There’s something afoot in the Black Sea basin. Last week Moscow accused Ukraine of attempting a terrorist attack in Crimea, alleging that a firefight took place on August 7 and 8 between a supposed team of infiltrators and border guards of the FSB, Russia’s internal security service. The details of the incident remain murky. It was clear that something had happened when Russia closed a key crossing point on the peninsula early last week, internet providers blocked web access in northern Crimea, and rumors swirled of military movements as a state of emergency was imposed by security services.
Some have rushed to judgment, claiming this is an elaborate pretext for a renewed invasion of Ukraine, but so far these fears seem out of step with the evidence we have. If Russia is preparing to escalate its involvement anywhere, it is likely in Syria – not Ukraine. The Kremlin does have something in mind though. This mini-crisis in Crimea appears to be part of a larger political game with the West over Ukraine set to unfold in the coming months.
Stranger than Fiction
On Wednesday, Russia’s FSB leveled an official accusation against Kyiv and Russian President Vladimir Putin made a public statement to the same effect, denouncing Ukrainian authorities and blaming them for an attempted provocation. According to Russia’s press service, about ten individuals have been arrested in Crimea for being involved in the plot. Their version of events points to two separate shootouts on August 7 and 8 with a group of individuals from Ukraine armed with explosives and intent on sabotage or terrorist acts.
The story has subsequently evolved. According to Russia’s Kommersant paper, those captured have already confessed to plotting terrorist attacks against Crimea’s tourism sector. Further, it was not border guards, but an FSB special forces detachment known as Vympel that first engaged the supposed infiltrators on August 7 and subsequently unraveled a network of Ukrainian collaborators in Crimea. This led to a search for the remaining “saboteurs” and a subsequent fight took place on Ukraine’s border, with soldiers from Russia’s 247th Airborne unit who were stationed nearby.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry at first denied the incident, stating that Russian accusations “do not correspond to reality. Ukraine did not commit any armed provocations in Crimea or any other area. None of Ukraine’s Defense Ministry intelligence staff was detained in occupied Crimea.” Given the simmering conflict between the two countries this is hardly the first case of back and forth recriminations. Typically, Kyiv has the benefit of the doubt in the West given Russia’s track record of duplicity and obfuscation.
Subsequently, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence claimed that the firefight in question did take place, but was between Russian soldiers and Russian border guards. Though this claim did little to improve on Ukraine’s earlier denials, and also raised the question of why official statements were being made by its defense and intelligence services. Other Ukrainian papers carried accounts of drunken Russian airborne soldiers being responsible for the shooting. The information war — the battle of narratives intrinsic to the confrontation between these two countries — has already overtaken the facts.
There are now many versions of what transpired: some Russian sources present tales of up to 20 Ukrainian infiltrators, supported by an armored personnel carrier, engaging in a firefight on the Crimean border. One Ukrainian account holds that Russian soldiers shot each other and then tried to desert. Both stories are well-situated in the realm of the unbelievable.
Russian authorities have arrested several individuals, most notably a former Ukrainian soldier now turned truck driver, Evgeny Panov, who they accuse of working for Ukraine’s military intelligence. His family claims he was kidnapped from within Ukraine. His friends say he disappeared for three days. A spokesperson for Ukraine’s military intelligence contradicted this story, saying that Panov crossed into Crimea of his own accord, and in his own car, through an official checkpoint. There is already enough intrigue here for a novel.
More arrests followed as Moscow claimed to be unraveling a support network for Ukrainian operations in Crimea. It’s hard to say which scenario is less likely, a truck driver turned Ukrainian military intelligence operative extraordinaire, or the Russian FSB driving for hours into Ukraine just to kidnap him and construct this complex ruse. Most likely neither is true. If this is a pretext for war, Rube Goldberg could not have made it more convoluted.
Pieces Moving on the Board
Vladimir Putin’s tone and demeanor during his speech was a remarkable departure from the overall tenor of his comments this year in dealings with Ukraine: “There is no doubt that we will not let these things pass,” he said. Despite a steady escalation of violence over the summer, Russian public rhetoric toward Ukraine did not appreciably shift until the events of last week. Russia’s Southern Military District, which borders eastern Ukraine and the Caucasus, began conducting troop movements, while the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea announced a series of military drills. Russia’s National Security Council met recently, further underlining the seriousness with which Moscow is taking this incident. Meanwhile, Moscow canceled a planned meeting of the Normandy group, which had been due to convene during the upcoming G20 Summit in September to discuss progress in implementing the Minsk ceasefire (or lack thereof).
