nadiya KravetsNadiya Kravets is currently the GIS Postdoctoral Research Fellow at HURI and a Visiting Fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Formerly, she was a Eugene and Daymel Shklar Research Fellow at HURI. Her areas of expertise include: Ukraine’s foreign and security policy; Soviet and post-Soviet Russian foreign policy; foreign policy of the European Union; relations between former Soviet republics; and energy politics in the former Soviet Union. 

Carol Saivetz (8/11/2016)

Russia’s announcement that the Ukrainian Government had resorted to “terrorism” in Crimea and that Ukrainian special forces tried to infiltrate the peninsula from Ukrainian-controlled territory raises the possibility of renewed war. These murky events come against a backdrop of reported Russian military activity in northern Crimea, near the border, and accounts of armored personnel carriers and other military equipment being off-loaded in Kerch. 

Speculation abounds as to why and why now? And why would Russia pull out of the next meeting of peace talks scheduled along -side the G-20 meetings in China? 

Russia might be looking for a pretext for increased militarization and intensified clampdown in Crimea. Alternatively, Russia may be seeking an excuse for a peace-keeping operation or simply for a chance to fortify the border between Russian-occupied Crimea and Ukrainian controlled territory. At a minimum, Russia seems to be putting pressure on Kyiv and warning the West that it is running out of patience with the Minsk II process. Given that ceasefire violations are multiplying along the demarcation lines in the east, this could potentially lead to a two-front war.

But why now? As the Russians would say, it’s not a coincidence that it’s August and the Olympic games are on in Rio. This, of course, brings to mind the 2008 Georgian War; perhaps that too is a warning to Kyiv. An added factor could be the apparent rapprochement between Turkey and Russia. The improvement in relations between the two Black Sea states reopens the potential for the so-called Turkish stream pipeline, designed to bypass Ukraine, and potentially alters the military balance in the region, leaving Ukraine more isolated. 

It is, though, unclear as to what Vladimir Putin thinks a European or Western response might be. Perhaps he thinks that Europe is so fractured currently so that Russia would not incur any more sanctions. On the other hand, the West is unlikely to acquiesce in a major provocation. This seems like a risky bet—especially as Russia is so deeply involved in Syria simultaneously.

Carol R. SaivetzCarol R. Saivetz is an Associate at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. She is also a Senior Advisor in the MIT Security Studies Program and the co-chair of the MIT seminar series “Focus on Russia." She is currently teaching Russian Foreign Policy in the Political Science Department at MIT. Professor Saivetz has consulted for the US Government on topics ranging from energy politics in the Caspian and Black Sea regions, questions of stability in Central Asia, to Russian policy toward Iran. Her current research interest is energy competition in and around the Black Sea region. She has also published opinion pieces on the Ukraine crisis for the Lawfare Blog (Brookings) and commented on Ukraine for local radio and TV.