The increased concentration of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine has caused serious unrest within NATO. The question was raised loud and clear: will Russia decide to launch another military invasion? The withdrawal of the troops, although it temporarily calmed the general staff on the eastern flank, did not invalidate the doubts as to the reality of the Russian threat. Was it just a warning shot that will end in invasion next time?
A Russian provocation?
In March, restlessness in the capitals of NATO member states was raised by a field camp in the Voronezh region, where troops were drawn from all over Russia. On March 30, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, General Ruslan Khomchak, announced that 28 Russian battalion tactical groups were stationed along the Ukrainian border and in the occupied territories and that a military camp was also established in Crimea. Additionally, tensions increased in the Black Sea: in March, the ships of the Black Sea Fleet entered combat duty for an unspecified purpose, and in April, the transfer of 10 ships from the Caspian Flotilla was reported. Russia also revealed its plans to close a part of the Black Sea to the shipping of warships and foreign units for six months.
Some experts reassured that the scale of the maneuvers of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation did not significantly exceed the exercise program observed in previous years. Moreover, it was argued that the Kremlin could launch a dangerous offensive without deploying additional troops and weapons. The ostentatious nature of Russia’s actions intensified the impression that it was merely a provocation and a demonstration of force.
In his speech on April 20, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, declared that the Ukrainian army was ready for all possible scenarios. Two days later, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu announced that the soldiers were returning to their units and that the goals set for the army during the unannounced readiness test were “fully achieved” (although he did not specify them himself).
However, the maneuver declared by Shoygu can hardly be called an actual withdrawal of troops. According to the Centre for Eastern Studies, the retreat concerned only approx. 10% of the total forces used as part of the readiness test of the Russian Armed Forces, while for the remaining outfits, the border and occupied territories are their permanent deployment areas. According to various estimates, around 120,000-150,000 Russian soldiers are stationed there. The troops returning to their districts left their weapons behind, stored at the border with Ukraine.
Another goal was to expose the support declared to Ukraine by EU countries as empty promises. The Kremlin has drawn positive conclusions which have been confirmed by the slogan used by the Russians: no one will fight for Ukraine. According to Russian propaganda, the „collective West” is too weak to take the risk of military intervention. Joe Biden invited Putin to meet, which was interpreted by the Kremlin-friendly media as an expression of fear of Russian power: as in the past, two great empires are to decide the fate of the world as equals.
Such a narrative is used by Russian rulers for domestic politics, which in recent months has been a series of uncomfortable challenges that I wrote about two months ago in our pages: crisis caused by the pandemic, economic stagnation, the arrest of Alexei Navalny, a decline in support for United Russia, including the upcoming autumn Duma elections. Ukraine can successfully play the role of a red herring that will allow the public to focus on external policy.
In his April address to the Federal Assembly, Putin complained that the international community was unfoundedly “picking on” Russia. „We don’t want to burn bridges, but if anyone wants to burn them, they should know that Russia’s response will be swift, asymmetrical and harsh.” The Russian leader is using his own „justifiable intimidation” method. For now, fortunately, his threats are as symbolic as his gestures to support European states.
Zelenskyy looks for international support
Would Ukraine be able to resist? In his speech on April 20, Zelenskyy argued that today’s Ukraine is radically different from that of 2014. Over the 20 years of its existence, the country has gradually reoriented towards the West, gaining independence from Russia. Although comparing the military capabilities of both countries may not bring surprising conclusions, Ukraine gives clear signals that it is better prepared than Georgia in 2008. Over the last 7 years, the US has provided Ukraine with military aid worth around $2 billion, including two batches of Javelin missiles. Even Russian experts fear that a large-scale military invasion of Ukraine may take the scenario of an extremely unpopular, bloody and long-lasting war in Chechnya.
At the same time, Zelenskyy does not want to repeat the fate of the then president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, whose doom was that he was forced to act alone. He constantly puts pressure on the international community, arguing that the only real way to end the conflict in Donbas is his country’s accession to NATO.
Is that even possible? Much depends on the largest member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Even though Ukraine and the US maintain active diplomatic contacts (US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kyiv on May 6), Joe Biden still postpones the meeting with the Ukrainian president. The new American president in his speeches presented sharper rhetoric towards the Kremlin than his predecessor, but in action, he turns out to be just as pragmatic as written by Andrzej Kohut on our website. To alleviate the feeling of indifference, the US Department of Defense announced that the United States would provide Ukraine with a support package worth $ 125 million. The Ukrainian government’s hopes are also sustained by Lithuania, which has promised to create a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Kyiv, which would allow the country to join NATO.
The main factor pushing Ukraine towards closer cooperation with the US is the ineffectiveness of negotiations in the Normandy Group format (Germany, France, Ukraine, Russia). Zelenskiy’s consent to the formula proposed by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, intended to regulate the status of Donbas, was perceived by many as Ukraine’s capitulation to Russia. It means the breakdown of Ukraine’s integrity and the loss of control over the occupied territory to the local authorities. According to critics, the formula did not guarantee that the elections in Donbas would be held to international standards.
The stalemate around the Minsk agreements concerns not only the status of the separatist republics and the technical aspects of holding elections there but also the cardinal difference in identifying the parties to the dispute. The Kremlin interprets the conflict as a Ukrainian civil war and prefers the format of a Tripartite Contact Group that involves the self-proclaimed leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) in the negotiations.
