Russian-Ukrainian tensions at the end of 2021
At the beginning of March 2021, under the pretext of preparing military exercises, Russia sent troops and equipment to the border with Ukraine and to the occupied Crimea. In November 2021, the Russian Federation is again concentrating military forces on the border with Ukraine, raising fears of a new round of armed clashes. Although this is not the first time Russia has dramatically increased the concentration of troops on its border with Ukraine, the important marker of the seriousness of the current situation was the sudden visit to Moscow by CIA head William Burns. The military build-up has raised fears of a possible Russian offensive that could extend beyond the territories in eastern Ukraine currently controlled by the Kremlin and lead to a dramatic escalation of the simmering conflict between the two countries.
Political tensions have been steadily escalating between Kyiv and Moscow. In February, Ukraine imposed sanctions on Viktor Medvedchuk connected directly to Putin and banned broadcasts by the three pro-Russian television channels owned by Medvedchuk’s ally, Taras Kozak. Vladimir Putin has hinted broadly that his patience with Kyiv is running out. Most recently in summer 2021 Putin questioned the legitimacy of Ukraine’s borders and laid bare his own imperial ambitions in his epic article. Former Russian president Dmitri Medvedev also published an article where he outlined five reasons why he believes it is “meaningless” to engage in talks with the current Ukrainian authorities. His style and vulgar language used shows the degree of Kremlin`s anger and dissatisfaction with Ukraine.
There are two main “hot” areas where Russian-Ukrainian contestation most visible: Donbas and Black-Azov seas area. Belarus became another point of potential threat for Ukraine.
Situation in the Donbas under Zelensky`s presidency
Despite of some achievements in 2019 – 2020 (mainly in humanitarian aspects) solution of conflict in Donbas is far away. There are no changes in Russia’s attitude towards Ukraine and conflict resolution. The main goal of Russia is pushing Ukrainian government to direct negotiations with representatives of occupational administrations DNR/LNR. Ukraine’s position remains firm – elections in the occupied part of Donbas should only take place in a secure environment, which means the prior withdrawal of Russian troops and the return of the eastern border under Ukrainian control. Furthermore, contrary to the Kremlin’s demands, the topic of Crimea is not off the agenda. At the same time, Ukraine cannot present realistic vision of resolution of conflict and strategy of re-integration of occupied parts of Eastern Ukraine without Kremlins readiness to solve conflict.
The main obstacles to finish conflict in Donbas are not only different approaches towards the negotiations, but mainly because of the different aims of Russia and Ukraine. For Ukraine, the end of conflict means restoration of its sovereignty, for Russia – keeping Ukraine in its ‘sphere of privilege interests’ and influence Ukrainian internal affairs. As British analyst Duncan Allan, summarize the dilemma of Minsk Agreements: “Ukraine views the Minsk Process as a chance to restore its sovereignty, whereas Russia sees it as an opportunity to curtail this sovereignty”. Domestic policy obviously plays an important role in both cases. Zelensky, even if he could accept Moscow`s deal, is limited because Ukrainian society would not accept “peace under any condition”.
The cease-fire regime in the Donbas, introduced on July 27, 2020, is in effect with systematic violations by Russian backed fighters. But since the beginning of 2021, the situation has significantly deteriorated. Russian mercenaries and snipers have become active in the region again, killing more than 40 Ukrainian soldiers since the beginning of 2021. Russia continues the practice of handing out Russian passports to residents of Donbas and already more than 650 thousand passports were distributed.
In essence, the negotiations in the Minsk format have reached a dead end, as Russia did not manage to achieve its aim to implement those on its own conditions. The main requirement of the Russian Federation for the continuation of negotiations on the Donbass is that representatives of the so-called “republics” (LNR/DNR) should be recognized as only party with which the Ukrainian military command must conduct a dialogue on the ceasefire regime and further resolve issues of a peaceful settlement.
The Normandy format is also seems will not be a platform for negotiations. As was stated by Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, with their latest actions, including the leak of confidential diplomatic correspondence, Russia is “finishing” the Normandy format of talks on Donbas settlement and undermines what’s left of international trust.
