A major Russian military dislocation on the Ukrainian border and on the Crimean peninsula has increased tension in the east of the European country, prompting the West to commit to supporting Kiev in the event of an assault on Moscow.
On Monday, as the European Union joined the United States in pledging “unwavering support” to the Ukrainians, one of the separatist leaders in the Donbass region said “war is inevitable”.
That was the threat launched in an interview with Denis Puchilinin, who commands one of the region’s 2 self-proclaimed People’s Republics, Donetsk – the other is based in the city of Lugansk. Both are predominantly ethnic Russian and supported by Moscow.
In 2014, after the overthrow of the government backed by President Vladimir Putin in Kiev, Russia annexed Crimea, which is otherwise a historically Russian region. The next step was to destabilize the Donbass in a frozen civil war that killed more than 13,000 people.
Since the start of the year, there are signs that the conflict could worsen again. With a loss of popularity, Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelenski has come under pressure to assert himself more in the region and increased the presence of troops on the 500 km border between his country and the area occupied by the separatists.
Conflicts have also intensified, with skirmishes killing 20 Ukrainian soldiers and an uncertain number of rebels since the start of the year. There was a bombardment of separatist positions.
In the middle of last week, Russian social networks began broadcasting videos of large movements of tanks and armored trains on the Ukrainian border and also in Crimea, already heavily militarized with advanced equipment since its annexation. .
The Russian Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol, on the peninsula, and has faced great activity from NATO (Western Military Alliance) in these waters, which are Russia’s exit route to the Mediterranean, across the Turkish Strait. .
On Friday (2), President Joe Biden called Zelenski to support him in the event of an assault. The Democrat has taken a hard line with Putin since taking office in January, calling for sanctions and even calling the Russian leader a killer.
The American command in Europe has raised its military alert to its maximum.
In practice, support for Ukraine is limited, as the country is not part of NATO or the European Union. But Russian analysts noted that US C-17 cargo planes have started flying from the German base in Ramstein in Kiev.
Theoretically, they are taking equipment for a military exercise with the Ukrainians, but the situation calls for caution. Everything is seen as signaling on the other side.
Russia has yet to say why it came, but it has. In addition to not denying the concentration of troops, according to US intelligence, at least 4,000 additional soldiers on the border bases, Moscow finally raised the issue on Monday.
Vice-Chancellor Sergei Riabkov told Russian agencies that the country “is doing what is necessary” and that he is not concerned about signals coming from the West. In contrast, he asserted that the movement of troops was not a harbinger of military action and that he was in direct contact with the United States on the crisis.
As most analysts furthest from the heat of contention say, there is no reason to think either side wants war.
In the Ukrainian case, for an existential reason. Although it has increased its forces with 33 new military units at the rebel borders, this is not enough to take control of the territory – even with material left behind by NATO in past joint exercises, Kiev has not still this force.
“Make no mistake: militarily, Moscow can easily take the Donbass if it wants to,” said analyst Ekaterina Zolotova of the American consultancy firm Geopolitical Futures.
“But attaching 50-150 km of territory does not add more strategic depth than it already does with the frozen conflict. So Moscow has no problem recognizing Donbass as part of Ukraine, as long as ‘they are autonomous,’ he said.
Here is another quote from Riabkov: that he sought to make the United States understand the need for a definitive implementation of the Minsk agreements.
Signed in 2014 to end the war, they failed and got a new version in 2015. The Ukrainian political establishment does not accept them because in practice they keep the rebel areas as independent, even if they are subject to Kiev.
To complicate matters, since then Russia has granted citizenship to anyone in the region, including the right to vote. A central element of Putin’s rhetoric is the protection of the Russians who remained behind their borders after the Soviet collapse of 1991, and this proved fatal in Crimea.
The Russian leader has already made it clear that he will not allow NATO and the European Union to absorb Ukraine or Belarus, countries that serve as strategic shields against invasions, as well as export routes. of hydrocarbons.
Military exercises are a constant in Russia and Ukraine, but the movement is now abnormal. The European Union sees it as “a major concern,” said Josep Borrell, its foreign affairs chief, on Monday.
Thus, by signaling that it wants the Minsk texts to be implemented while demonstrating considerable military force in the region, Russia is putting pressure on Biden and Europe. The last thing anyone wants to do is test the lifestyles with a country armed with almost half the world’s nuclear bombs.