Allowing the authorities of the separatist republics to legitimize and leaving a gap for Moscow to enforce the federalization of Ukraine would mean repeating the mistakes of Moldova or Georgia. Meanwhile, any attempt to revise the Minsk agreements is sabotaged by Moscow, such as the implementation of the provisions in the so-called clusters that focus on agreeing to the order of implementation of the points of agreement that Kyiv and Moscow perceive differently. The new plan presented by Ukraine was disparagingly commented on by Russia’s deputy foreign minister Andrei Rudenko: “What peace plan? We know nothing of a peace plan proposed by France and Germany.”
At the moment, the smoldering conflict seems to Moscow a more desirable state than another annexation. A full-blown war against a fraternal nation may not be an attractive solution for Putin: it would bring further sanctions on him and, with little likelihood, would cause a euphoria similar to the so-called Crimean effect (a large increase in the president’s support after the annexation of the peninsula). At this point, not only Donbas is a bargaining chip in talks with Kyiv, but the whole of Ukraine as well. Unfortunately, not wanting to provoke further aggressive behavior by Moscow, Western leaders will most likely turn a blind eye to possible violations of human rights or democratic standards in areas that Russia considers to be within its sphere of influence.
Putin feels he is losing Ukraine
Putin has repeatedly said that Russians and Ukrainians are one nation. He threatened that if Kyiv joined NATO, it might cease to exist. For the Kremlin, the Euromaidan was a coup d’état, and the annexation of Crimea – a convenient opportunity to launch an anti-Russian campaign. Therefore, Zelenskyy’s decision to impose sanctions on Taras Kozak, deputy of the Ukrainian Supreme Council, and to close his pro-Russian TV channels, is no surprise.
Ukraine is becoming more and more resistant to the control mechanisms applied by the Kremlin. The economic pressure used by Moscow during the Orange Revolution has diminished. Since 2015, Ukraine has not imported any gas from Russia directly. The Russian gas it purchases comes from European countries, partly under the so-called virtual reverse with Poland. The leader in the list of Ukraine’s trade partners since last year has been China. The modernization and training of the army are to prevent further territories from sharing the fate of Crimea.
Among the numerous anti-Russian gestures, it is worth mentioning the imposition of sanctions on the oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk – Putin’s friend, one of the leaders of the pro-Russian party, Opposition Platform For Life. In March, sanctions were also imposed on Viktor Yanukovych and his entourage. Moreover, Ukraine’s new security strategy emphasizes that the aggressive policy of the Russian Federation is undoubtedly the main threat to the country’s security.
Pro-European sentiments still prevail in Ukraine: 59% of Ukrainians support the country’s accession to the European Union. At the same time, however, Zelenskyy’s electorate begins to doubt the driving force of the ruling team: 74% of Ukrainian respondents say that the country’s affairs are going the wrong way. The president can no longer remain in abeyance waiting for the West to lend a helping hand. Time plays to the advantage of the Ukrainian army, which increases its defense capabilities, but the progressive de-Ukrainianization of Donbas postpones the prospect of unifying it with Ukraine. Russia gave out around 500,000 Russian passports to the inhabitants of the occupied territories, and Ukrainian was deprived of the status of the state language there.
If the Kremlin fails to bring Kyiv to heel with economic pressure, hybrid warfare and threats, the next step may involve military escalation. In a resolution of April 29, members of the European Parliament agreed that in the event of an invasion of Ukraine, the EU must react with severe sanctions. However, this will require the unanimity of the member states, which will be difficult due to their divergent interests in relations with Russia.
What can Poland do?
What is worrying is the fact that Volodymyr Zelenskyy has omitted Poland, which is a natural ally in the fight against the Kremlin, in his proposal to expand the Normandy format. However, it should be borne in mind that the decision on the makeup of this group also belongs to Russia, with whom we do not have the best relations.
Initiated in 2009 also by Poland, the Eastern Partnership (EaP) has achieved many goals in various areas: supporting civil society, political association, opening access to EU markets for our eastern partner. Ukrainians can now also travel to the EU without visas. Although the EaP can be credited with an important contribution to increasing Ukraine’s independence from Russia, it does not respond to the most important issues: security and territorial disputes. It also does not provide a specific, uniform strategy for Ukraine’s joining the EU, which is why Kyiv perceives it as secondary.
Despite unresolved historical issues, bilateral relations between Poland and Ukraine are getting better. It is worth deepening the pragmatic cooperation with our neighbors that would offer a response to their contemporary needs. One area to focus on is the integration of gas markets. We are one of the unequivocally anti-Russian countries and – as Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau argued during his last visit to Kyiv – we are constantly working to strengthen the EU’s sanctions towards Russia. Poland is also opening talks about the possibility of including Ukraine in the Three Seas Initiative projects and provides practical assistance in reforming the security sector in line with Western standards.
So far, Lithuania has been leading in the efforts to admit Ukraine to NATO, but during Zelenskyy’s visit to Warsaw in May, Polish support for the presentation of a „roadmap” enabling our neighbor to join the Alliance was also resounded. The most important issue for Ukraine is military security; therefore, if we want to be a reliable partner, we must strongly support its efforts to join NATO.
Polish version is available here.
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Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2021”. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.