August 18, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Russia’s Cycle of Conflict in Ukraine

• The foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine met in Berlin on Sunday in a positive sign that both countries might strive for a political solution to the escalating conflict

• However, reports of another downed Ukrainian fighter jet and more Russian weapons crossing the border counter-balance the positive political developments

• As has been the case since April, the crisis appeared to reach a critical point last week, where Russia came close to kicking off a broader conflict, but stayed put without backing down

• This pattern of escalation and pause—but no true de-escalation—has increased the violence and casualties while decreasing our understanding of how truly unstable and dangerous the situation has become: The crisis is never averted, only postponed

• This cycle will likely repeat itself as Russia reacts to the recent losses of its proxy rebels in Luhansk and Donetsk.

For a few hours last Friday, even global financial markets believed that the worst-case scenario in the ongoing Ukrainian conflict was unfolding, with reports that the Ukrainian military had shelled a Russian military incursion crossing into Ukraine. This, combined with the menacing approach of the Russian ‘aid convoy,’ temporarily rattled stock markets. However, as has been the pattern since April, the situation, which was advancing towards more conflict, holds but doesn’t improve.

While it’s a good thing that Russia hasn’t taken the fateful step towards a broader and more open war, it’s worrying that it never actually steps back, with the result being that the conflict inexorably moves forward but at a lurching pace that hides its tragic destination. Consider this:

• In April and May, it was alarming that the rebels in eastern Ukraine had Russian small arms, sniper rifles, and radios. Concerns about a broader conflict soared and then abated even though Russia continued to supply weapons.

• In June, it was alarming that the rebels had Russian heavy weapons, to include tanks and armored personnel carriers (APC). Concerns about a broader conflict soared and then abated, even as the rebels solidified their gains and Russia continued to supply weapons.

• In July, it was alarming and outrageous that the rebels not only had advanced anti-aircraft missiles but had actually shot down MH17 and killed 298 people. Concern and outrage soared and then abated, even though Russia increased its supply of weapons.

• In August, it was alarming that Russia had amassed tens of thousands of well-equipped troops along its border with Ukraine, a not-so-subtle signal to Ukraine to ease up on the rebels who were suddenly losing, badly. Concerns have soared repeatedly this month, and while the fateful step hasn’t been taken, Russia continues to arm the rebels.

At no time since the beginning of the crisis has Russia stepped back. The best that can be said is that it hasn’t advanced further, which is a low standard even for cautious geopolitics. This results in the officially ‘unacceptable’ becoming the unofficially ‘acceptable’ and the lines are then moved to the next escalation. No one complains about the Russian tanks now that the goal line has been moved to SA-11 missiles.

This pattern of escalation—one step forward and no steps back—has been effective for Russia, helping Moscow avoid painful sanctions for months. Even then, it took the downing of MH17 and Russia’s incredibly brazen resupply of advanced weapons to make meaningful sanctions a reality. Sunday’s meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ukraine’s Pavlo Klimkin to discuss a possible cease-fire is certainly positive news but it remains to be seen whether Russia will finally take a step back instead of simply pausing before re-escalating.

The impetus for the talks in Berlin is the rapid deterioration of the rebel’s situation in Luhansk and Donetsk. Russia doesn’t want to see its proxy destroyed. If a cease-fire can provide some breathing space for the rebels, Russia will push for it. But it likely has no intention of stepping back from its insistence that eastern Ukraine is really part of Russia, and so it will continue to supply and arm the rebels during any cease-fire.


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