Russian forces are on the move around Donbas and into Crimea, and the unsettling thing for the outside world is that we don’t know why. What makes that a particular problem is that in these circumstances, questions of Kremlin intent inevitably become answered not on the basis of evidence and capabilities, but rival narratives based on past actions, future fears, and national and institutional self-interest. The current crisis is thus a case study of what happens when nations lie, bluff and posture.
The bare facts on the ground are alarming enough. Although far higher figures are in circulation, perhaps 20,000 Russian troops, including heavy artillery, have been moved closer to and around the Ukrainian border and into Crimea. Furthermore, the 56th Air Assault Brigade is being permanently relocated from Kamyshin in Volgograd region to Feodosiya in Crimea.
Moscow has no real explanation. Presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov simply note that Russia “moves its armed forces within its territory at its discretion” but “it should not worry anyone and does not pose a threat to anyone.” Although half-hearted efforts have been made to explain the moves in terms of snap inspections and exercises, this does not follow the usual or announced calendar of such activities, though.
Meanwhile, the never-quite-frozen conflict in the Donbas has defrosted a little more of late, with sporadic skirmishes along the line of contact. Most recently, Kyiv has announced that two of its soldiers were killed in a firefight near Novo-Oleksandrivka, while the rebels have claimed (and this is unsubstantiated so far) that a five-year old was killed by a government attack on Donetsk.
The tragic but relatively limited actual shots have largely been drowned out by the drumbeat of martial rhetoric, though.
Foreign Minister Dmyro Kuleba has asserted “that Russia systemically aggravates the security situation in Donetsk and Luhansk regions and in Crimea” while Ukrainian military intelligence ups the ante, claiming that Moscow has definite plans to provoke Kyiv into “a military response to the invaders’ hostile action” to justify a full-scale intervention into the Donbas and maybe even beyond.
At the same time, Moscow has for some time pointed to what it regards as Ukraine’s build-up of forces along the line of contact and attempts to probe the rebel defences.
The view from Kyiv
Without in any way suggesting moral equivalence in a conflict which has seen Moscow annex Crimea in violation of international law and stir up a toxic and hybrid mix of foreign intervention and civil war in the Donbas, nonetheless it is worth recognising the degree to which Kyiv and its Western supporters and Moscow have fundamentally different perspectives of the situation, and also interests in play.
It is not simply that Kyiv sees itself threatened by a larger neighbour with a track record of imperialistic attitudes and bloody aggressions. It is also that it has learned that plucky victimhood is one of the few things that makes the West truly pay attention. The warm words of solidarity often do not extend far beyond that. There is a growing, if often still behind-the-scenes exasperation with Kyiv’s failure to address key reform dilemmas, if not outright fatigue.
It is unlikely to be coincidental that recent months have seen the embattled Zelenskiy administration place sanctions on Moscow-friendly opposition politician Viktor Medvedchuk and closed down three of his TV stations. It also launched a ‘Crimean Platform,’ primarily to prevent the annexation becoming accepted as a fair accompli, and announced that it not attend future Minsk process talks – so long as they were in Minsk. While expressing a willingness to meet elsewhere, Deputy Prime Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said that this was because there was no trust in the Belarusian regime, even though it plays no actual part in the negotiations.
All this has worked to an extent. Zelenskiy finally got his symbolic telephone call with President Biden, something that seemed to have until now been deliberately stalled to ratchet up the pressure for reforms. Biden made equally symbolic statements in support of “Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression.”
Of course, none of this is to suggest that Kyiv’s alarums are entirely cynical exercises. There is an understandable wariness to the degree of paranoia about Russian intent. This is stoked by a security apparatus that can milk this for prestige, resources and, if one is cynical, immunity from meaningful reform in the case of the SBU security agency. It is also paradoxically a pathology encouraged by some of Ukraine’s most vociferous cheerleaders abroad, from think tanks such as the Atlantic Council to individual scholars and pundits, who predict imminent war with metronomic regularity.
The view from Moscow
Speaking of paranoias, though, let us turn to Moscow. The glib cynicism of Peskov and his ilk should not make us forget the degree to which Vladimir Putin and many of his closest cronies do seem genuinely to believe much of their propaganda. To them, this Ukrainian government is the product of an illegitimate coup masterminded by the CIA and intended precisely to divert the orbit of the country from Russia to the West: gidridnaya voina in practice.
