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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.