As the Kremlin maintains measures designed to maximize pressure on the interim government in Kyiv, it also has to handle the risks of conflict escalation. A number of signs of increased tensions between both states include the “off-and-on” anti-terrorist operations in southeastern Ukraine, Russia’s renewed “military exercises” close to Ukraine’s border, as well as the ongoing threat of a conventional military invasion by Russian forces. And these Russian actions also mirror the country’s other examples of military muscle flexing, which are meant for a wider audience. The Kremlin’s strategy on Ukraine is wider than just the threat of further military use: it extends to diplomacy, economic coercion, and an extended information campaign, among a broader range of measures. Nevertheless, Russia must manage issues around potential conflict and conflict de-escalation (Interfax, April 28).
Moscow’s use of intimidation in Ukraine, following its annexation of Crimea in March, continues unabated. The G7 and the European Union have moved to strengthen some types of sanctions against Russia, but they are not deterring the Kremlin from pursuing its aggressive policies. The fundamental problem facing Moscow in its handling of these complex policy issues is the potential for misreading on the part of all sides—ranging from the potentially immediate conflicting parties (Russia and Ukraine) to how the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) understand Russia’s intentions. The latter has been complicated by the cessation of dialogue, due to NATO freezing its relations with Russia. Indeed, Moscow has also reciprocated this step by the symbolic freezing of contacts between the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and NATO; though there was never any real cooperation mechanism in place (RIA Novosti, April 25).
On April 24, in response to a renewed “anti-terrorist” operation launched by Kyiv in the troubled southeastern areas of the country, President Vladimir Putin warned of possible “consequences,” while Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that fresh military exercises had been ordered in the battalion-level tactical groups of combined-arms formations of Russia’s Southern and Western Military Districts. During a meeting at the defense ministry, Shoigu said, “The [Russian] troops are practicing issues of conducting marches by themselves and deployment for fulfilling designated tasks,” adding, “apart from that, aviation will carry out flights to practice activities near the state border.” Shoigu continued, “Forces are clearly not equal. The go-ahead [by Kyiv] for use of weapons against the civilian population of their country has already been given. If this military machine is not stopped today, this will lead to a large number of dead and wounded [in eastern Ukraine]. An exercise of NATO troops on the territory of Poland and the Baltic States, which has been announced, does not facilitate the normalization of the situation around Ukraine either” (Interfax, April 24).
Both US and Ukrainian sources indicate that during Russia’s military exercises, Russian military hardware moved much closer to the border, and that the Russian Air Force had violated Ukrainian airspace. Prior to launching new military exercises, Moscow also continued its policy of authorizing its Air Force to fly close to NATO members’ airspace. Recent incidents involving Russian Air Force assets follow this pattern. On April 24, Russian Tu-95MS strategic bombers accompanied by MiG-31 fighters carried out a flight over neutral waters of the North Sea, according to Air Force spokesman Colonel Igor Klimov. These assets carry out regular flights over the neutral waters of the Arctic, the Atlantic, the Black Sea and the Pacific Ocean (RIA Novosti, April 24). On the same day, two strategic bombers came particularly close to Danish airspace, resulting in a scrambling of Alliance aircraft. These Russian probing and training flights are not unusual, but conducting them during such a period of tension entails some degree of risk (Copenhagen Post, April 24).
However, Shoigu’s reference to NATO exercises involving Poland and the Baltic States suggests that the Russian General Staff has additional concerns. Although NATO-Russia relations have been suspended, there are clearly still other mechanisms for dialogue—certainly at the chief of staff level between the US and Russia. On April 26, RT reported on such dialogue between the Russian chief of the General Staff, Army-General Valery Gerasimov, and his US counterpart, General Martin Dempsey.
General Gerasimov expressed concern about the deployment of US and NATO aviation, ships and troops. Furthermore, he and General Dempsey discussed the recent Russian military exercises and the level of military buildup on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian border. Indeed, Gerasimov appears to have accused Kyiv of a similar “buildup” perhaps to justify the size and composition of Russian forces assembled on the other side of the border. He added, “Our concern is caused by an increase of US Air Force and the American military personnel in the Baltic, Poland, and also the Alliance’s ships in the Black Sea.” The chief of the Russian General Staff urged his colleague to “carefully consider Russian concerns and take steps to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine and the Russian border” (RT, April 26). Although both sides were talking past each other, the dialogue was important and remains a channel through which tensions might ease. Yet, Gerasimov’s remarks, consistent with statements by other Russian figures, seem to suggest the onus of steps to reduce tensions lies not with Moscow, but with Western powers and Kyiv.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov amplified this message of distrust: “Our Western partners, and the US in the first place, have tried to behave like winners in the Cold War and make believe that one does not need to take Russia into account in European matters and may undertake actions directly damaging the interests of Russian security.” He accused the West of spreading anti-Russian propaganda before the Ukraine crisis: “It is enough to recall the hysterical anti-Russian propaganda that has swept the US and Europe long before the events in Ukraine started, the desire to blacken the Sochi Olympics at any cost” (RIA Novosti, April 24).
Thus, the Kremlin continues to pressure the Kyiv government, tries to retain maximum leverage in the resolution of the crisis, as well as attempts to control the possible risks of escalation. The potential for a real Russian military invasion in some form still remains on the table (politkom.ru, April 21). One feature of this is that Moscow believes Washington can dissuade Kyiv from launching security operations in southeastern Ukraine. However, the signals from Russian officials and experts is that Putin will not blink until he detects signals that Washington will act to de-escalate the crisis; what those signals may entail will only emerge from genuine dialogue. The latest round of sanctions will be viewed by Moscow as part of the same narrative.