“We should not let Mr. Zelenskyy and his team off the hook, but let them twist [wriggle, squirm] there,” Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov recently told reporters (RIA Novosti, April 28). This is Mr. Lavrov’s own style of signaling to Ukraine that Russia holds the commanding position to set the agenda of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s ardently sought meeting with his Kremlin counterpart, President Vladimir Putin.
While the tensions created by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s massing of military forces on Ukraine’s eastern border have temporarily abated, the uncertainty and apprehension continue. Where do things stand at present?
Behind the intensive diplomatic activity of recent weeks, posturing and probing by all the actors involved have continued. On the surface no visible changes in the status quo have occurred, but in fact there are signs that new nuances and dynamics have been introduced with potentially significant implications.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has ordered Russian troops to start returning to their permanent bases following extensive military drills in annexed Crimea that heightened tensions with the West over Moscow’s major military buildup near Ukraine.
“I believe the objectives of the snap inspection have been fully achieved. The troops have demonstrated their ability to provide a credible defense for the country,” Mr. Shoigu was quoted as saying on April 22 by the RIA news agency.
On April 16, in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in person and with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who joined by video-link midway through the conversation.
The three leaders’ shared goal at this juncture is to defuse the perceived threat of Russian military action against Ukraine. The Kremlin has orchestrated this war scare by concentrating massive forces near Ukraine’s borders and in occupied Crimea, with high publicity and dire rhetorical threats. The aim is to intimidate Ukraine into compliance with the 2015 Minsk “agreements” and have Berlin and Paris ratify that compliance through the quadripartite Normandy process (Russia, Ukraine, Germany, France).
The international community has focused on Moscow’s buildup of forces on land adjoining Ukraine, concerned that such a concentration of Russian military power will be used against its neighbor (see EDM, April 8, 15, 19). But as Moscow routinely insists, it has the right to shift its forces about on its own territory. In its view, these units would only be a problem if the Russian government were to send them across the border. In contrast, in the waters off Ukraine, Russia, by its latest actions, is already in violation of international law: Moscow has announced that it is unilaterally closing the Kerch Strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov to naval vessels of Ukraine and other countries until the end of October (RIA Novosti, April 16).
Putting military pressure on Ukraine could have seemed to the Russian leadership to be the most practical way to assert Moscow’s central role in international affairs. The standard working assumption in the Kremlin is that facing a risk of violent conflict, the disunited West would become attentive to Russian grievances and demands and opt for a compromise.
The Russian Ministry of Defense announced on April 13 that Moscow is sending 15 naval vessels from its Caspian Flotilla to waters off Ukraine to take part in military exercises there. Earlier, Russian and Ukrainian media had reported stories about a smaller number. Although the vessels must pass through a 100-kilometer-long canal with more than 13 locks, they will likely be able to arrive before other ships, sent from Russia’s Baltic Fleet, make it to the Black Sea basin.
The current escalation of tensions around eastern Ukraine is dangerous and may appear untimely and inopportune while Europe and Russia seek to focus on managing the latest COVID-19 pandemic wave as well as addressing its accumulating economic and social consequences. Nevertheless, a deliberate political choice is dictating the uptick in violence in the Donbas war zone, raising the risk of renewed major military conflict.
Train convoys of heavy Russian military equipment, seen on multiple videos on social media, reportedly shipping from Siberia to the border regions of Ukraine. The Kerch Strait Bridge to the occupied Crimean Peninsula shut down briefly, apparently for a major shipment of weaponry.