Together with growing military exercises of RF it makes more possible escalation of active fighting in the Donbas in the nearest months. Moscow can try again use favorite tactics to increase tensions and blackmail Ukraine and as a result of it get better position for negotiations. As it was summed up in the British House of Commons Report: “Russia has several probable motives for escalating tensions on the border with Ukraine, driven by regional insecurities and President Putin’s willingness to engage in power politics. Russia is using its military for coercive diplomacy, to pressure the Ukrainian Government to make concessions in the political settlements for the Donbas and to test Western allies’ resolve to come to Ukraine’s aid.”
According to the Ukrainian security services (presented in the media), this spring the DNR leadership was working on three versions of an appeal to Vladimir Putin. The first one was a request to provide military assistance to the DPR. The second was to admit the “DPR” to Russia. The third was to recognize the independence of the “DNR” and conclude a treaty of friendship and cooperation between the “DNR” and the Russian Federation. If Kremlin decided to use one of these scenario (most probably the first one) it will be easy to organize provocation and under pretext ‘to defend its own citizens and population of Donbas’ start military actions.
Russia’s goals in the potential escalation
Russia reach kind of limits in the possibilities to ‘pressure’ Ukraine but cannot accept real peace in Donbas under Ukrainian control as it will be perceived as weakness of Kremlin and personally of Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s military maneuvers have primarily political objectives.
First, Russia seeks to “reset” negotiations with the West (not only with regard to Ukraine) through its traditional military-political blackmail. Second, the Kremlin, demonstrating force, is trying to force Kyiv to be more accommodating and compliant. In this context, Moscow will again insist on “direct dialogue” with the occupation administrations of DNR/LNR, changes to the Ukrainian Constitution, elections in the occupied territories without control of the border (which de facto means legitimizing the existing occupation administrations). Third, to prevent Ukraine’s rapprochement and deeper cooperation with NATO. According to Moscow’s scenario, a settlement in the Donbas cannot proceed without at least a tacit agreement between the West and Ukraine to fix its non-aligned status.
The Black-Azov Seas area
After the annexation of Crimean peninsula by Russia in 2014, the Black Sea area has gradually turned into the hotbed of mutual NATO-Russia tensions. In this context, Russia’s supremacy in the Black Sea becomes critical for restoring its domination in Black Sea region. Such a situation indicates the clear intentions of Moscow to turn the Black Sea into its anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) zone where annexation of Crimea is presented as fait accompli. As claim Steven Blank, Russian arms build-up in the Black Sea area is clearly not just a defensive formation but an offensive one against all the other littoral states. This combined arms build-up, has generated a formidable force to deny NATO access to the Black Sea or to sympathetic partners like Georgia and Ukraine.
Most often Moscow explains its aggressive behavior together with the intensive military build-up by the threats coming from the hostile moves of NATO where the European missile defense occupies a special role. Russia employs a variety of tools to influence countries that border the Black Sea besides solely military threats – economic, political, diplomatic, media influence etc. As indicate Bugajski and Doran, Russia is using the Black Sea as a more advantageous method of revisionism than extensive land conquests. Moscow could also utilize its power and influence in the Black Sea to challenge and disrupt energy supplies via pipeline from the Caspian Basin to Europe. The Nord Stream2 and TurkStream pipeline project is a good example of how Russia is using energy ties to further its political and security interests in Europe.
The gradual increase of the NATO military infrastructure, as well as routine operations and exercises with Ukraine, shows the understanding of the Black Sea’s importance for the security of the West. NATO exercises Steadfast Defender 2021 and Sea Breeze 2021 shows NATO readiness and military mobility to counter Russian dominance in the Black Sea.
One of the main challenge for countering Russian activities that Black Sea allies and partners have a diverse range of interests and threat perceptions with respect to Russia, making it difficult to achieve consensus on a multilateral response to Russian military posturing in the absence of overt aggression. Turkish position is critical to any NATO`s response, because of Turkish naval capabilities and responsibility for the straits.
After the annexation of Crimea, the losses of the Ukrainian navy amounted to 75% of personnel, 70% of ships and key infrastructure. Russia has militarised Crimea, maintains de facto control over 75% of Ukrainian maritime space, and routinely prevent free navigation in the Black Sea (including the open use of conventional force when Russian warships seized three small Ukrainian military vessels on their way from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov in November 2018).
