The signs of Russian military escalation in Ukraine have been evident for months, from military maneuvers to pressure in Donetsk to the propaganda of Russia Today. Now the war is truly one step away, but Europe does not have the courage to tell the truth. Four points for a transatlantic strategy. The analysis by Nona Mikhelidze, head of the Eastern Europe and Eurasia Program, IAI
Seven years after the annexation of Crimea, Russia is preparing a new military attack on Ukraine. The final objective, even if not openly stated, can vary from the annexation of the Donbas region to the repetition of the Nagorno-Karabakh scenario, and therefore to the deployment of peacekeepers on the contact line of the Lugansk-Donetsk breakaway region.
A large-scale attack is less likely. The Ukrainian defense forces are no longer those of 2015, today they would put up a strenuous resistance. The most likely scenario is then that of a localized war.
The real question that no one has yet answered is: why right now is the Kremlin embarking on a new military escalation? Several hypotheses can be advanced. The first: to divert domestic and international attention from the Navalny question and the increasingly precarious situation for respect for human rights in Russia.
WHY IS MOSCOW MOVING NOW?
As we know, Navalny has been on a hunger strike for days and is demanding that doctors be allowed to go to prison. In the last videoconference with Vladimir Putin, Emmanuel Macron ed Angela Merkel they asked for his release and expressed concern about the inhumane situation in which he finds himself. For its part, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov he replied that the West must take care of its “domestic affairs”.
The second reason for this activism is to be found in an attempt to divert the attention of Russians from the country’s pandemic and post-pandemic crisis. Russia developed the Sputnik V vaccine, but is unable to produce it on a large scale. As of the end of February, only 4% of 143 million Russians had been vaccinated. A delay that has serious repercussions on the economic crisis.
Finally, the third reason: Russia feels encircled by the West in Belarus and Georgia. Lukashenko, openly supported by the Kremlin for months, is not recognized as a legitimate president by most of the Western states, which have sided with the opposition. In Georgia, the political crisis has been going on for some time now and the EU and the US have moved together to mediate and put a stop to political polarization. Moscow fears the arrival of opposition forces to the government in Tbilisi and has interpreted Western mediation as interference in its “near abroad”.
THE SIGNALS OF THE ESCALATION
The signs of an impending military escalation have been evident for months. In January Lavrov made it clear that if France and Germany do not force Ukraine to implement the Kiev agreements, Russia will act “accordingly”. Also in January, at the Russian Donbas forum organized by the secessionist republic of Donetsk, the editor-in-chief of Russia Today, Margarita Simonyan, said the time has come to “bring Donbas back home” to “mother Russia”. Dimitri Peskov, spokesman for the Kremlin, was quick to deny. But it’s hard to believe that the editor-in-chief of a TV channel entirely funded by the Russian government can take certain liberties for no reason.
Some signs were unmistakable. Russia has moved on the battlefield, multiplying military forces, snipers and violations of the ceasefire of 27 July 2020 witnessed by Osce observers.
Added to these were the recent Russian military exercises on the Ukrainian border and the new deployment of forces in the Crimea. The New York Times, quoting a cable from American diplomacy, speaks of 4,000 new soldiers. And the European command of the American armed forces has raised the level of alert to “potential imminent crisis”. The Ukrainian secret services and defense ministry also claim that Russia has entered the “final phase” of preparing a series of measures aimed at provoking a response from Kiev.
The Ukrainian government also accuses Moscow of sending new regular troops under the pretext of “protecting” Russian citizens in Donetsk and Lugansk, where it has already distributed passports. A confirmation of a narrative strategy of the Kremlin, which presents itself as a “defender” from an alleged, imminent attack on Ukraine.
Last weekend Putin and the Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu they met in the Siberian taiga. The state media showed their lovely walks. Hard to believe that the summit’s goal was simply to get some fresh air.
IF EUROPE TURNS ITS HEAD
This escalation, it must be said, is also the result of the passivity of European diplomacy, which was satisfied with the status quo of 2014-2015 and a negotiation between France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia that was never implemented. With Joe Biden at the White House and his solemn promise to end the days of “Russian aggression” something has changed. But the rhetoric will have to be followed by concrete actions, and so far Washington DC’s eyes seem to be on China further east. The phone calls from Biden e Lloyd Austin nonetheless, their counterparts in Kiev signal growing interest.
Germany and France have meanwhile issued a joint statement expressing concern over growing ceasefire violations and calling on both sides to seek mediation. In keeping with an old tradition of European diplomacy, they are addressing both sides. Yet it is all too clear who is the aggressor and who is attacked. It was Russia, not Ukraine, that moved the troops to the border. Here lies the great difference in approach with the US. In Washington, they don’t mind giving names and surnames.
FOUR POINTS FOR A NATO STRATEGY
Obviously, declarations are not enough. There is a need for a new transatlantic strategy towards Ukraine and Russia, structured along the following lines. First of all, by defining a Western method of action, under the banner of human rights and democratic values. The second priority is the reform of the Normandy format. When Merkel leaves the chancellorship, the format will lose its political weight. There is a need for active US involvement. The ideal solution would see Germany and France replaced by the EU. But the visit of Josep Borrell in Moscow it destroyed all hope.
Therefore the third priority: to strengthen the resilience of Ukrainian democracy, of its military and energy sectors. Which brings us to the fourth and final point: immediately review the system of sanctions against Russia. They must become a tool for affirming the supremacy of universal values over political opportunism and punishing offenders. By identifying the right people to be sanctioned, namely the Russian oligarchs, both to limit Russian aggression in Ukraine and to discourage further repression of civil society in Russia. Finally, the Russian North Stream II gas pipeline must be stopped. If Germany were to row against this again, the United States would have to tighten sanctions on all European companies involved in its construction.
(Foto: Mstyslav Chernov)