terça-feira, 20 de setembro de 2016

Russia is surrounding Ukraine. Why?

(Pro-Russia separatists´ tanks with the Donetsk People´s Republic´s flags: increase in conflict in Ukraine and military siege by Russia.)

The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro began officially last August 5th where the attention of whole world turned. It was a Friday. In the same weekend, the political and military tension in Ukraine conflict grew dangerously. As the world looked at Brazil, Russia began it´s military escalation on the borders of the neighboring country. But why?

(Homemade bombs that would be of alleged Ukranian terrorists. FSB´s photo.)

According to Russia, secret service actions and Ukranian army shelling would be the military escalation cause. In the night from Saturday to Sunday, 6-7 August, a Russian secret service agent (FSB) was killed in an operation to arrest a group of alleged terrorists members of the Ukranian Ministry of Defense´s Main Intelligence Directorate near the city of Armyansk. They would have invaded Crimea with twenty homemade explosives and various weapons (including used by Ukranian forces) that would be used to make attacks and sabotage the local infrastructure. The aim would be to create political instability and undermine regional and federal elections scheduled for September 18th. Local residents said they heard shots during the operation, which were also arrested some Russians and Ukranian citizens who had collaborated with the invaders. The informations were disclosed in an FSB´s report on 10th August. 

In the early hours of Monday, day 8 (some sources put the evening of day 7, suggesting period of the next late night), Ukraine´s special forces would have tried, twice, to enter the peninsula using hard attack with army´s armored vehicles. There was the death of a Russian military.
(Igor Plotnitsky, self-proclamed Luhansk Popular Republic´s leader since August 2014.)

Alongside the skirmishes on the border, another event had added to the climate of tension. In the morning of day 6 the self-proclamed Luhansk Popular Republic´s leader, Igor Plotnitsky, was seriously injuried in an explosion of a bomb in the car he was in the city of Luhansk. A bodyguard was killed and two others were injuried, as well several others people. The attempt was confirmed by the Ukraine´s intelligence service, which said there´s a power struggle among the militants. Russia accused Ukraine of carrying out the attack, and the militants said that it was a "terrorista attack" of Ukrainian saboteurs". Kiev denied responsability and said it wasn´t the first time that they try to kill a separatists leader; 

The Kremlin has treated the cases as terrorist attack attempts. Vladimir Putin held on day 8 a metting with the Russian Security Council with the presence of half of it´s twelve members, suggesting the emergence of the meeting. According to the Russian press, in this meeting the government agencies were prepared to communicate future events and first steps were taken to strengthen the Crimean security system. New meeting took place on day 11, Friday, in order to improve security on the peninsula again, this time of it´s inhabitants and infraestructure, and take "anti-terrorist" measures. The Russian president said, in line with the FSB´s report, that "Ukraine is choosing terror" and that he couldn´t  pass the dead of two of his soldiers. The prime-minister Medvedev said Russia could cut relations with Ukraine if the other attempts to resolve the new crisis failed. The strong Putin´s statements served to increase tension in the region and to reaffirm he considers Kiev government illegitimate.

These three events and the aggressive Kremlin´s rethoric are the culmination of increased tension in Ukraine in recent months. Since May the conflict has intensified in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, especially in the southern portions of these locations, despite the ceasefire agreements search in Minsk in 2014 and 2015. July was the bloodiest month in almost a year, when 42 soldiers were killed and 181 were injuried only in the Ukranian side. Both journalists and observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), responsible to verifiying the complicance with the agreements, report the daily bombing of mortars and heavy artillery that had victimized civilians located on both sides of the fight. The violations would come primarily from the Russian side.  

The Russia´s response was the military escalation on the Ukraine´s border. This escalation occurred not only in Crimea, but around almost the entire country, except the borders with Belarus, Poland and Rumania. The Russian move can be seen in the map below.

The Russian military escalation began on day 7 with deslocation of air and naval units in the Black Sea, the convoys moves, military exercises and an aerial defense system in Crimea. 

