Two weeks ago on a blisteringly hot day in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in eastern Ukraine, I spoke with Aleksandr Khodakovsky, the head of the breakaway statelet’s largest separatist militia, the Vostok Battalion. He drew the blinds shut in his office, sending splinters of light over his collection of framed Russian Orthodox saints. “Before we begin,” he said, dressed in olive green with a gun on his hip, “you should know that I will not talk about military operations. But I will say this: Russia is tough and its politics are uncompromising.”
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We saw this resolve play out over the weekend, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a more professional reserve force. The 5,000-strong force will receive a monthly salary and regular training. While Khodakovsky was referring to the February cease-fire agreement signed in Minsk aimed at ending the 16-month conflict between forces loyal to Kiev and Russia-backed rebels in Ukraine, his words can be applied more broadly.
The reserve force is part of Russia’s larger plan to modernize its defense forces: Despite Western sanctions and the plunging oil price, Moscow intends to spend $300 billion on defense by 2020, transforming its Soviet-era arsenal into a sleek, twenty-first century machine. Size-wise, with about 750,000 people in the Russian armed forces, Russia already ranks as the fourth-largest military in the world. Kiev and NATO allege Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine, which Russia consistently denies. Despite the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany signing the war’s second cease-fire five months ago, skirmishes occur on a near-daily basis, at least 7,000 civilians are dead and peace is largely seen as shaky, at best.
The idea of a well-trained Russian reserve force, which can jump into action whenever called, is likely to further spook Russia’s neighbors. The trio of former Soviet Baltic states are already on edge over pledges by Putin to protect Russians abroad. All three have large Russian minorities. Lithuania agreed in April to boost defense spending, while the Nordic nations of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, calling Russia the biggest threat to European security, are working on closer defense cooperation in solidarity with the Baltics. Just last week, Finland created quick response units to be stationed along its 321-mile border with Russia.
There is also the issue of Crimea, which Russia annexed last March to widespread international condemnation. The Black Sea peninsula was formally absorbed into Russia with little violence and but a whisper of protest. On the wide avenues of the DPR’s capital city of Donetsk, fliers for Crimean tour packages dot bus stops and trees. Their impracticality makes them seem a tribute to Moscow: There is no easy way for Donetsk residents to reach the peninsula. Crimea’s new international border with Ukraine, to its north, is difficult to cross, its 12 checkpoints manned by Russia. Trucks carrying vital food and gas supplies must wait hours to get through, and Crimeans have suffered as a result.
Talk of a land corridor, from Russia to Crimea, has circulated in diplomatic circles for some time. Earlier this month, Russia’s Duma, or lower house of parliament, approved the building of a $4 billion bridge across the Kerch Strait, which would finally give Crimea a lifeline to Russia. The contract was awarded to an ally of Putin, whose company must build the bridge by 2018.
But many on the ground suspect the bridge is unnecessary and can be avoided if the Russia-backed rebels take the strategic city of Mariupol. Ukrainian forces have been preparing for an attack on the Azov Sea port city for months – they have dug trenches, minefields and set up tank barriers – and last week saw several attacks by rebels, in fighting that left several Ukrainian servicemen dead, according to local reports.
Besides its potential for a land corridor to Crimea, Mariupol has serious allure: The city of half a million is the heart of Ukraine’s steel and metals industry. Over the weekend, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged Ukraine to withdraw its troops from their positions in Shyrokyne, a town some 14 miles east of Mariupol, on the lines that this is part of the February ceasefire agreement (which calls for the withdrawal of heavy weaponry from the front line). The town is critical, separating Mariupol from rebel-held territory.
About an hour east of Donetsk, I spoke to a senior rebel who had just returned from Shyrokyne. Like many rebels, he doesn’t give his real name, instead using his nom-de-guerre, “Czech” (he says this has nothing to do with the Czech Republic, a country he has never visited). “The situation in Shyrokyne is worse than ever,” Czech told me in the communal courtyard of a block of flats.
Disheveled and clearly exhausted, he wears military fatigues, a metal dog tag around his neck and black shoes caked in mud. “Our men are getting wounded every day and there is a lot of fighting,” he said between puffs on a cigarette. I ask if there are plans to take over Shyrokyne, leading the way for an assault on Mariupol. Czech slowly smiled, letting out a trail of smoke. “That’s not up to me. But if the Ukrainians continue to be aggressive, we will have to respond.”