Convinced that Russia is engaged in an undeclared political struggle for its very status as a great power – a status that is its birthright – and saddled with often-recalcitrant, corrupt and ramshackle proxy regimes in Donetsk and Lugansk, the Kremlin is unable or unwilling to observe the niceties. It believes that in such a conflict, all bets are off and means such as disinformation, assassination, coercion and military action are all on the table.
That does not mean that the people making the decisions are unthinking nationalists or warmongers. There is no evidence to suggest any real enthusiasm to annex the ‘People’s Reoublics’ (or they would have done it years ago) or even to freeze the current status quo, which costs them dearly in both political and economic terms. But this is Putin’s war; unlike Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he has no alibi. He is not going to, as he would see it, surrender his best lever on Kyiv. Returning Ukraine to Russia’s sphere of influence may seem impossible now, but at least he can deny the West a ‘victory.’
When Ukraine builds up its forces along the line of contact – which is entirely entitled to do – this in turn is perceived by the Kremlin as a sign of hostile intent. Likewise, this kind of worst case scenario thinking is probably encouraged by intelligence agencies unwilling to challenge Kremlin prejudices and risk being caught out.
The more Kyiv talks of its (frankly, very optimistic) aspirations to join NATO – Defence Minister Andrii Taran welcomed the alliance’s 72nd anniversary with the suggestion Ukraine should be its next member – and seems to be trying to define itself in opposition to Russia (even in seeking to purge the language still spoken by much of the population, to resist Moscow’s “language war”), the more this is regarded as an existential issue.
That does not mean full-scale war. The Ukrainian military has been one particular area of successful reform and in total is about a quarter the size of Russia’s. While Moscow still has particular advantages in airpower and other sectors, the days when it could have launched a relatively smooth ‘shock and awe’ offensive are past. Any general war would be bloody, the pacification of occupied territory difficult, and the wider political and economic costs prohibitive.
What is being done
So what is going on? Common sense would suggest that neither Kyiv nor Moscow actually seek a direct military confrontation. Of course, paradigms do shift and what is perceived as ‘common sense’ can shift with them – as the widespread surprise at the seizure of Crimea shows. However, as Michael Kofman of the Center for Naval Analyses, one of the sharpest observers of the Russian military around warned, “we should not fight the last war in analysis.” Just because we were caught out by Crimea does not necessarily that this is what is going on now.
After all, this is an election year in Russia, and while the annexation was popular, there is no sign of any comparable enthusiasm for the war in Donbas. Besides which, one reason for Crimea being so welcome was that it was a virtually bloodless win. Any major escalation in the Donbas, or an attempt to seize the North Crimean Canal that used to provide 85% of the peninsula’s water from the Dnipro (until Kyiv blocked it), would likely be a very different proposition.
So the odds are that this is all ‘heavy metal diplomacy,’ an exercise in coercive brinkmanship to deter Kyiv from pushing any harder on the Donbas by demonstrating Russia’s capacity to escalate at scale and at speed, and also not just to push it back towards the Minsk II process, but also Moscow’s preferred sequencing of steps towards a settlement.
Russia may also want to make it clear to the West that the more it backs Ukraine rhetorically, the more the potential risk that it might be forced to make good on its promises. This is, after all, something the Kremlin thinks Europe in particular is unwilling to do. In the process, Zelenskiy would be made to watch his words, lest he be forced to eat them.
Domestically, there may also be value to Moscow in a carefully-calibrated expansion in fighting, so long as Russian losses and political escalation are kept as limited as possible. Artillery duels, upgrading the rebels’ kit, sending in special forces snipers to inflict a steady stream of dispiriting losses, this all seems wholly likely. This can be spun to support the line that Russia is a besieged fortress, such that supporting the opposition is tantamount to betrayal, without alarming the population that they are facing some wider shooting conflict.
Ultimately, though, nations do not generally slide accidentally into war, but the greatest risk is to be found in uncertainty. Nations miscalculate all the time, and miscommunicate their intent as often, but the less clear they are about intent, the more scope there is for mutual missteps. Moscow has, it has to be said, made it very difficult to know where it stands, through years of deliberate deception and disinformation. This is the downside of seeking to cultivate ‘dark power,’ of actively seeking to seem more dangerous and unpredictable than it actually may be. No wonder Kyiv and others will assume the worst.