The latest parliamentary elections in Ukraine will not solve Russia’s worries about the civil war in Ukraine and NATO’s aggressive posture. From Moscow’s point of view, the worries fall into two large categories: provocations directed against Russia and provocations directed against the Russian-backed rebels of Eastern Ukraine. Russia is not easily provoked, but the scale and persistence of the provocations gives license to the militant voices in the Kremlin who recommend answering a blow for a blow.
Provocations against Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed the Kremlin’s dilemma with the Ukraine crisis at a recent gathering of the 10-year-old Valdai International Discussion Clubin Sochi.
“We did not start this,” Putin said. “Statements that Russia is trying to reinstate some sort of empire, that is encroaching on the sovereignty of its neighbors, are groundless.”
The accusation that Russia is marching to regain the Soviet Empire was a charge made recently by the Speaker of the Polish Parliament, Radek Sikorski, a former British citizen who is well regarded in Washington.
“What is happening now is the full embrace of neo-imperialism,” Sikorski said about Russian conduct in the Ukraine crisis. “They have exploited every post-Soviet and neo-Soviet atavism and made it real because an alarming proportion of the population believes it. This is how they have refueled their regime.”
The Kremlin does not dismiss Sikorski’s comments, because Poland has consistently supported increased NATO deployments on Russia’s borders and has been seen as a leader in the provocations against Moscow. The new head of NATO, General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, traveled to Poland early in October to inspect the refurbished NATO presence at Lask Air Base.
NATO has also committed to a so-called spearhead rapid reaction unit of several thousand troops that, in the event of an emergency, such as an attack on a NATO member, can employ pre-positioned weapons and equipment in Eastern Europe along the frontier with Russia.
Stoltenberg recently asserted that this new mobilization does not violate NATO’s 1997 agreement with Russia not to station troops permanently near Russia: “There is no contradiction between more military presence in this area and also respecting the rule-based international order.”
Meanwhile, the United States is in the process of deploying hundreds of troops along with battle tanks to the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia as well as Poland.
In addition, last week there were even accusations by non-NATO member Sweden that Russia is conducting mysterious surveillance in the Baltic Sea. The strange episode of the Swedish Navy’s search for a “foreign underwater activity” dominated the news reporting in the Baltic the last week. Swedish authorities spoke of using explosives to surface the invader.
Any attempts to ensure European security and development without Russia and against Russia are pointless, which has been proven by history.
Russian Foreign Minister
Eventually the Swedes called off the search. But the Russian Defense Ministry was not amused, and a Russian spokesman, Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov, warned, “Such uncorroborated actions by the Swedish armed forces, inflamed by rhetoric in the spirit of the cold war, lead only to an escalation of tension in the region.”
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov spoke bluntly on Oct. 20about what Moscow regards as reckless NATO aggression and provocation.
“It is our firm position that any escalation of a Euro-Atlantic confrontation can only lead to a deadlock,” Lavrov said. “Any attempts to ensure European security and development without Russia and against Russia are pointless, which has been proven by history.”
Provocations against Donbass
The Kremlin is also wary of provocations against pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. They see recent actions by Kiev-backed elements — especially the "neo-fascist" Right Sector and its allies — against the Donbass region of Ukraine as evidence that Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko is not in control of the government apparatus in Kiev and has no ability to discipline the Kiev National Guard that, despite the ceasefire, continues to threaten the Russia-backed rebels.
Moscow regards the recent Human Right Watch revelations that Ukrainian military forces used cluster munitions against civilians to be the latest in a line of uninvestigated war crimes by Kiev. The list includes Russia’s allegation of massacres in Donetsk, where a mass grave is said to have been uncovered, as well as the murders of Ukrainians in Odessa and Mariupol in May. The Kremlin also seeks a thorough investigation for the perpetrators of the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 on July 17 in the Donbass, which killed 298 passengers and crew. Moscow and Kiev have accused each other of the shootdown, but it is Moscow that continues to make demands based on recent German intelligence that the missile used came from a Ukrainian arsenal, not a Russian one. Going back to last February, Russia has also demanded the identities of the snipers at the Maidan demonstrations in Kiev.
In each instance, Moscow points its finger toward sinister elements in Kiev. This is likely what Putin is referring to when he complained in Sochi that the United States continues to support “open neo-fascists.”
The Kremlin also complains of the provocation that Kiev continues to steal natural gas from the pipelines that pass through Ukraine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has reportedly warned Poroshenko that the theft must stop. That the theft continues suggests Poroshenko is either complicit or powerless.
At Sochi, Vladimir Putin also made reference to the theft when he spoke of his hope that the billions that Ukraine owes Russian in unpaid natural gas can be resolved soon by European Union negotiators. Putin added ominously that, in the event the bill is unsettled and the stealing continues, “Of course, a crisis is possible, which is very undesirable for us.”
The worst provocations for Russia, however, are the ongoing violations of the ceasefire by the Kiev National Guard’s Azov, Donbass and Dnepr battalions. Future war crimes investigations are likely to focus on these National Guard units, especially the Azov Battalion, and their enablers both in Kiev and beyond Ukraine’s borders. Of special concern to the rebel forces are the Donestk airport and the cities of Slovyansk and Mariupol, where fighting has never ceases despite the ceasefire.
The Kremlin believes that the Kiev National Guard is trying to provoke Russia to an open conflict that would break the hard-won ceasefire. Moscow is keeping its military options at close hand in case of catastrophe. NATO Commander General Breedlove complained recently that the Russian military remains deployed not only inside Ukraine but also fielding a “large coercive force” on the Ukraine border.
In all, these serial provocations of Russia and of the Russian interests in Ukraine’s Donbass region have moved the Kremlin very far toward responding more belligerently than it has to date.
Russia expert Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of history at New York University, often remarks that there is a hawkish faction in the Kremlin that wants Putin to quit the half-measures and take all of Ukraine under Moscow’s control in order to end the crimes by the “neo-fascists.” In Moscow, Lavrov hinted at the voices of the hawkish faction around Putin when he commented about how the Kremlin sees U.S. conduct in the Ukraine crisis.
“The United States is interested not in the peaceful settlement of the conflict in Ukraine,” said Lavrov, “but in using this country as an irritant in the relations between Russia and Europe and as an excuse to put Russia in its place.”