According to the Strategy of the Naval Forces 2035, Ukraine’s ‘mosquito fleet’ – to be created by 2025 – will be based on three types of warship: patrol, amphibious and missile boats. Mark VI and Island-class patrol boats supplied by the US already constitute the backbone of the future fleet. In June 2020, the U.S. Government notified Congress of a possible Foreign Military Sale to Ukraine of up to sixteen Mark VI patrol boats worth an estimated $600 million. Projects with the UK should cover the needs of the Ukrainian navy in terms of missile craft. The fleet is also to be equipped by Ada-class corvettes, to be jointly produced by Ukraine and Turkey.
Ukraine`s attempt to increase its security
Volodymyr Zelensky signed “The National Security Strategy of Ukraine”, on March 25, 2021. This strategy is based on three basic principles of state policy in the sphere of national security:
– Restraint – development of defense and security capabilities to inhibit the military aggression against Ukraine;
– Steadiness – the ability of the society and the state to adapt quickly to changes in the security-free environment and to maintain steel functioning, including through minimization of external and internal disruptions;
– Interaction – development of strategic relations with key foreign partners, primarily with the European Union and NATO, the USA, pragmatic cooperation with other states and international organizations on the basis of national interests of Ukraine.
It is important that the Strategy envisages a scenario in which the Russian Federation could invade the territory of Ukraine. At the same time, the document explicitly names Russia as an enemy.
Ukraine’s military strategy has been focused on comprehensive defence, with deterrence and countering threats as the main pillars. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy approved the new Strategic Defense Bulletin of Ukraine (replaces the 2015 Military Doctrine) on September 17, 2021. The Strategic Defense Bulletin was developed on the basis of the National Security Strategy of Ukraine and the Military Security Strategy of Ukraine.
The Strategic Defense Bulletin of Ukraine sets out the goal and vision of the defense force of the 2030 model, according to which the defense force is united by a single leadership and consist of professionally trained personnel, equipped with modern weapons, capable of protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, being proactive and integrated into the Euro-Atlantic security architecture.
The 2018 Law on National Security required that at least 5% of GDP should be spent on security, with 3% of the total going to defense. Economic realities, however, often mean defense spending in real terms is lower (around 2.5% of GDP). Ukraine’s 2021 defense budget is 117.6 billion hryvnia ($4.2 billion), 127 million hryvnia ($4.6 million) less than 2020’s budget.
The main directions of the Ukrainian military-political cooperation activities to ensure its security include:
- Continuation of military and diplomatic efforts aimed at preserving the sanctions regime against the Russian Federation and putting pressure on the Kremlin leadership to restore the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine;
- Further reformation of Ukrainian defense sector and cooperation with international partners and the NATO based on the received status of Enhanced Opportunities Partner in 2020.
- Ensuring the presence of NATO forces and equipment in the Black Sea to maintain stability and security level in the Azov-Black Sea region.
In 2020 the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine signed five international acts that broaden the range of international aid for the development of Ukraine’s Armed Forces capabilities, namely:
- Memorandum of Understanding between Ukraine and the UK on cooperation in development and enhancement of capabilities of the Military and Maritime Forces of the Ukrainian Army.
- Framework Military Agreement between Ukraine and the Republic of Turkey;
- Implementation of the Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of Institutional Defense Reform between Ukraine and Canada.
- The treaty between Ukraine and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on cooperation in the defense sphere;
- Memorandum of Understanding between Ukraine and the Republic of Iraq concerning military cooperation.
One of the main pillars of Ukrainian effort to neutralize Russian threat is attempt to get international support and increase sanctions on RF.
For instance, the Crimea Platform was established by President Zelensky in February 2021 to build a coordinated international effort to pressure Russia to de-occupy the Crimean Peninsula. The inaugural Summit of the Crimea Platform was held in Kyiv on August 23 with representatives of forty-six countries. Ukraine hopes to consolidate international efforts and the initiative will focus on areas such as enforcing sanctions and countering Russia’s militarisation of Crimea, as well as monitoring human rights and environmental threats.
US and NATO
It seems that Biden`s administration prefer to keep current status quo in the relations with Russia which in practice means U.S. refusal to take steps that could fundamentally challenge Kremlin and cross Russia’s red lines.
