RUMORS OF WAR
Is Ukraine Just About to Blow?
Countless omens signal a new war on its way, from troop movements to Russia’s ‘August Curse.’ But this time they may be more smoke than fire.
On Wednesday the FSB, the successor organization to the KGB, declared that it had prevented “terrorist attacks” in Crimea over the weekend.
According to the security service, an FSB agent was killed in a firefight with saboteurs on Saturday night near Russian-occupied Armyansk, a town close to the frontier with mainland Ukraine. Several Russian and Ukrainian citizens were arrested, the report claims, and a cache of explosives and weapons was discovered.
According to the FSB, some of the weaponry, which included improvised explosive devices and magnetic mines, belongs to Ukrainian special forces units. A Ukrainian citizen from Zaporizhia, one Yevgeny Panov, allegedly an agent of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR), was detained and is supposedly confessing to his captors.
On Sunday night, the FSB claimed that Ukrainian special forces made two attempts to cross the frontier under cover of “massive fire” from Ukrainian troops and armored vehicles. A Russian soldier reportedly was killed.
This information, although not independently verified, may track with rumors circulating earlier this week of Russian military patrols roving around in the north of Crimea, with some witnesses saying that they have heard sporadic gunfire. An “informed source” meanwhile told Rosbalt, a Russian news site, that there had been a clash on the frontier on Sunday night, likely the event that the FSB now frames as a terrorist incursion by Ukrainian commandos.
Kiev denies all reports of fighting on the frontier or incursions into Russian-occupied Crimea. But Vladimir Putin is furious—or pretending to be. He says that “Kiev is not searching for paths to negotiations, but is moving to terror. From the Russian side, during the course of preventing terrorist attacks in Crimea, two soldiers died, we cannot pass this by.”
For the better part of a year, the war in Ukraine, has been “frozen but oven-ready,” as former NATO press officer Ben Nimmo once put it, with regular upticks in violence and provocations not quite leading to full-scale melt-downs.
That changed over the last week, however, with whispers inside Ukraine and among the foreign press corps that another big clash may be in the final stages of preparation with the locus of unusual activity in, yes, Crimea. Tatar activists on the peninsula noted that Russian military hardware had been moving towards the northern towns of Dzhankoy and Armyansk, near the frontier with Ukrainian-controlled territory.
At the same time, verifiable video evidence emerged of large quantities of Russian military hardware on the move in the south of Crimea.
Columns of armored personnel carriers, military ambulances, fuel tankers, trucks, signals and engineering vehicles have been recorded in the port town of Kerch— which handles ferry arrivals from Russia. They have also been spotted in the Crimean regional capital of Simferopol, and outside a military training range near the southern town of Feodosia.
In Sevastopol, RFE/RL’s Crimean Service filmed the Mirazh, a Nanuchka-class missile corvette, at anchor in the bay. Incidentally, it was the Mirazh that sank a Georgian coastal patrol boat exactly eight years ago today.
According to the report, checkpoints have been set up around the peninsula. At one such roadblock outside Simferopol, the report describes Russian traffic cops and troops from the Russian Interior Ministry stopping buses, checking drivers’ documents and peering through passenger windows.
Meanwhile, there are also reports from northern Crimea that Internet services have been out of action, and may not be restored until August 10. Areas without service include Dzhankoy and Armyansk, prompting suspicion that communications have been purposefully cut by the occupying regime for purposes as yet unknown.
Oleh Slobodyan, an adviser to the head of the Ukrainian State Border Service, reported last night that border guards had indeed observed a “high level of activity from Russian armed forces near the administrative border. On six occasions we observed flights of Russian military helicopters and, on one occasion, an unmanned aerial vehicle.” Slobodyan said that Russian troops had used searchlights to light up Ukrainian positions.
In response, Ukraine has deployed additional troops and military hardware to the Kherson region, adjacent to the administrative border with Crimea.
Adding to the unease, the Kerch city administration posted a brief announcement on Monday, requesting tourists refrain from traveling to Crimea in the coming days. According to the announcement, the Kerch ferry is overloaded with tourists, who may well be arriving for summer holidays albeit with less-than-savory company, namely the Night Wolves biker gang—Putin’s own state-blessed Hells Angels who played a symbolic role in the lead-up to the 2014 annexation of the peninsula when they drove through the peninsula on a wave of anti-Maidan agitprop.
