Are Russia and Ukraine Going to War?
After six years of a difficult and sometimes violent truce, the specter of a new war hangs over Russian-Ukrainian relations. In retaliation for Kiev’s recent crackdown on pro-Russian media and politicians, Moscow is organizing a large-scale and ostentatious military build-up along the Ukrainian border.
The situation is particularly volatile in Donbass, where the ceasefire between the Ukrainian army and the separatist territories sponsored by Moscow has effectively failed. The two sides accuse each other of provocations and regularly exchange fire, with casualties mounting both among military personnel and civilians.
In the midst of this grim reality, both countries say they are doing all they can to avoid a vicious cycle of war. Yet their protests may not be entirely false. While Kiev and Moscow are eager to reap the rewards of this sudden escalation, a rational assessment of the potential risks should ensure they stop before a full-blown military confrontation.
Tensions began to mount a few months ago, when Kiev’s growing frustration with Moscow’s intransigence in the Donbass talks coincided with the weakening of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s position in his country. Lacking prior political and diplomatic experience, Zelenskiy initially hoped that his goodwill and frankness would suffice to settle the bloody conflict in Donbass. His unprecedented electoral triumphs in 2019 were largely based on his sincere promise to bring peace to Ukraine.
In reality, however, the negotiation process turned out to be much more difficult. The Kremlin agreed to meet Zelenskiy halfway on some issues, such as the imposition of a lasting ceasefire in the Donbass and the establishment of a direct channel of communication between the deputy heads of the presidential administrations.
But he refused to modify the Minsk accords aimed at resolving the conflict and insisted on the full implementation of their political points. For Zelenskiy, it was a no-start: the big concessions to Russia demanded by the Minsk agreements would not fail to provoke a backlash in the Ukrainian nationalist opposition, which could have cost him the presidency.
The meager progress in the colony of Donbass has engendered disillusionment in Ukrainian society, further exacerbated by the country’s economic difficulties. Zelenskiy has been forced to raise utility tariffs to meet International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands, while the pandemic has bled Ukrainian small businesses. The failure of the Ukrainian authorities to secure enough coronavirus vaccines to start vaccinating the population en masse has dealt Zelenskiy’s popularity a final blow.
At the start of 2021, it class barely a few points ahead of his main opponents in the opinion polls, while his party, Servant of the People, fell to second place.
There are about three years left before Zelenskiy is re-elected, but that means little in the fluid world of Ukrainian politics. Known for its opportunism, the Ukrainian political class is ready to change its loyalty as soon as the leader’s hold on power weakens.
Declining public support for Zelenskiy immediately sparked talks about a snap election, as leaders of opposition parties lined up for to offer their services as coalition partners and potential prime ministers. Zelenskiy risked being sidelined and forgotten just two years after starting his presidency.
The Ukrainian leader retaliated. With the pandemic and the IMF’s demands leaving it little room for maneuver on the economic front, Zelenskiy has chosen to strengthen its legitimacy by mobilizing support in the West. In February, he shut down several pro-Russian media outlets and imposed sanctions on notorious oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, considered a personal friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This move allowed Zelenskiy to thwart nationalist opposition in his country and attempt to play a role in containing Russia abroad.
Other daring steps soon followed. Zelenskiy distanced himself from the Ukrainian oligarchs thanks to a arrests and new inquiries, reaffirming its determination to carry out pro-Western reforms. He ad the formation of the “Crimean Platform”, supposed to attract international attention to the fate of the peninsula.
Ukrainian president too present the country’s new security strategy, which reiterates the aspiration to join NATO and emphasizes the fight against Russian aggression. In addition, Ukraine has hardened its stance in the Donbass talks, trying to emphasize that it is negotiating with Russia and not with the separatist republics.
This barrage of orders and decrees has produced mixed results. Zelenskiy has bolstered his patriotic credentials at home, but he’s still judge too conciliatory by a significant proportion of Ukrainian nationalists, who organize violent street demonstrations against him. His anti-oligarchic crusade is based on fragile legal foundations and risks further undermining the rule of law in the country.
President’s newly uncovered anti-Russian radicalism brought Ukraine back to the West’s attention and secured Zelenskiy’s first phone call with new US President Joe Biden come sooner rather than later. But it also earned it a massive build-up of the Russian military along the border. Western leaders’ support for Ukraine is vocal, but largely rhetorical.
There is no doubt that Moscow anticipated Zelenskiy’s shift from peace to confrontation. At the end of last year, there was no longer much hope in the Kremlin that the maverick Ukrainian president could effectively implement the Minsk accords. Moscow also expected Biden’s arrival at the White House with his program of containment of Russia to result in a more assertive stance for Kiev.
As a result, the Kremlin was well prepared to raise the military bar in response to Zelenskiy’s attempts to strengthen his national and international position by playing the anti-Russian card.
With Moscow massing its troops on Ukraine’s eastern border and in the Crimea, Kiev is unlikely to hold its own if the stalemate turns into a military confrontation. Yet there is reason to believe that neither side intends to start a war.
From Ukraine’s point of view, an offensive in the Donbass would likely give Russia a pretext to intervene in the region: Russian officials have repeatedly stated that the country is ready to protect self-proclaimed republics. The resulting losses would ruin Zelenskiy’s already limited public support, while prompt Western aid to Ukraine is by no means guaranteed.
For Russia, the benefits of going to war with Ukraine are also questionable. Defying the expectations of the Kremlin, the Ukrainian state did not collapse in the face of a much more dire situation in 2014.
It is even less likely to do so now. In addition, public opinion polls show It is clear that Russian society has grown weary of foreign policy adventurism and will not accept another military incursion into Ukraine on the eve of the parliamentary elections scheduled for September.
Also, the idea of capturing a land bridge to connect Crimea to mainland Russia is outdated. Since 2014, Moscow has invested billions of dollars in various infrastructure projects ranging from railways to power grids to meet the needs of the peninsula without land connection. Crimea still suffers from water shortages, but this has been a problem for years and hardly justifies a war to resolve it.
The leaders of the separatist republics would like to expand their borders. The so-called “restoration of territorial integrity” of Donbass (i.e. the administrative borders before 2014) remains an important part of their rhetoric and could stimulate the local economy. But they are too tightly controlled by Moscow to go rogue, when their concerns are too parochial to have an impact on the Kremlin’s calculation.
It is highly implausible that the Russian leadership would risk the completion of its great project, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, in the interest of a dubious increase in popularity among them, let alone in the Donbass republics.
The aim of the current military build-up is therefore limited to demonstrating to Kiev and Washington that Russia is ready to respond forcefully to any military attempt to change the status quo in the Donbass. The ostentation with which the troops are moved confirms that Russia is making saber rattles rather than considering a blitzkrieg.
However, the absence of rational motives for war does not prevent the crisis from spiraling out of control by accident. The tense atmosphere and the losses suffered by both sides increase the possibility that a local misstep or malicious action could drag the two countries into yet another military confrontation. A lack of restraint could invalidate all rational calculations: once started, wars provide ample reason to keep fighting.
This article was first published by the Carnegie Moscow Center.
The opinions expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of the Moscow Times.