Ukraine received the status of the NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner on June 12, 2020. But the question of Ukraine`s membership in Alliance seems unrealistic in nowadays perspective. During the June 2021 NATO summit, it was formally repeated the 2008 Bucharest summit decision that NATO`s door potentially open for Ukraine. But there is no chance for it in the nearest perspective. At the same time US support for Ukraine is firm and consistent. US military assistance to Ukraine has totaled $2.5 billion since 2014, including more than $400 million in 2021. The Pentagon and Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense signed a Strategic Defense Framework for defense and security cooperation in 2021.
The UK has a crucial role to play in building up Ukraine’s military capacity, developing NATO coordination in the area and helping to deter Russian aggression. The UK and Ukraine have built a strong defence relationship in recent years. The UK and Ukraine have recently signed the Political, Free Trade and Strategic Partnership Agreement which also formalises the UK–Ukraine strategic partnership in the security and defence sphere.
British strategic documents updated in March 2021 define support to Ukraine as the basis of the UK’s policy in the region. The UK’s naval presence in the Black Sea has also been on the rise since 2014. Following the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the UK and Ukraine established a UK training mission in 2015, called Operation Orbital. Since then, the MOD says, British troops have trained over 20,000 Ukrainian Armed Forces personnel. In June 2021, British destroyer HMS Defender conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the Black Sea, which was a signal of solidarity to Ukraine which has put a spotlight on the UK’s involvement in the Black Sea and the emerging UK–Ukraine strategic defense partnership.
Ukraine and UK have agreed to implement the Ukrainian Naval Capabilities Enhancement Programme. The programme includes several projects. It envisages the development and joint production of eight fast missile warships, two of them to be built in British shipyards and the rest in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government will also purchase two refurbished British Sandown-class mine countermeasure vessels. Finally, the UK will help Ukraine build two new naval bases on the Black Sea (Ochakiv) and the Sea of Azov (Berdyansk).
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has strategic and even ontological character. Russia has no interest in a real peace for Ukraine and wants to keep the country as destabilized as possible. Putin’s speeches on many occasions highlight the continuity of his perception of Ukrainian state as impermanent, and its existence is not justified by any reasons. Because the Russian elite can`t accept the existence of an independent Ukraine (constant emphasizing of Ukraine’s full dependency, “failed state” status, disintegration, etc.), it will inevitably lead either to Ukraine being incorporated (in one form or another) into the sphere of “exclusive” Russian influence, or to the Putin`s model of authoritarian regime based on ideas of revashism and “getting up from its knees” being destroyed. In other words, the existence of an independent Ukraine is possible only if the Russian Federation undergoes a profound transformation. As at the moment there is no chance of such changes (at least in the short term perspective), the conflict between the two countries will continue, just its intensity may increase or decrease, depending on the internal situation in the Russian Federation, situation in the world and abilities of Ukraine to counteract Russian aggression.
Moreover, the Kremlin, having made Ukraine part of Russia’s domestic political agenda, cannot accept the “loss” of Ukraine or its successful reform. The Kremlin cannot allow Ukraine to develop successfully (especially after 2014), because this would mean a fiasco of Russian efforts and could become an example for opposition-minded citizens and inspire them to protest in Russia and in the whole post-Soviet space. That is why Ukraine as a ‘failed state’ or a unsuccessful case – condition for the survival of the current Kremlin elites.
The scenario of developing a constant threat of conflict escalation and pushing Ukraine into endless internal confrontation will remains the basic formula for the Russian model of “controlled chaos” in the neighboring country in the visible future.
In the perception of Kremlin, Russia is continuing to be at war with the ‘West’ and that this is a multi-domain war. This war is not a frozen conflict but a multi-theatre conflict that is highly dynamic and can be activated by Moscow in any domain that it wants, e.g. conventional escalation in Ukraine, Belarus or any other place.
Attempts of some European countries to cooperate with Moscow in the consensus mode or ‘normalize’ relations is perceiving by Kremlin as a weakness and will only provoke more aggressive actions.
EU must invest in both hard securities as well as in soft security and
governance to counteract the Russian threat and strengthen their members. This
also means blocking Russia’s energy strategies of isolating Ukraine and
corrupting European states with its energy and forcing it to sell oil and gas on a purely commercial basis, not as an
instrument of political warfare.
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Dr. Oleksii Polegkyi
Center for Public Diplomacy, Ukraine