Putin’s latest Crimean gambit

01:32 PM 12-8-2016

Adrian Karatnycky, member of the IWP Supervisory Board, for the Politico JournalCuriously, it took Russia four full days after an alleged attack by Ukrainian special forces in Crimea to make a public statement about the event.\
On August 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin took to the airwaves to denounce “tactics of terrorism.” He stated the alleged killings of a soldier and an FSB security agency operative “will not pass idly by,” intimating a Russian military response, and he called on the United States and the European Union to rein in Kiev.

Russian news sources report that a unit of 20 Ukrainian soldiers engaged in the attack on August 6 after their plot to sabotage a Crimean highway was foiled; seven “saboteurs” are reported to have been apprehended. But the delay in reporting the event raises the question of why authorities did not make an effort to inform Crimeans of the potential danger or urge them to be on the lookout for a large number of armed men on the run.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called the accusations a “fantasy that serves as a pretext for the latest round of military threats against Ukraine.” Logic suggests that he is being truthful.

To begin with, it would be foolish for Ukraine to launch a violent attack, given the vast superiority of Russian military power. It would be even more foolish to provoke Russia at a time when its forces are mobilizing for massive military maneuvers along Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea.

Indeed, Ukraine is already on edge over signs of increased Russian military deployments near its eastern border and increased attacks on Ukrainian positions by fighters from the breakaway enclaves of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Last week, Ukraine placed its armed forces on a state of heightened readiness. On Thursday, President Poroshenko ordered these forces to be on “combat alert.”

Second, Ukraine has shied away from military operations in Russian-annexed Crimea for 2-1/2 years. Crimea is a peninsula with narrow and well-patrolled access points — far harder for fighters to slip across than the porous borders of the Russian-occupied areas of eastern Ukraine (where there has also been an absence of clandestine operations).

Third, Poroshenko understands that military action by Ukraine would erode Western support and solidarity regarding sanctions on Russia, which are up for renewal in several months. Any escalation would also act as a disincentive for foreign direct investment, which the Ukrainian economy badly needs.

The emergence of a new “terrorist” threat could conveniently be used to mobilize anger and raise morale.
But while Ukraine has no strategic or economic interests in baiting the bear, there are numerous reasons why allegations of terrorism by Ukraine might serve Russia well.

The charges are useful for domestic Russian propaganda purposes. Putin’s political party, United Russia, faces elections in September amid increasing discontent in both Crimea and Russia over a deteriorating economy, which has seen the ruble lose half its value against the dollar. Opposition parties might be hopelessly divided, but public unhappiness over the economy could nonetheless erode support for the ruling party. Claims that Russian forces are under attack can be used to rally Russians around the president’s political team.

Additionally, Russia is in the midst of a major military expansion. Its forces are engaged in combat in Syria and Ukraine and are present in Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria enclave, as well as in North Ossetia and Abkhazia (as self-declared “peacekeepers”). Vast investments in military power could come under pressure as Russians are told they will have to tighten their belts. A dangerous new threat in Crimea can be used to justify sacrifice in the name of greater preparedness.

Russia’s fighting forces, now clandestinely deployed in eastern Ukraine, also need motivation. Their military service is being concealed from the Russian public; those who die in combat are being buried in secrecy. Russian soldiers were initially told that they were being deployed to prevent massive atrocities again civilians in the Donbas. But the credibility of these claims has been shattered by the on-the-ground reality. The emergence of a new “terrorist” threat could conveniently be used to mobilize anger and raise morale.

Putin can also use the charges of “terrorism” and “sabotage” to argue before the international community that Russia faces an irresponsible Ukrainian government uninterested in seeking peace. These arguments are unlikely to sway most Western leaders, but they can give cover to those looking to bolster their case for lifting sanctions on the Kremlin.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Putin considers Ukraine to be a failed state. A concocted terrorist threat can justify large troop deployments near Ukraine’s border, requiring even larger Ukrainian military expenditures and stoking fears of an all-out Russian invasion in a society that had started to become more relaxed.

All this points to a Kremlin disinformation effort designed to achieve a broad range of aims. Russia could use its accusations to justify a surgical strike at the Ukrainian military.

But most likely, this is not the start of a major new Russian offensive, and any escalation is likely to be limited. Ukraine’s military has significantly improved its effectiveness and increased its military budget. A Russian attack would lead to massive casualties, something Putin has shown great reluctance to risk.

A major attack would also undermine Russia’s diplomatic efforts to weaken Western sanctions, which are looming large as Russia’s hard currency surplus declines and the government is failing meet the expectations of its large segment of state sector workers.

Similarly, Putin is unlikely to do anything to weaken Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump’s chances at being elected in November. A major Russian offensive would become a central issue in the U.S. election debate, re-emphasizing the dangers of Putin’s links to Trump.

Moreover, Trump has expressed a willingness to consider recognizing Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and has broadly signaled a desire to normalize relations with Russia at the expense of Eastern Europe. He also has cast doubts on U.S. commitments to NATO.

Russia’s accusations should not be regarded as a new stage in its war of attrition against Ukraine. They are more likely part of the long-running disinformation campaign that has accompanied the country’s military aggression.