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has placed military units in the south on alert, while a number of Russian units might be moving to the Kerch strait on the mainland, the main transfer point to Crimea. At least two battalions’ worth of equipment went to Crimea via train, and Bastion-P coastal defense units are active across from the peninsula (although these could also be new units training for Russia’s Pacific Fleet whose presence is coincidental). The situation has been fluid, with Russian military movements naturally interpreted as a harbinger for military escalation. Though some newspapers indicate that despite public statements of concern, Ukrainian troops have hardly increased their readiness levels near Crimea.
Russia certainly has a track record of employing drills to mask and enable offensive military operations, including its February 2014 exercises that turned into the seizure of Crimea. However, most of the current activity is likely in response to the security alert on the peninsula, with other troop movements planned well in advance, given that this year’s strategic-operational exercise, Kavkaz-2016, will be held in the Southern Military District. Scheduled for September, Kavkaz-2016 will involve most of the military units in the region near Ukraine and simultaneous drills in other districts. Assuming the entire episode is not an elaborate ruse, part of the Russian response is likely based on security concerns. While the rest is no doubt in line with an intense schedule or readiness checks and troop rotations set for August and September.
A steady uptick in violence between separatist and Ukrainian forces along the line of control has eroded any pretense of the Minsk ceasefire holding. This summer, Ukrainian and separatist forces have spent months advancing against each other in the no-man zones between their respective lines in a game of escalation and retaliation. Ukrainian forces have clawed back territory on the margins and artillery exchanges continue to intensify. A recent attempt by unknown forces on the life of Plotnitsky, the titular head of the Lughansk People’s Republic, only added to the tensions. Yet last year saw an identical chain of events unfold, with violence escalating over the summer and a significant skirmish taking place in August. A Russian invasion did not happen then, and there is little evidence that one will happen now, as I explain below.
Right Idea, Wrong Battlespace
An escalation in the conflict may seem inevitable, but there is little to indicate that the Russian military is planning an operation against Ukraine. While more alarmist circles have already begun a predictable cycle of panic over the prospect of renewed Russian invasion, military analysis tells us this is unlikely. The announced drills should not be a cause for worry, yet. For one, the Black Sea Fleet is busy managing the supply line to Syria and providing its ships to the Russian naval squadron in the Mediterranean. The Fleet’s exercises seem to consist largely of its two multi-purpose corvettes decamping towards Syria (the two ships just conducted a series of land attack cruise missiles strikes in support of Assad’s forces fighting around Aleppo). The Russian Ministry of Defense announced the exercise was not to be held in the Black Sea itself but in the Eastern Mediterranean. If Russia intends to invade Ukraine from Crimea, it may want to bring a few of those ships back from the Syrian coast.
Colonel-General Dvornikov, formerly in charge of Syrian operations, was just promoted to take command of the Southern Military District. His immediate task is preparation for the annual exercise, even as the perilous turn of events in the battle for Aleppo demands increased Russian attention. Syrian regime forces there have been dealt a tactical defeat. Russian bombers continue to pound Aleppo and the outskirts of Palmyra, where the Islamic State is resurgent. A counter-offensive in Aleppo led by the jihadist group once known as Jahbat al-Nusra thwarted Syrian efforts to encircle the city and deal a critical blow to what is left of the opposition. In other words, much of the Russian military’s bandwidth for offensive operations is being taken up by commitments in Syria, which is placing increasing demands on its forces.
Pentagon spokesperson Gordon Trowbridge said, “We don’t necessarily see any evidence of troop movements that are so large that we are concerned about those on their own.” Other officials privately imparted that not only were there no indications of Russian military activity indicative of an impending invasion, but instead forces were rotating into Crimea to “relieve an equal number, which have since departed.” It is easy to construe announcements to establish new units (many of which not even scheduled until the end of this year or late 2017), long planned exercises, and a host of garrison construction efforts for some sort of massed invasion force. We should keep our powder dry until these unit formations actually materialize.
Russia seems to be planning a new set of strikes, but in Syria. Perhaps most indicative of Russian intentions is the recently filed request for cruise missile overflights through Iranian and Iraqi airspace. Russian bombers and fighters recently arrived at Hamadan airfield in Iran, and struck targets in Syria for the first time from Iranian soil. The Caspian Flotilla has also begun “drills” positioning itself in preparation for missile strikes. The Southern Military District and the Black Sea Fleet are waist deep in managing a military operation in Syria and a series of force movements that don’t seem to have much to do with Ukraine.
Russia has a busy schedule in August and September, packed with multinational exercises and readiness drills. Russia’s S-400 has recently arrived in Crimea to replace existing S-300PM systems in one of the air defense regiments. However, this system is not scheduled to become operational until the end of August, just before the Kavkaz-2016 event. Over the past two weeks Russian forces, and senior military leadership, have been participating in the International Army Games, a series of events hosted across several military districts in Russia and Kazakhstan. Cooperation-2016, a small exercise held with Russia’s Caucasus and Central Asian allies in the CSTO, just began near St. Petersburg. The evidence against a sudden renewal of hostilities is quite solid, including even Ukrainian intelligence assessments that Russian forces have not substantially increased in size on the eastern front.
