Among Russia watchers, the month of August has become somewhat notorious. Rare is the year that goes by without an eventful August. Sometimes the chaos is internal (the wildfires of 2010 and 2012), while other years the events are external (2008’s Russia-Georgia War comes to mind).
This year, another August surprise seems increasingly possible. The Ukrainian territories that have been occupied by Russia since 2014 are taking their turn in the spotlight. While violence in the east of the country—the so-called Lugansk and Donetsk Peoples Republics—has begun to ramp up considerably, the past days have seen worrisome developments in Russian-annexed Crimea.
The circumstances are still somewhat murky, but it seems clear that some kind of incident occurred on the Russian-occupied side of the Crimean border that resulted in the death of two Russian service members. While the events occurred over the weekend, they did not fully escalate until a few days later. The Russians have accused Ukraine of crossing that border—into what is de jure Ukrainian land—and committing “terrorist acts” that “we will not let pass idly by.”
The Organization for Security and Cooperation's monitoring mission could not “confirm media reports of security incidents involving shooting or military activities” in northern Crimea, and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt has written that the United States “government has seen nothing so far that corroborates Russian allegations.”
The Ukrainian government has responded with a blanket denial of involvement in any activity in Crimea, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has warned that “these fantasies are just a pretext for new military threats against Ukraine.” He has ordered Ukrainian forces along the Crimean border to full combat readiness; in the past weeks, Russia has been building up its military assets in northern Crimea and heavy equipment has been seen coming into the peninsula and moving northward. As a response to the alleged Ukrainian incursion into Crimea, the Russian Navy has also launched exercises in the Black Sea
Despite the increased military tensions, the tenor of Vladimir Putin’s statements on the issue suggest that a full-scale military incursion into mainland Ukraine is not likely. Rather, he seemed eager to use the Crimean events—whatever they were—to kill the Minsk negotiations, which were designed to bring an end to the conflict in the east of Ukraine, saying that any further meetings of the Normandy Group (Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany) “in these situations” would be “senseless.”
Directing his comments not to Ukrainians, but to “our American and European partners,” Putin said that “I think that it is already evident to everyone that those in power in Kyiv today do not seek to resolving the problem through negotiations, but are instead resorting to terror.”
This tone, coupled with Putin’s repeated condemnation of the Ukrainian government as illegitimate (language that has not been used in some time), likely represents a Russian desire to cast blame for the entire situation in Eastern Europe—including the sanctions that have prevented European companies from working and investing in Russia—on “stupid and criminal” Kyiv.
Western patience with the Ukrainian government’s glacial pace of reforms has certainly evaporated over past months, and the Kremlin is not unaware of the frustrations that many have with President Poroshenko. Putin is likewise aware of the growing desire of many European nations to normalize relations with Russia, and remove the sanctions on Russia that have persisted since the annexation of Crimea in March 2014.
The Minsk II agreement has been moribund for some time, and despite the fact that it was Russian aggression which began the conflict more than two years ago, Moscow has persisted in blaming the Ukrainians for the slow implementation. Now, should Russia succeed in portraying Ukraine—rather than Russia—as the problem creator, that beleaguered nation may come to find itself increasingly friendless and, even worse, potentially excluded from future negotiations about its border and its future. Stay tuned.
With special thanks to interns Asya Akca and Joshua Rooney.