Over the weekend, huge queues reportedly formed at crossing points on the frontier while the occupying security forces closed one of the three checkpoints. But by this morning, all routes were supposed to be open to traffic again.
In Donbas, the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, where Russia’s other military incursion has been much bloodier than that in Crimea, the situation also has heated up, with July going on record as the deadliest war month in almost a year.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s administration counted 42 soldiers killed and 181 wounded. Violence is recrudescent mainly in southern parts of the region, near the city of Starohnativka, a key flash point during last summer’s major campaign, but the majority of attacks are taking place around several other locations, with focus alternating between them. On Monday night Shyrokyne, on the Azov Sea coast east of Mariupol, saw particularly intense shelling, with the Ukrainian military reporting more than 200 artillery and mortar rounds raining down on Monday night.
Fighting also rages every night around several other hot spots, chiefly Novotroitske, on the highway between Mariupol and Donetsk; Maryinka and Krasnohorivka, west of the separatist-held regional capital; Avdiivka—to the north; and Zaitseve and Luhanske, to the north and east of Horlivka.
Heavy artillery and mortars are in play every day, and there are also reports, confirmed by journalists and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has a monitoring mission on the ground tasked with recording ceasefire violations, of the use of inaccurate, but wildly destructive Grad rockets.
Artillery and rockets are falling not only on the Ukrainian military, but on civilians on both sides of the front line, with at least one wounded every day and deaths reported each week.
Amid all this, there are mixed signals from Ukrainian officials.
On Sunday, Col. Andriy Lysenko, military spokesman for Ukraine’s Presidential Administration, declared that the Ukrainian armed forces expected a new offensive at any time, possibly within the next week.
Lysenko said that heavy military equipment could be seen maneuvering across the entire front line.
In contrast, Anton Gerashchenko, MP and adviser to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, told reporters:
“I can say openly that we do not anticipate war or attack by the Russian Federation on Ukraine in the near future. Putin has realized that continuing a military occupation of Ukraine does not bring the anticipated results for him. Putin’s strategy relies on bargaining with Ukraine over the return of Donbas provided that we abandon all attempts to ever regain Crimea.”
Ukrainian military intelligence—now accused by the FSB of plotting sabotage—is rather sanguine about the movements in occupied Crimea. On Monday Vadim Skibitsky, spokesman for Ukraine’s GUR, told Ukrainska Pravda that the movements seen in Crimea were preparations for the Kavkaz-2016 exercise, an annual drill in Russia’s southern military district. This would correspond with the sightings of convoys headed to the training range near Feodosia.
Skibitsky did note, however, that such preparations could be used to mask mobilization for attacks, was done when the same exercise was held on the eve of Russia’s 2008 summer war with Georgia.
Skibitsky also said that troops were being deployed in the Dzhankoy area, but that this was a planned rotation of forces. Such rotations of units take place every six months, he said.
One of the units filmed driving armored personnel carriers through Kerch seemingly supports this analysis. Dr. Igor Sutyagin, a Russian military expert at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, told The Daily Beast that he recognized the insignia of the 127th Reconnaissance Brigade, a unit formed last year in Sevastopol.
So what is actually going on?
While the last month in Donbas has certainly seen a more sustained level of violence and death, it is hard to gauge when a “watershed moment” comes in the war.
So far this year we have seen Ukrainian troops make marginal advances near all of the locations named above. We have seen increased deployments of anti-aircraft weaponry by Russian forces, and a new willingness to shoot down OSCE drones with them. We have even seen reports that indicate the introduction of armed drones by Russia, which made several attacks on Ukrainian positions behind the lines, but have not been spotted for several months now.
So is the current, more sustained surge in violence an indicator of anything to come, or just another wave of fighting that will subside like previous ones? And what are Putin’s options in not letting the death of two Russian soldiers “pass”?