On this day more troops and new military equipment from Russia arrived to Crimea, and it´s border with Ukraine was closed. Between 8 and 9 Russian tanks conducted military exercises in Transnistria, Moldova´s region on the southwest border of Ukraine, which separatist movement is backed by Moscow. On 11 many Russian trucks, tanks and vehicles convoys entered into Crimea by land through the Kerch strait, as shown images available in the internet. There were also placed new troops to support the separatists in the Donbas region (Donetsk and Luhansk) and new warships and jet fighters started to arrive at the main peninsula´s port, Sebastopol, to join the Black Sea Fleet for conducting military exercises. On 12 Russia installed in Crimea a surface-to-air missile system capable of reaching a distance estimated at between 250 and 400 km. If this maximum range is truth, the Russians can shoot down any airplane that overfly the entire southern Ukraine, desired region by separatists known as Novorossya, to the border with Donbass where conflict is going on. 

Without Crimea, Russia has already moved thirty six brigades, infantries and divisions in all around 100 thousand men on the Ukraine´s borders since last days of July.

(Trucks convoy in Kerch, Krasnodar province, Russia, on August 8th going to Crimea. According to Crimean Human Rights Group, military equipment arrived to the city already on 6, day of the attack to Plotnisky.)

Important to note that all this Russian mobilization around Ukranian territory has already been climbing since July, but there was great convoys mobilization in the same day of the Plonitsky attempt attempt murder which requires prior planning. The mais troops moves, military exercises, weapons and instalation of the missile system, began on the following day, day of the supposed invasion of "terrorists" in Crimea that resulted in the dead of and FSB´s agent. The shooting on the border that would have killed a Russian soldier came a day after the beginning of the escalation. This movement was accompained by a more aggressive rethoric by the Kremlin on 10, which promissed to react to the alleged Ukraine´s actions.

The response of the Ukranian government occurred on 11, day of the largest Russian troops movement and the second Putin´s meeting with his Security Council. President Petro Poroshenko ordered increase in the level of readiness of all military units stationed near border with Crimea and in Donbass. The decision was taken with the main country´s security officers to decide what to do with the charges of "terrorism" attempt by FSB. He also said the accusation that Kiev would have made the two attacks are pretext to threathen military Ukraine,  

Other country´s authorities went further: they accused the Russian government of "histery", "cinism" and "insanity" and compared the alleged attacks to Crimea to Hitler´s strategy when he forged a Polish military attack against the Nazis in 1939 triggering the Second World War. They also compared the support for the war in Donbass to the Stalin´s Great Terror, period of the 1930s when Soviet dictator began a systematic persecution of alleged regime´s opponents with manipulated trials and mass executions. It´s interesting to note that once again authorities and nationalists make a parallel between the current conflict in Ukraine and the experience with the Ukranian people genocide deliberately caused by Stalin in 1932-33 and described in details in The Black Book of Communism.  

(Yvhen Panov, wonded in the forehead, followed by an Russian agent: to FSB a "terrorist".)

One of the unknowns around the regional tension is the identity of the alleged terrorists. The prisioners of the group would be seven, as well several local residents, but only one had his name published. He is Yvhen Panov. According to the newspaper Ukraine Today´s report, his brother, Igor Kotelyanets, gave an interview to Radio Free Europe and said that his brother would have been kidnapped and taken to Crimea, where the terrorist acts would have been forged. Panov worked as truck driver and joined the army as soon as the conflict in the east began in 2014 where he served as volunteer. After he returned to his hometown, Zaporizhia, also in the east, where worked as technician in a nuclear plant. Igor said his brother "would never go to Crimea" and that he was indifferent to the peninsula´s sovereignty. Before his arrest he would meet friends and would return home on Monday 8. For Moscow, Panov was a member of the Ukranian military intelligence and would have "confessed" the alleged crime. In the pictures released by the report he appears arrested and with bruised face.

