Tension between Ukraine and Russia escalated, but then silence. The real or supposed accidents at the “border” can be a casus belli. Or not. After having taken it by force, what else could Putin want from Crimea?
The real or alleged Ukrainians saboteurs arrested by the FSB on the de facto border between occupied Crimea and the rest of Ukraine play into the hands of the Kremlin. It cannot be excluded that autonomous groups of nationalists, with or without the approval of the Ukrainian authorities, had an interest in bringing chaos in Crimea: it already happened with sabotage to the electricity line powering the peninsula . Nor it can be ruled out that FSB agents abducted Ukrainian citizens to use as scapegoats: it already happened with the Estonian border guard, Eston Kohver. At the very least, Moscow will have in his hands a couple of other prisoners to be exchanged.
If things had stopped there, it would be yet another border incident, good for negotiations and skirmishes at the level of military officers. But then Putin spoke, and this is the true alarm bell. His speech delivered just hours after the facts raised the tension at unprecedented levels. With a vocabulary never used even in the days of the Maidan, Putin said that “those who have seized power in Kiev, and still hold it, have chosen the practice of terror instead of finding a peaceful solution. We will not let this go”. So what does Putin really want?
1. Large scale invasion. It is very unlikely. It would have very little sense, especially at this time.
Despite the Western inaction, which continues to do very little to stop Putin’s revanchist policy, a war for conquering Ukraine would have a high political cost for Russia. In addition, it does not even have a real utility. Moscow currently pursued goal – to destabilize Ukraine and prevent a full alignment with the West, including the joining of NATO – is already acquired through the low intensity war in Donbass. The interest in territorial conquest, if ever there was any, died along with the Novorossija project. As well as the idea of the land corridor that would link Crimea to the separatist territories of Donbass and then to Russia. An idea perhaps never really pursued and now certainly exceeded by the more profitable (in terms of propaganda) bridge on the Strait of Kerch. Yes, Putin said that Ukraine is doing everything “to provoke a conflict“, but it is unlikely to see the Russian tanks marching towards Kiev.
2. Create a buffer zone. It would also have a high political cost for Putin, but also a sense. The current de facto border of the Crimea on the isthmus of Perekop coincides with what was just an administrative border of a region. That’s where the “little green men” stopped in the days of the forced annexation. Vital infrastructure, however, are beyond the border, in areas controlled by Kiev. The Kakhova hydroelectric power plant, in the Kherson region, supplies power to the entire network of the peninsula, while the North Crimean canal brings the water of the Dnipro in the drylands up to Kerch. Last winter groups of Ukrainian nationalists blew up the pylons, leaving the peninsula literally in the dark for weeks. The acts of sabotage, in Ukrainian territory, showed the fragility of the peninsula. When Putin said that Ukraine is playing “a very dangerous game and we will do everything to protect the infrastructure and our citizens,” he just did not specify whether he was referring only to the infrastructure on the Russian side of the “border”.
A quick and circumscribed military action to create a buffer zone to the north of the Crimea, securing power plants, water networks and pipelines, would certainly make more sense than a large scale invasion. It could also justify the arrival in recent days of dozens of armored vehicles and the new S-400 missile systems on the peninsula.
3. Ruin Minsk-2 agreements. It does not take much to blow the dying Minsk peace agreements. The negotiations have become bogged down by improbable elections in Donbass and creak every day under the continuing violations of the ceasefire. The rebound of responsibility has become a background noise that no one hears anymore. The action moved from the frontline in Donbass to the border of Crimea, generating a huge media echo: is there for all to see. Putin then seems to have hammered the last nail to the coffin of Minsk when he said that “The meeting with the Normandy group under these conditions doesn’t make sense”. It can be said that it is a goal already achieved.
Will Putin stop here? He could, also because it would be an action proportionate to the alleged aggression inflicted. The other countries of the Normandy group would have little to say, and a reset can only bring benefits to Russia. In addition, to blow up the peace table by charging all the blame to Ukraine has another purpose:
4. Discredit Ukraine and have the sanctions lifted. In his harsh speech after the arrests of the alleged saboteurs Ukrainians, Putin also addressed to the countries that have imposed sanctions on Russia. “I want to address to our American and European partners. Those who support the Kiev’s regime must decide what they want. Do they really want peace? Because, if they want it then they must exert the necessary pressure on Kiev government”, he said. It is a reversal of reality, which seeks to make Ukraine looking like the attacker: it is no longer Moscow that illegally occupies a piece of Ukraine, but Kiev to “pursue the path of terror” against Russia and the Russians. It is a narrative that the front opposing to sanctions will like, especially in Europe. However, also in the US in case Donald Trump wins the elections, as the Kremlin hopes. Another objective at hand.
5. Create a threat ahead of the Duma elections. The inhabitants of the Crimea, with their freshly printed Russian passport in hands, will vote in November for the first time in the Federation elections. Two years after the annexation, with food prices skyrocketing, a devastating economic crisis, the isolation from the rest of the world, tourism disappeared, rationing electricity and so on and so forth, the post-referendum hangover seems to be behind. And the headache remains.
Putin’s United Russia party is obviously the super favorite, with 60% of votes expected. But it can do better. A feeling of insecurity among the voters of Crimea, as the threat of terrorist attacks or acts of war, may be overshadowing all other issues and forge citizens around the only author of the annexation. And his party.
There is actually a sixth option. Namely, that all the options are on Putin’s table. In these two years of war in Ukraine, the Russian president shown to act on tactics on the fly rather than according to a strategy. How to explain otherwise the difference in treatment given to the referendum in Crimea and one in Donbass, the fate of Novorossija project – first trumpeted and then placed in the cellar along with the separatist leaders of the beginnings – or the mantra of the territorial integrity of Ukraine, a contradiction of the whole previous policy, repeated after Minsk?
It is quite possible that he has not yet decided how far to go. And he is also known by Kremlin watchers as a player who likes to leave open more options. It may be just that the meaning of the silence of the last hours.