On the other front with Crimea, the movement of Russian troops and hardware is certainly a threatening display of force, and these assets would indeed add to the pressure on Ukrainian forces in the event of an all-out Russian offensive. But it’s still unlikely that Russia would try to invade mainland Ukraine from across the isthmus.
With only a small land bridge connecting the peninsula to the mainland and few crossing points across the lagoons of the Syvash, it would be difficult for Russia to mount an invasion here without a serious commitment of air and sea power.
Russia is already close to a year into a mainly aerial campaign in Syria, where Turkish-backed rebels have recently gained ground in Aleppo, breaking a month-long siege of the eastern part of the city in spite of intense Russian sorties to hold it. Moreover, several elite military units involved in the Crimea takeover in 2014, such as 810th Marine Brigade, have been deployed to Syria from Sevastopol. Would they now be recalled to their home base?
An amphibious assault into Ukraine from the peninsula—Russian armored personnel carriers fitted with snorkels have been filmed on the move—is another possibility, but the Ukrainian military has had nearly two and a half years to reinforce the frontier.
Moscow needn’t invade Ukraine again to harm it, however. These military maneuvers in Crimea, and suspect FSB reports of “terrorism,” still count as a form of psychological warfare designed to hurt Ukraine’s already bruised and battered economy, and perhaps also force Kiev into making a dangerous mistake that might cost it further. The worst would be reacting to a provocation in such a way that Russia can plausibly present itself as the victim rather than the aggressor.
The Russians have made extensive use of psy-ops throughout the conflict, hand in hand with a massive propaganda campaign. Measures include the mass distribution of SMS messages to whole districts on the eve of battle, spreading panic and confusion, or the dissemination of HD videos of Ukrainian captives being abused and their corpses being desecrated.
Then again, August is the cruelest month in Russian history. It was in August 2014 that Russian regular forces mounted a large-scale invasion of Donbas to prop up their faltering proxies. Before that, from the outbreak of World War I in 1914, through the failed coup d’état in Moscow in 1991, the 1998 financial crisis, the beginning of the 1999 Second Chechen War, the Kursk submarine disaster in 2000, to the 2008 summer war with Georgia, with dozens of terrorist attacks and natural disasters to boot, many Russians believe in the phenomenon of an “August curse.” And one wonders if superstition can give way to self-fulfilling prophecy.
It is possible, for instance, as a result of all the heightened anxiety, to conceive of Ukrainian commanders overreacting to troop movements at the Crimean frontier or shelling attacks in Donbas. (The Georgians made this miscalculation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, after all.) Russian-backed forces could always mount “retaliatory” attacks or grant the Kremlin the opportunity to decry Ukrainian “aggression” and go to war under the pretext of self-defense or “humanitarian” urgency, perhaps unilaterally deploying “peacekeeping” forces.
The geopolitical situation at present also doesn’t bode well for Ukraine. Many of Kiev’s most stalwart defenders are either out of office, such as Carl Bildt and Radek Sikorski, the former foreign ministers of Sweden and Poland, respectively, or are moving on to other postings, such as the tireless U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt.
And Europe seems both exhausted with Kiev’s sluggish pace of reforms as well preoccupied with larger and more immediate concerns, such as the migrations crisis, the rise of far-right political elements within their own borders, jihadist terrorism, Brexit, and the possibility of further withdrawals from the EU.
Rapprochement with Moscow is everywhere occurring, from Ankara to London to Washington—at least where Syria is concerned. (The current lame-duck commander-in-chief, whose predecessor dealt with the Georgia crisis with months left into his second term, is in no discernible mood to leave office in a state of renewed confrontation with his Russian counterpart.) In Brussels, the desire to let bygones be bygones and lift sanctions on Russian officials and institutions in order to return to a status quo ante of commercial trade and foreign direct investment is profoundly felt.
Into this air of disillusionment stalks a certain U.S. presidential candidate who openly flatters Putin and has intimated that recognizing Crimea as Russian Federation territory (because he’s heard that Crimeans want it to be so) and lifting all punitive economic measures for its seizure might be part of his administration’s foreign policy objectives.
With the Olympics still on in Rio, and Donald Trump still on television, who’d even notice or care if a short little war broke out again in Europe?