The Russia´s moves continued on 19. In this day Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to Crimea, where he wasn´t going since August last year. In another meeting with the Security Council, held to adopt new security mesures in the region, Putin again accused Kiev for attempting to "terrorist attacks" to derail Minsk Agreement and the unwillingness of keeping good relations with Russia. But these statements came in a more conciliatory tone saying that there wasn´t any plan to cut relations with Ukraine, where he hoped to prevail the good sense, and even called his opponents of "our partners" possibly a reference to the historical ties between the two countries. On this trip the Russian president also made a visit to the Tavrida youth educational forum, held since 2014 to form a community of Russian young artists

According to the Ukranian press, new and large Russia´s military exercises began quikly and simultaneously on August 26th with mobilization of tens of thousands men from Southern, Central and Western military regions and Northern Fleet especially next to the borders of Ukraine, Baltic States and in the Crimea. The goal was to keep the troops in readiness for combat. Only on the border with Ukraine, in Donbass and Crimea were allocated 41.600 men of 24 military groups and 771 planes and helicopters. Meanwhile the fighting in Donbas continued. Only between 1 and 4 September there was at least 27 attacks from Russian separatists against Ukranian troops, 15 in Donestk region and 12 in Mariupol, in a violation of the Minsk Agreement. 

(Pro-Russia separatists acting in Ukraine. According to the Ukranian Armed Forces, six thousand Russian servicemen operate in Donbass and 35 thousand separatists are supported by Moscow.)

Analysts bring diverse explanations for this rise in temperature. The researcher Aaron Lorewa say that the main reason to this new tension is in the Russian elections in September for Duma and the crisis in the country combined with two wars that Moscow is involved in Syria and Ukraine. For him wouldn´t have how Russia to sustein both conflicts simultaneously and justifies that escalation on the Ukraine´s borders would serve to boost nationalism and divert attention from potential electoral fraud. But Putin wouldn´t need this, as if the electoral system is dominated by the Kremlin´s members it wouldn´t need to spend so many resources in time of crisis to mobilize more than one hundred thousand men and thousands of weaponry and vehicles in order to divert the public´s attention. It would be a huge unnecessary mobilization. Anders Asland, of Atlantic Council, makes a brief historical survey of the major events that Russia was involved in August: the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the Prague Spring in 1968, the failed coup of 1991 and the Georgia War in 2008. In the latter case, Asland says parallels between the actual tension in Ukraine and the war in Georgia are "shocking". Both cases occured during the choice of the US president, in the early days of the Olympic Games and were preceded by large military exercises by the Russians. The history doesn´t guarantee the repetition of the facts, but the repetition of the Georgia War´s context can be revealing of a way of acting by the Kremlin

