August 14, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Slow-Rolling Crisis: Russian Convoy Approaches Ukraine

• Russian president Putin is visiting Crimea at the same time a controversial Russian convoy of humanitarian aid is approaching the Ukrainian border

• The timing of the two is likely deliberate and symbolic, as Putin seized Crimea to “protect” ethnic Russians and  the same pretext is used now in eastern Ukraine

• With Ukraine vowing to block the shipment and Russian sentiment strongly in support of aiding besieged rebels and ethnic Russians in Luhansk, the situation is highly combustible

• The EU foreign ministers are meeting tomorrow to discuss the crisis, but the decision for the ‘slow rolling’ escalation rests with Putin.

Russia’s next move in the Ukrainian crisis, is moving towards confrontation at 50 kilometers per hour, with 280 trucks carrying tons of humanitarian aid approaching the Ukrainian border. What happens next will provide insight into how far Russian president Vladimir Putin will go to maintain control and influence in eastern Ukraine. In deliberate and symbolic timing, Putin visited Crimea, the part of Ukraine he seized and annexed in March in order to “protect” ethnic Russians he claims were suffering at the hands of Ukraine. This is the same stated rational for the humanitarian convoy still en route from Moscow to Ukraine.

There are two possibilities as it relates to the convoy, and it is vital that policymakers on all sides know which is which in order to not stumble into further armed conflict. If Putin has, in poker terms, gone all-in over eastern Ukraine, a confrontation over something as innocent-sounding as badly-needed food and water provides a sellable casus belli. He has whipped up nationalistic sentiment to dangerous levels and a vocal portion of the population wants this fight. With this high-profile gesture to aid beleaguered comrades across the border, Putin might be in the process of picking that fight. It is exactly what Russia did in Crimea and while it might seem unlikely that Putin doubles down on the same tactic, so did the annexation of territory on the European continent seem almost impossible just a few months ago. Friday’s emergency meeting of the European Union (EU) foreign ministers will likely deal with what happens in case Putin picks that fight.

But there is another possibility, one designed to placate domestic opinion to do “something to help” while not actually opening a new and more transparent armed front in eastern Ukraine. It might be that the over-the-top publicized convoy is for Putin to show that he is, as he promised, helping ethnic Russians wherever they may be. Therefore, Putin is looking to save face or at least be seen as making a difference in the lives of desperate ethnic Russians. Were this to be the case, it would be unnecessarily provocative for Ukrainian officials to take a public hard line and make Putin lose face. The rub is that there is no way to know for certain, and so the wise path is to split the difference and avoid the worst case scenario.

This path would entail inspecting the aid to ensure it’s not weapons for Moscow’s proxy rebels that are currently experiencing the downside of rebellion, but allow it to reach its destination. This helps people in real need but also gives Putin a domestic win at very little cost to Ukraine and its backers. It avoids handing Putin a ready-made cause for war, or at least more open war, and it promotes non-lethal networking between two countries that could use some.

There are enormous geopolitical considerations at play with the Ukraine situation, with the West in reactive mode. The goal is conflict avoidance and resolution but that might be quixotic if the other party is intent on escalation. The aid convoy might be just that, an aid convoy, but it also might be either an upping of the brinksmanship ante or a mitigation move. The fact that it is being debated says something about the state of affairs between Russia and the West. For the second time in five months, the international community is waiting to see if Russia seizes yet more territory.


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