19:39 Aug. 10, 2016
The Kremlin is interested in gauging the West's response to expanded military operations in Ukraine, says Noah Rothman in his opinion piece for Commentary Magazine
For weeks, Russian and Ukrainian forces have been staring each other down from across a tense border. The fighting in the not-so-frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and forces loyal to Kiev has been intensifying. This familiar tempo of increased hostilities has led many to speculate that it is all a prelude to a provocation requiring broader Russian intervention in the former Soviet Republic. That provocation may have arrived on Wednesday, writes Noah Rothman for US-based monthly Commentary Magazine.
In a statement, the Russian security service FSB said that it had disrupted two coordinated terrorist plots that were intended to sow chaos in occupied Crimea and to disrupt the upcoming elections of federal and regional authorities. They said they discovered explosives and ammunition in the possession of these terror suspects and that an FSB officer was shot and killed in the effort to arrest them. The Russian security services alleged that those suspects were acting on the orders of the Ukrainian Minister of Defense's Main Intelligence Directorate. Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the attempted attack by declaring that Kiev was seeking to provoke Moscow into a conflict. "Ukraine is choosing terror," he averred.
If Moscow needed a casus belli to reignite the conflict in Ukraine, they have one. For several weeks, international observers have indicated that this is precisely what they are looking for.
Though the slow-motion conflict has slipped from the front pages of Western newspapers, the fighting never truly ended in eastern Ukraine. There, militia members loyal to the so-called breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, which are little more than fronts for Russian enlargement, continue to target Ukrainian military positions.
This spike in the fighting in Europe comes amid an ominous buildup of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border. Reports of a large number of Russian soldiers and armor amassing on the other side of the border have spread panic in Ukraine and prompted authorities in Kiev to warn that an invasion may be imminent. "The occupiers are conducting maneuvers, and we should understand that at any minute, at any hour, they could start a large-scale or small-scale attack," said Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the country's anti-terror forces.
If this is all a prelude to something larger, it will be following a pattern. It isn't in spite of American elections and international spectacles but because of them that Russia feels at liberty to test the West's willingness to enforce limits on Moscow's freedom of action within its former Soviet sphere. Russia has no compunction about conducting large-scale military operations during international events like the Olympics and amid American presidential elections. The Russian invasion of Georgia began on August 8, 2008, the same day as the opening ceremonies in Beijing. Even as Russia was welcoming the world to Sochi in 2014, it was preparing a "coup" in Crimea that would culminate in the full-scale invasion of the peninsula less than a week after the game's closing ceremonies.
Given Russia's willingness to put its thumb on the scales in the American presidential election, it's not impossible to see why the Kremlin would be interested in gauging the West's response to expanded military operations in Ukraine. One of America's presidential candidate's has demonstrated an unflappable willingness to provide Vladimir Putin with the benefit of the doubt. He has cast aspersions on the NATO alliance, softened the GOP's support for Ukraine in his party's platform, and suggested that Washington will not come to the aid of the Baltics if they are attacked by Russian forces.
All of these menacing developments in Eastern Europe may come to nothing. Russia has built up forces on the Ukrainian border before only to draw them down again in the ensuing weeks. But past is prologue, and Putin has every incentive to test his luck in Ukraine. He may be ready to throw the dice.