At the same time that Russia is conducting its latest massive military drill on the border with Ukraine, and one day after the latest stark warning by Ukraine’ president Poroshenko that the simmering conflict with Russia may be set to explode again when he said on national TV that “the probability of escalation and conflict remains very significant”.
He added that “we don’t rule out full-scale Russian invasion”, Russian president Putin made a not so subtle point that Crimea will not be relinquished when he flew into contested territory on Friday, one day after staging war games there, and said he hoped Ukraine would see “common sense” when it came to resolving a diplomatic crisis over the peninsula.
Officially, Putin arrived on a working visit in Crimea, where he held a briefing with members of the Russian Security Council and visited the Tavrida international youth forum, a RIA Novosti correspondent reported Friday. The schedule of Putin’s visit to Crimea, at least his fifth in the past two years, also involves meetings with local officials, according to local media reports that broke news of the visit this week.
Crimea, which has been the topic of contention since early 2014, became a part of Russia after almost 97 percent of those who voted in a local referendum on the issue in 2014 supported the move. Ukraine did not recognize the outcomes of the referendum in Crimea and accused Russia of annexation; while many European nations have likewise not recognized the new territory, they have avoided escalating the debate with Russia.
In any case, two years after Russia and Ukraine came close to a state of war over the territory, it is again the focus of international tension, after the Russian president accused Kiev last week of sending saboteurs who clashed with Russian troops. Kiev, which has also fought a two year war against pro-Russian separatists in two eastern provinces, denies the border incident ever took place and calls it a fabrication that could be used as a pretext for a new Russian invasion.
As Reuters reports, the Russian leader has used threatening rhetoric, promising unspecified “counter-measures”, and has built up troops ahead of a big military exercise next month. He addressed the crisis again on Friday, opening a meeting of his Security Council at an air base near the naval port of Sevastopol on his first visit to Crimea since he made the initial accusations.
“It is clear that we have gathered for a well known reason after the infamous incident, after we thwarted attempts by groups of Ukrainian army saboteurs to break into (our) territory,” he said.
“Judging by all accounts, our partners in Kiev have decided to escalate the situation. We are all familiar with this method of escalation. It goes back a long way and has sometimes been used successfully but not always.
“I hope that this won’t be a final choice … and that common sense will prevail,” he added.
Just to underscore that point, on Thursday Russian naval and land forces practiced swiftly moving military hardware and troops to Crimea, already one of the world’s most militarised areas, in a logistics exercise that foreshadows larger war games planned for next month. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, around 2,500 troops and up to 350 armored vehicles were involved in the exercise, which unfolded as tensions have also flared in eastern Ukraine, where a truce that curbed fighting is looking increasingly shaky.
Meanwhile, as noted above, in the latest sharp escalation in rhetoric, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on Thursday he did not rule out introducing martial law and a new wave of military mobilization if the east Ukraine conflict worsened.
Putin on Friday accused the Ukrainian government of trying to destabilize Crimea to distract attention from its failure to implement a peace deal covering the conflict in eastern Ukraine, a region known as the Donbass.
While fighting that killed thousands of people in the Donbass has ebbed since early 2015, pro-Russian separatists there regularly exchange fire with Ukrainian government forces, and both sides accuse each other of failing to implement terms of the truce, known as the Minsk peace process.
And while Kiev believes Putin is preparing for more fighting, most rational experts believe he is simple interested in gaining diplomatic leverage, seeking to use the latest crisis to prod the West to press Ukraine into doing more to uphold the accords.
That is indeed the case; in fact, over the past week all of Putin’s attention has been focused not on Ukraine, which is seen as the latest attempt by NATO to provoke the Kremlin, but on Turkey which as we reported yesterday, is “considering military cooperation” with Russia, in a pivot that if executed, could be NATO’s biggest strategic loss in history, as Ankara exits the Western sphere of influence and enters The Russian one.
That, however, will not come without a fight, both literally and figuratively, and that is what the current distraction with Ukraine may be all about.