It’s hard to conceive of any military objectives Moscow may have in Ukraine today that it had failed to accomplish in 2014 and 2015. The prospect for a land corridor to Crimea is just as unsound from a military perspective as it was back in 2014. Seizing and defending over 300 kilometers of real estate, including several cities, would involve occupying a substantial portion of Eastern Ukraine. We should not indulge in long-discredited land bridge theories as potential Russian operational objectives in Ukraine. The distance between Crimea and Russia has not grown shorter. Instead the Russian bridge across the Kerch Strait is steadily becoming a reality, and the energy link already became active last fall.
There is cause for vigilance any time Russia launches troop movements or declares new exercises, but there is not yet any reliable indication that Russia intends to send more forces. Russia has already invaded Ukraine, and if Moscow desired to suddenly renew the war, its leadership would not need an elaborately constructed pretext: Russian troops would already be past Ukrainian lines.
However, there are plenty of political ends Russia may seek to attain by publicizing and pinning this alleged terrorist attack on Ukraine’s leaders. Moscow looks to threaten the Minsk negotiation process itself, a framework in which European players and the United States are heavily vested. Putin’s comments appeared largely aimed at the West when he said, “But I would like to turn to our American and European partners,” adding “I think it is clear now that today’s Kiev government is not looking for ways to solve problems by negotiations, but is resorting to terror.” This was a statement to the effect that Kyiv is scuttling the Minsk deal. In other words, Moscow is questioning the viability of the Minsk process. Russia is using this incident to besmirch Ukraine and pressure it to start implementing the political terms of the deal.
Kyiv might actually welcome a collapse of the Minsk agreement, having maintained almost from the start that the deal as signed is unworkable, or at the very least undesirable. Although the separatists have not abided by the terms of the ceasefire, Europeans have been pushing Ukraine to fulfill its side of the bargain for over a year now without much success. Russia is banking on the fact that U.S. and European leaders have no alternative plan for freezing this conflict, and will further lean on Kyiv to start giving Moscow what it wants rather than see the Minsk framework publicly unravel. Russia’s objective remains an official reintegration of the separatist regions back into Ukraine via constitutional reforms that give them a fair amount of autonomy and amnesty for the separatists. This influence hook into Ukraine domestic politics and strategic orientation is Russia’s “on paper” price for freezing the conflict, and has been since Ukraine was forced to sign the second Minsk agreement.
In any scenario, Moscow is testing the waters to see how much support Ukraine truly enjoys in the West. Ukraine’s leadership has been moving at near-glacial speed on political reforms and is regularly criticized of recidivist behavior by domestic and international observers. A domestic political crisis this winter had stalled progress on Minsk and the reform agenda. While the United States voiced public support for Ukraine last week, Moscow is probing to see how much European will has eroded and whether Kyiv’s leaders have run out of sympathy in Berlin. This episode could well be a prelude for a more interesting game set to unfold later in the year.
In a recent meeting in Russia between the German and Russian Foreign Ministers, Sergey Lavrov said that there was no need for emotional measures, and Russia will not break diplomatic relations with Ukraine, for now. This was a coy threat wrapped inside the semblance that Russia is being reasonable in its response. Russia’s price for not blowing up this episode further is for European counterparts to “motivate” Ukraine into implementing its side of the Minsk deal. The Crimean incident is part of a game to create additional leverage in discussions within the Normandy group on the state of the ceasefire.
Given that the clock is winding down on the Obama administration, Russia may want to make the best use of the coming months. In June, U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice suggested that the U.S. administration is looking for the Minsk deal to begin implementation by the end of this year. No doubt the U.S. president wants to leave a legacy of having successfully frozen this conflict with a sustainable ceasefire in place. Instead, the fighting has simmered unstably for over a year while the process has drifted aimlessly to the dissatisfaction of all concerned. Moscow seems less intent on collapsing the ceasefire outright; instead it needs to give impetus to a moribund deal to secure its long sought after objective. At the very least if Minsk is judged a failure come the next round of sanctions renewal, Russia would very much like Ukraine to be the one baring the blame.
Michael Kofman is a Research Scientist at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. Previously he served as Program Manager at National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own.
Update: This article originally stated, “The Fleet’s exercises seem to consist largely of its two multi-purpose corvettes decamping towards Syria, no doubt carrying land attack cruise missiles.” Since this article was finalized last night, the two ships conducted a series of land attack cruise missiles strikes in support of Assad’s forces fighting around Aleppo and the text has been updated to that effect.