The world’s media is focused on the Olympics. In Washington, a tired president is about to complete two terms of office, and after having already been burned in the Middle East, has no appetite for foreign adventures.
Russia takes advantage of the situation to increase tensions on its border with a former Soviet republic, trying to get closer to the West. Armed provocations take place in contested enclaves where Russia already holds sway and the chances of a short sharp summer war increase.
These were the stages preceding the Russia-Georgia war in 2008, which erupted during the Beijing Olympics in the twilight of the George W. Bush administration. A very similar dynamic is taking place now between Russia and Ukraine during the first week of the Rio Olympics, while the world and Barack Obama are on vacation.
On Thursday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced a full alert of the army units near the Crimean Peninsula, which was occupied and annexed by Russia two and a half years ago. The alert came after a series of accusations by Russia that special forces of Ukraine’s army carried out “terror” attacks in Crimea last weekend and tried to attack the land crossing to the peninsula.
According to Russia, an officer of the FSB federal security service and a soldier were killed in these attacks. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that Russia “would not let this slide.”
There is no confirmation at present that these events actually took place – Russia claims to be holding a Ukrainian agent who has confessed to taking part in planning the attacks. The Ukrainian government has categorically denied this, with a Defense Ministry spokesman saying that Russia’s accusations were “an attempt to justify the redeployment and aggressive actions of Russian military units in the temporarily occupied peninsula.”
Russia’s allegations came amid reports of military convoys rolling through Crimea toward the Ukrainian border and an escalation of the fighting in eastern Ukraine, with pro-Russian separatists supported by Russian army units operating in the region, despite Moscow’s denials. July was the bloodiest month for nearly a year, with 42 Ukrainian soldiers killed in battles and bombardments of military and civilian targets dramatically increasing after a relatively calm period.
The distracted West
Is Putin planning a repeat of the war against Georgia? If so, this could be good timing from his perspective. The West is distracted, and not just by the Olympics. The bizarre election campaign in the United States, where one candidate, Donald Trump, is actually a supporter of Putin, seems to preclude any major American response to another Russian invasion.
Obama has already said in interviews that he doesn’t believe the United States should be sending troops to defend Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO. On Friday, Vice President Joe Biden actually phoned Poroshenko and asked him “to do his part” to avoid an escalation.
Meanwhile, the European Union, which two years ago placed tough sanctions on Russia following the occupation of Crimea, is also preoccupied with its own troubles – Britain’s impending exit from the EU, the fear of another massive influx of Syrian refugees, the possible collapse of Italy’s banking sector and elections next year in Germany and France.
NATO, with its forces stationed on the borders of Russia and Ukraine, is not at its strongest point. Turkey, with the second largest army in the alliance, is going through a period of estrangement with the West as it undergoes a massive purge following last month’s failed military coup, with thousands of senior officers under arrest. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a clear message to the rest of the alliance on Tuesday, when he arrived in St. Petersburg for a summit meeting with Putin. NATO can’t take Turkey on its eastern flank for granted.
Don’t forget Assad
Historically, like other Russian nationalists, Putin does not see Ukraine as a legitimate nation in its own right. As far as he’s concerned, it’s part of Greater Russia, and Russia is determined to prevent Ukraine from drawing closer to the West. The Kremlin has always seen Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, from Crimea to the port city of Odessa, and the borders of Moldova and Romania, as a prime strategic objective.
And yet, a war against Ukraine, which still has a relatively large army and military industry, is not the same as a war against small and isolated Georgia. The Ukrainian army, strengthened by nationalist militias, has succeeded in preventing the expansion of the separatist “republics” in the east and will probably respond forcefully to any new invasion.
A war would necessitate a major investment of resources by Russia. And this is the other main difference from 2008 – Russia’s massive income from its oil and gas industries has drastically contracted as a result of the nosedive in energy prices, and the Russian economy is hurting anyway from the sanctions. Meanwhile, Russia is already embroiled in another war, further afield in Syria.
The connection between the fighting in Syria and Ukraine cannot be overlooked. Russia is trying to expand its strategic hold both in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and at the same time win recognition from the international community for its status as a main power and central player in global affairs.
Its military involvement in Syria managed to save the Assad regime from final collapse, but the Russian-Iranian coalition failed to decisively rout the rebels, and in recent months Russia has seemed to be limiting its involvement to a decreasing number of airstrikes. It looks like Putin’s foray into Syria has failed to yield the concessions he hoped to receive from the West, so he’s now refocusing on Ukraine.
Putin’s chief objective now is to lift the sanctions and reorder the balance of power with the West to something like it was during the Cold War – when Moscow and Washington were the two geopolitical hubs, with the Europeans playing second fiddle. So far, the Americans have shown little interest in getting involved in conflict resolution between Russia and Ukraine, leaving the heavy lifting to the Europeans, mainly Germany and France, which are partners in the “Minsk Process.”
Putin may be interested in provoking a limited escalation, “enticing” the Ukrainian government, which is mired in never-ending political crises and corruption allegations, to react. This would finally force the Americans to get involved and let Russia portray Ukraine as the aggressor and demand the lifting of sanctions. Putin may not be looking to go to war but he is certainly playing with fire.
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