KYIV – Relations between Ukraine and Russia hit a new low last week when Kyiv held a series of missile tests and military exercises on December 1-2 near the Kremlin-annexed peninsula of Crimea.
Kyiv had fired more than a dozen mid-range anti-aircraft missiles over the two-day period from Kherson in the south that flew as close as 30 kilometers near Crimean airspace that Moscow considers its own, yet is not internationally recognized.
Even though Ukraine had sent out what are called NOTAMs, or aviation notices, on November 24 for sea and air space restrictions, Russia balked two days before the exercises.
Russia’s Defense Ministry warned that it would shoot down the rockets and launchers on Ukrainian territory in a note delivered initially to the defense attaché at Ukraine’s Embassy in Moscow, according to the Interfax news agency.
The Kremlin later toned its stance on December 1, the first day of the scheduled missile launches. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists the same day that the tests could “create dangerous conditions for international flights crossing the territory of Russia and neighboring regions.”
Ukrainian national security chief Oleksandr Turchynov said the “threats to use weapons against Ukraine are an effort to turn the hybrid war that Russia has been waging against us for the past three years into an active war.”
Separately, Ministry of Defense spokesman, Col. Andriy Lysenko, said, “we will carry out all examinations, as well as battle-tests, as well as training, and no one will tell us what to do here.”
Russia didn’t follow through on its threats, yet Kyiv’s move was “risky,” according to experts.
Noting that Ukraine’s missile tests caused hysteria in Moscow, Petro Kraliuk, political writer and pro-rector at the National University of Ostroh Academy in Rivne, said that Moscow behaved like a “typical aggressor.”
“What was the impact of the claims by its [Russia’s] leadership that it was willing to bomb Ukrainian missile sites?” he said. “This could have made a positive impression on the Russians, but certainly not on the international community. By holding the missile exercises, Ukraine has demonstrated that it is able to defend its territory and its airspace.”
Furthermore, Kyiv took a page from the Kremlin playbook by launching the missiles, according to Igor Sutyagin, a senior research fellow of Russian studies at the Royal United Services Institute in England.
“The very idea of Ukraine conducting exercises is a risky yet erudite move,” he said. The measures “worsened relations,” Mr. Sutyagin said. But in some sense it duplicated the “tactics of Putin by creating facts on the ground.”
He continued: “Putin always behaves this way: he studies which boundaries are permissible and forces the West to push back. In chess this is called ‘zugzwang’ – because any option that Russia chooses is poor. Any move that Russia would take would be a losing one.”
Incidentally, the first day of the missile tests coincided with Mr. Putin’s annual state of the union address on December 1.
Lasting just over one hour, Mr. Putin’s speech omitted any mention of Ukraine, the first time in years that has happened. Instead, Mr. Putin said that Russia is “not seeking conflict with anyone,” and focused more on economic issues with promises to modernize the country’s undiversified commodities-based economy and finally “tackle corruption.”
“Unlike some foreign colleagues who see Russia as the enemy, we do not seek – and never sought – enemies. We need friends,” he said.
It was a “very dull” speech that contained “70 minutes of ‘keep calm and carry on’ banality,” tweeted Mark Galeotti, senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.
The annual address was boring because Mr. Putin is “hoping for a détente with the West,” said Russian oppositionist Alexei Navalny. He was referring to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who publicly said he admires the Russian head of state of 16 years.
But mentioning only Syria and its smoldering civil war that Moscow continues to stoke by supporting disgraced President Bashar al-Assad doesn’t mean Mr. Putin has forgotten about Ukraine.
Two days before his public speech, Mr. Putin had 55,000 regular soldiers situated at Ukraine’s eastern border with the country, according to Ukraine’s Defense Ministry.
Up to 7,500 Russian troops are in occupied Donbas in the easternmost oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, and 23,000 more are based in annexed Crimea, 9,000 of whom are on the border with mainland Ukraine.
About 1,000 more Russian regulars are in the internationally unrecognized pro-Kremlin enclave of Transnistria, which borders Odesa Oblast and had separated from the former republic of Moldova following the fall of the USSR. It is another frozen conflict that was orchestrated by Moscow.
Although a truce has been in place since February 2015, the situation in eastern Ukraine remains “extremely serious,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told journalists in Brussels on November 6.
“The ceasefire is being violated every day, sometimes hundreds of times, with explosions from equipment banned under the Minsk agreements. That is because heavy weaponry has not been withdrawn,” he said.
“As Ukraine continues to face Russia’s aggressive actions, NATO stands by Ukraine with strong political and strong practical support,” Mr. Stoltenberg underscored.
Should Russia marshal a full-scale invasion, Ukraine could have up to 12,000 soldiers killed in 10 days, armed forces chief Viktor Muzhenko told the official government newspaper Holos Ukrainy on December 6.
He noted that since April 2014, when the Kremlin-engineered armed uprising started in the Donbas, 3,064 servicemen from all army and law enforcement agencies have died, 2,148 of them in the military. The United Nations reports that some 10,000 people in all have been killed and more than 1.2 million people have been forced to flee their homes either abroad or internally.
More than 6,000 Russian soldiers have died fighting in the Donbas war in 2014-2015, according to prominent Ukraine observer Paul Goble.
Citing Tatyana Kolesova, an activist with the St. Petersburg-based Observers group in Russia, Mr. Goble wrote on his “Window on Eurasia” blog on December 6 that there were “6,312 ‘excess’ deaths in 2014-2015” – more than one would have expected on the basis of figures for the pre-war year of 2013 – in the three Russian oblasts of Voronezh, Nizhny Novgorod and Krasnoyarsk.
Russia’s economy – which used to generate more than a $1 trillion in the pre-war years – is also suffering because of the Ukraine invasion due to Western sanctions and low prices for crude oil, the bulwark of its foreign currency earnings.
One of Russia’s two “rainy day” reserve funds has dipped to barely $30 billion as of November. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s warmongering neighbor is in its third consecutive year of economic recession. Its other wealth fund, a long-term stockpile designed to pay pensions, is at $72 billion.
Still, Kyiv continues to do business with Russia despite targeted economic sanctions in place on both sides. Citizens of both countries can still travel without visas across the border, although direct flights have been cancelled, leaving rail and road as the only means for direct travel.
Russian or Moscow-affiliated banks control about one-fifth of Ukraine’s banking assets, and two of the biggest mobile phone operators – Vodafone Ukraine (formerly MTS Ukraine) and Kyivstar – are owned by Russian-linked companies. Ukraine is still reliant on Russian fuel to power its nuclear generators, and Kyiv still buys Russian natural gas, although indirectly, from European suppliers. Ukraine’s retail industry is heavily saturated with Russian companies, and several Russian chains operate gas stations nationwide.