I think that the brief analysis of Noah Rothman and James Coyle come closer to the problem highlighting the long stagnation of the conflict and the lack of reaction from Western countries to the new Russian actions. Coyle highlights this stagnation and the economic crisis in Russia, that combined would be forcing Moscow to intensify the conflict. The question seems to be more complex since the Russians have power to intensify the war in Ukraine, but with the risk of a possible reaction from the West. Besides the Kiev´s allies be tired of the sanctions against Russia and suffer pressure from Kremlin´s allied parties, this doesn´t mean that this countries will saty watching to the conflict escalation. From this it deduces that Moscow is intensifying the conflict untill the limit of a Western reaction and/or from NATO. That´s where the Rothman´s analiysis comes (despite having been written five days before the Coyle´s one): Putin would be forcing a Western response, that is, taunting to find how far he can go. With American elections coming, Obama under pressure from party collegues to confront Russia´s actions and Trump stating the possibility of relaxing tensions with Moscow (and Europe involved with Brexit), the Russian government is opening space in an Ukraine increasingly weak and now sieged. This opens the possibility, as says one of interviwees by BBC, that the separatists get to fulfill part of their agenda, that´s legitimate politically the Donestk and Luhansk "people´s republics" and take the Minsk Agreement to fail. It isn´t of Russian interest the ceasefire, at least not now, as this would diminish it´s bargaining capacity. It would lack, therefore, a reaction of the Western countries to hinder the Russia´s pretensions. That´s the Yvhen Marchuk´s complaint, Trilateral group member in Minsk, in an interview to Ukrane Today:
"When Putin said that? After reaching agreements with Erdogan. What was his main obstacle in the Black Sea, the Bosphorus, Syria? Turkey, and only then NATO. Was Putin´s visit to another NATO member Slovenia successful? It was. Did Putin and the British PM agree to meet? Ita may not seem significant, but they did? Where were our President and diplomats? Far away from Europe, even though his visit was very important. But what happende during the week he was absent in Europe?"
Ukraine is part of the so-called frozen conflicts, that are characterized by not being necessarily ended and don´t have a final peace agreement. They are common in the republics that composed USSR and today are in the Russia´s sphere of influence. In these countries there are territories inhabitated by ehtnic minorities with relationship problems with the central government. They begin a separatist movement that leads to an armed conflict. This movement is accompained by Russian military aid, since these minorities are either Russian or are sympathetic to Moscow, that intervenes militarily alleging to protect Russians abroad or allies. These are the cases of Transnistria in Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. The result is a de facto territorial separation, but without official recognition from around the world, except Russia and small allies. Beacuse they aren´t definitively ended, these conflicts can reheat and initiate new armed conflicts.

(Disputed territories, local of the frozen conflict, are shown dimmed on the map. In all cases there´s Russia´s action. Added to Syria, they are an annexation and six simultaneous interventions.)

The frozen conflicts have four elements that are decisive for it´s dynamics: internal instability in the countries where they occur, the level of the Russia´s political stability (that influences it´s foreign policy), the reaction of the West to the Russian actions and the Putin government´s goals. This analysis was done by a USIP experts group (United States Institute for Peace) that propose a reassessment of the US foreign policy in the region. The same position is defended by Agnia Grigas, Atlantic Council researcher. Grigas says that the frozen conflicts are interconnected and reveal "a pattern of Russian foreign policy". The intervention gives Russia the control of the breakaway regions in the long term without necessarily dealing with the costs of annexation (except Crimea).     

The USIP´s work is noteworthy because despite having been made in the summer of 2014 (so two years ago) it proves to be right on the dynamics of the current tension. Experts say Putin want to mantain a "constant conflict", destabilize Ukraine and "flauting Russian might in the face of a measured US and EU response". It´s what´s happening with the successive Minsk agreements violantions. Constant regional instability and the fail to stablish a ceasefire makes the crisis a "de facto frozen conflict". At the same time there is a "[un]willingness and ability of the United States and European powers (...) to support Ukraine and motivate Russia to end it´s agression". Besides the war, Kiev government remains warn by internal and external pressure for political and financial reforms that would aim to combat corruption and make the country able to receive Western economic aid.

 (Sleeping in point: while the Western powers don´t react, Russia is advancing in it´s Eurasian project and is incorporating Ukraine to it´s sphere of influence.) 

Ongoing conflict, involvement in two wars in a time of economic crisis, lack of reaction of the West and Ukrainian government´s wear: that´s the perfect setting for Moscow to act. With the US busy with new elections, Europe involved with Brexit and conflict extending indefenitively the Russians found more space to step up their activity in and outside Ukraine. It was not for nothing the new action began in the weekend of the Rio Games opening when attention was directed to Brazil. But this was already planned before the skirmishes on the border with Crimea (skirmishes unconvincing given the historical role of the Russian secret service) as shown by the military movements in Kerch on 6. While the West sleeps in point without signals of an effective response, Moscow gives further steps to the implementation of it´s Eurasian project. 

* publish in Portuguese on September 8th 2016.

** I´m not shure, but the expression in Portuguese "dormindo no ponto" should be translated literally as "sleeping in point", meaning lack of attention for long time. 

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