14 August 2016

*** Signs of Trouble in Ukraine Prompt Question: What’s Vladimir Putin Up To?

AUG. 11, 2016

WASHINGTON — Russia is conducting a series of military and rhetorical escalations toward Ukraine that have anxious Western analysts once again looking for clues as to President Vladimir V. Putin’s next move.

On Wednesday, Russia’s state security agency, the F.S.B., claimed that it had blocked an attack on Crimea by “sabotage-terrorist groups” sponsored by the Ukrainian government, though two Russian soldiers were killed.

Mr. Putin accused the Ukrainian government of using terrorism to incite conflict over Crimea, which has been heavily militarized since Russia annexed it from Ukraine in 2014. He warned ominously, “We obviously will not let such things slide by.”

Russia has increased its military presence in and around Crimea, adding to fears that Moscow might be planning another military intervention in Ukraine. But while Mr. Putin is nothing if not unpredictable, analysts say this may be about Russia seeking diplomatic leverage rather than prepping for war.

What is actually happening in Crimea?

There are two sets of overlapping events, both shrouded in mystery: the supposed recent attack on Crimea and Russia’s buildup there.

The official Russian account lays out the first as follows: It began late on Saturday, when F.S.B. officers discovered a group of saboteurs just on the Crimean side of the land border with Ukraine. A firefight ended with one F.S.B. officer killed and several of the saboteurs captured. Then on Monday, Ukrainian special forces attempted to cross into Crimea, killing one Russian soldier in what the agency called “massive firing” over the border.

The Russian media later cited government sources as saying the captured saboteurs were Crimean residents who had confessed to planning attacks on local tourist facilities. Moscow insists that Ukraine sponsored the plot.Continue reading the main story

It’s difficult to judge the truth of these claims. Ukraine denies them, and both the United States and the European Union say Russia has provided no evidence. An open-source analysis group, the Digital Forensic Research Lab, found some indications of a firefight on Saturday, but little to back up Moscow’s grander claims. Russia has been known to distort or misstate events to serve political ends, particularly within the fog of Ukraine’s still-ongoing conflict.

That doesn’t mean that Russia’s claims are all false. Ukrainian militias last year sabotaged electricity pylons that power Crimea, and some of them are involved in criminal activity and human rights violations. An attempted attack in Crimea is not out of the question, though there is little reason to suspect the Ukrainian government would sponsor such a plot.

Whatever happened, images found by open-source analysts suggest that Russia has been escalating its military presence in Crimea since at least Saturday — before the supposed attack occurred. These show convoys of heavy weapons moving on the peninsula, including missile systems intended for coastal defense.

A disturbingly familiar Russian escalation

Some reports indicate that Russia’s troops in Crimea were already scheduled for a new rotation about now, which would help explain the activity, though it would be quite a coincidence that this just happened to fall during some of the highest tensions since the 2014 annexation.

Whatever transpired over the weekend, Mr. Putin has unquestionably escalated in his language toward Ukraine, choosing to use this episode — however real it was — for some larger aim.

Analysts have pointed out disturbing parallels with how Russia behaved just before previous military actions against Ukraine.

In February 2014, similar speeches and military maneuvers provided cover for Crimean volunteer militias to seize the peninsula, then still controlled by Ukraine, only to reveal they were in fact Russian special forces launching a military occupation.

That August, as Russian-backed separatists lost ground in eastern Ukraine, Mr. Putin stationed troops along the border, warning they might be necessary to “protect” ethnic Russian civilians in Ukraine who he said were under attack. He orchestrated an aid convoy into the region that, according to NATO, was mere cover for a Russian invasion force.

What is Mr. Putin planning in Crimea?

Some have wondered whether Moscow might be plotting another intervention. Fighting has increased in eastern Ukraine, as it did before the August 2014 incursion.

But that seeming parallel may be the point, meant to create fear of military action — rather than actual action — that will give Mr. Putin leverage with Ukraine and with Western countries.

Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor who studies Russia, pointed out that Crimea would make little sense as a staging ground for military action against eastern Ukraine, which borders mainland Russia but not Crimea, and that the rest of the country is better defended.

“It’s highly unlikely that the Russians are truly planning some major offensive,” Mr. Galeotti said. Rather, “We’re looking at a classic Russian strategy of building up tension.”

International peace talks over Ukraine, once the mechanism by which Mr. Putin forced contact with Western leaders who had shunned him over annexing Crimea, have become increasingly regarded as fruitless and irrelevant.

By dangling the threat of renewed conflict, Mr. Putin gives the talks a new purpose: to coax him back from the brink.

“It’s a standard Putin tactic — he wants to try to go there from a position of strength,” Mr. Galeotti said of the next peace talks, planned for early September. “And the only real strength is to say, ‘I could make things much, much worse if I wanted to.’ ”

Positioning for a bargain with the West

Mr. Putin also said this week that it made little sense to continue negotiations amid the Crimea tensions, forcing the other parties to persuade him to come back to the table — and putting himself at the center of the process.

What does this actually get him? For one, it allows Russia to continue asserting itself as a global power, even though its economy is smaller than Australia’s. For another, it positions Moscow as having a veto over Ukraine’s sovereignty, keeping the country within some degree of Russian control.

It may also serve Mr. Putin’s long-held hopes of a grand bargain with the United States that would settle their disputes over Ukraine and Syria — on terms favorable to Moscow, naturally — as well as ending Western sanctions against Russia.

Mr. Putin has repeatedly hinted at this goal since his nation’s economy began collapsing in late 2014, due mostly to the declining value of its oil and gas exports. Since intervening in Syria last fall, he has repeatedly invited Western powers to join him in a grand coalition to fight extremists.

But Russian leaders may believe that they would need to secure such a deal before January, when President Obama will leave office. Russian officials tend to view Hillary Clinton as the likely successor and as more hostile to Moscow. Donald J. Trump, while conspicuously friendly toward Russia, is still seen as unpredictable.

But Mr. Obama is seen as “looking for resolutions, not conflicts,” Mr. Galeotti said. “So there is a sense that there’s a closing window of opportunity to get something done quickly.”

In the meantime, should no grand bargain come, Mr. Putin appears happy to keep Russia’s weaker neighbor guessing about what’s coming next.
Correction: August 11, 2016 

An earlier version of this article misstated the year that Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. It was 2014, not 2013.

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