Kremlin aggression against Ukraine has recently entered its eighth year. Over 13 thousand people have been killed and 30 thousand wounded, in addition to over two million displaced, their homes and infrastructure destroyed. These numbers keep growing by the day, in what is the first attempt since WWII to forcefully change existing borders in Europe. This a 21st century-style hybrid war – there yet not there – undeclared yet very real, in the center of the European continent.
A major, new increase in hostilities was likely in early April, when Russia began amassing troops near the Ukrainian border. A spillover beyond the eastern part of Ukraine was also very possible, which would likely increase the number of casualties by tens of thousands. What Russia claimed to be a regular military exercise included redeployment of over 100 thousand soldiers, several thousand tanks, artillery, and even warships from the Baltic and Caspian seas to the Russian-occupied Crimea and Russia’s western border with Ukraine.
Intimidation by War and Testing of the West
This military activity by Russia appeared to be yet another attempt to intimidate Ukraine. The Kremlin likely hoped that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – an actor and film producer turned politician – would be cowed by the possible large-scale hostilities and accept Russia’s terms and make concessions. At this moment, the Normandy Format participants –Ukraine, France, Germany, and Russia – are working to revive the Minsk Agreement and facilitate peace in the Donbas. France and Germany have brought forward a new roadmap for peace for approval by Ukraine and Russia.
Moscow was quick to introduce amendments unacceptable to Ukraine, effectively consolidating the Russian control over the currently occupied parts of eastern Ukraine.
Russia’s saber rattling near the Ukrainian border was likely intended to test the West as well. The Kremlin needed to gauge the reaction, from the EU and the US, to assess how far particularly the latter would be willing to go to support and assist Ukraine. In addition, Russian President Vladimir Putin, strutting like a street thug, was eager to demonstrate that he was a serious player .
In the end, the potentially catastrophic escalation was halted; however, the threat remained. Despite the Russian Minister of Defense claiming to have withdrawn their troops, most of the materiel remained near the Ukrainian border, as did the Russian vessels in the Black Sea. Pundits in Ukraine consider the risks of further escalation this summer. How events progress will largely depend on the results of the anticipated Biden-Putin summit.
To Kremlin, Independent Ukraine is like a Red Rag to a Bull
Russian leaders are further irritated by the upcoming celebrations of the 30th anniversary of Ukrainian independence, planned for 24 August. A large military parade is scheduled in Kyiv, and the Crimean Platform – an international initiative designed to unite and coordinate the efforts to de-occupy the Russian-occupied Crimea – is to be formally inaugurated.
There is reason to be uneasy: It was on the eve of this anniversary in 2014 that the largest deployment of Russian regular forces marched into Ukrainian territory. So while Ukrainian tanks were paraded in Kyiv, Russian ones were leading an offensive against the town of Ilovaysk in the Donbas.
For an independent Ukraine to choose development over allegiance, has the same effect on the Kremlin as a red rag has on a bull. So Russia occupying Crimea and eastern parts of Ukraine can be seen as a punishment for Ukrainians who chose to leave the Russian orbit in favor of joining the European family.
Without controlling Ukraine, the second-largest country in the former Soviet Union – whose collapse Vladimir Putin calls “the largest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” – the Kremlin’s efforts to restore the USSR are meaningless. And worse, a democratic and prosperous Ukraine poses an existential threat to the current authoritarian regime in Russia, setting an example for the wider Russian public.
‘We Ain’t There’: The New Hybrid Warfare
While Ukrainians were trying to come back to their senses in the wake of the Orange Revolution and the dismantling of the pro-Russian and highly corrupt regime of former president Wiktor Yanukovych, Russia quickly occupied Crimea and set fire to the east of Ukraine. And even though Russia eventually had to acknowledge the part that its regular military played in the annexation of Crimea, even after seven years it continues to deny its role in initiating the war in the Donbas, and which it continues to fuel and control through its proxies.
“We ain’t there,” Kremlin will say.
All of this despite the obvious control that Russia exercises over the temporarily occupied Ukrainian territory in the east. This control is excercised along several lines: strategic – via Russian presidential administration; economic – falling under a Russian vice-Prime Minister; security – under the Russian security services, primarily the FSB; and military – through the Russian General Staff.
In the military context, Russia has established two new army units in the territory, units that the Ukrainian government does not control. Each of these alone has more manpower and materiel than many countries in Europe. Much of the equipment is technically advanced, and exclusively produced and used by Russia, confirmed by pieces captured by the Ukrainian forces, as well as detected by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine.
Alas, neither the equipment losses, nor the regular capture of Russian service members, nor the intercepted communications and documents, seem convincing to Russia. In Kremlin speak white is still black. As years pass, “We ain’t there” continues to be Russia’s only answer to any question surrounding the war in the Donbas.
Today, Russian denial of its involvement is the main barrier to peace in the region. Not that Russia isn’t going through the motions: It sits at the negotiations table with Ukraine, with France and Germany as mediators, in the Normandy Format, and is a member of the Trilateral Contact Group with Ukraine and the OSCE as a mediator. At the same time, Russia stubbornly denies being a party to the conflict, which it portrays as an intra-Ukrainian one. President Zelensky’s recent call to Putin to discuss reconciliation was rebuffed. The Kremlin chief once denied Russian involvement with the war and that Kyiv has to negotiate with the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic” – the two Russian proxies occupying eastern Ukraine.
Some European media continue to portray the war in Ukraine as a civil war and the Russian-supported quasi-states as “People’s Republics.” After seven years of Russian involvement, this is indeed a distortion of reality.
As a matter of fact, in this era of post-truth, Russia continues to rely on its “hybrid warfare” in pursuit of its (geo)political interests, employing regular military units abroad without insignia and subsequently denying their affiliation.
What Kremlin hopes the West will turn a blind eye. This serves as proof of the effectiveness of hybrid warfare and, ultimately, only appeases the aggressor.
Vasyl Korotkyi is the Staff Correspondent in Austria of Unkrinform, the national news agency of the Ukraine.