August 19, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Tensions Build in Ukraine

• The recent increase in fighting in eastern Ukraine—along with rising tensions in Crimea—have renewed fears of far more serious conflict.

• There remains concern that Russia will expand upon its annexation of Crimea, moving into Odessa or other Ukrainian territory.

• The mounting rhetoric and massing of military equipment along the border makes such a cat and mouse game exceedingly dangerous.

• It remains to be seen as to how far Russian aggression can escalate before provoking a more serious Ukrainian and Western response.


July and August have seen escalations in both fighting and rhetoric in Ukraine. For more than two years, there has been persistent, though mainly low level, conflict in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces. Despite an ostensible ceasefire stemming from the two Minsk agreements, a complete cessation of hostilities has never truly taken hold, and the result has been a simmering and sporadically deadly conflict on the edge of Europe.

The Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014 was the first forcible land grab in Europe since World War II, and tensions have festered ever since. Fighting in the Donbass and Luhansk regions of Ukraine began after the Crimean annexation, and have continued despite negotiations and international outrages such as the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17. Already fraught relations between Russia and the West were further tested by the annexation of Crimea and Russian military operations in eastern Ukraine—which Russia consistently denied despite clear evidence of Russian military presence.

The U.S. and EU responded to Russia’s aggression in part by imposing economic sanctions, which have hurt the Russian economy, but have neither reversed the Crimean annexation nor deterred continued fighting in eastern Ukraine. In terms of prospects for a negotiated resolution, the situation is worse now than it was in the spring of 2014. Russia has amassed troops and equipment along its border with Ukraine, and tensions have spiked over the past week as the Kremlin accused the Ukrainian military of an incursion and terror plot in Crimea.

It remains to be seen how far Russia will push in this latest bout of saber-rattling. Ukraine has denied the Russian accusations regarding Crimean sabotage, and has put its military on high alert given the rise in rhetoric and Russian posturing. For its part, Russia has increased its military capability along the border, conducted naval exercises in the Crimean Sea, and moved its S-400 missile defense system into Crimea. With tensions so high, it would not take much for the simmering conflict to ignite into a wider war.

If fighting reignites and Russia were to push further into Ukrainian territory, it is unclear as to what would follow. Ukraine has no realistic chance of repelling a determined Russian advance. It is unlikely Russia would try to seize and hold more than the contested regions of Donbass, Luhansk, and perhaps Odessa. Were Russia to take such action, it would present NATO—of which Ukraine is not a member—with its greatest challenge in decades.

The question of ‘how far is too far’ in terms of Russian operations in Ukraine is unanswered for both Moscow and NATO. There has not been direct conflict between NATO and Russia since the creation of the alliance; even at the height of the Cold War, each side bled the other through proxies. While NATO could provide military support to Ukraine, it would not be enough to change the battlefield dynamics if Russia were to drop the pretense of a pro-separatist rebel movement and operate more openly in Ukraine. Though theories that Russian President Vladimir Putin is simply seeking to gain leverage for upcoming talks may be correct, the uncomfortable fact remains that outside of a dramatic shift in NATO’s stance on the issue, there is little to deter further Russian aggression. The situation in Ukraine will likely remain volatile and susceptible to rapid escalation for the foreseeable future.


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