Thursday, 18 August 2016 14:56


Sam Jones, Roman Olearchyk, The Financial Times, 17.08.2016   


In Ukraine’s restive east, artillery explosions ring out all night: international monitors there are recording dozens of shell bursts every evening. The ceasefire between Kiev and the Russian-backed separatists is fraying badly.  


Signs of a flare-up in fighting began in July and Ukraine and its western allies are observing a more worrying development: a build-up of conventional Russian forces in Crimea and along the countries’ shared border.  


Russia has positioned military units with thousands of troops to the north in Bryansk, to the east near Rostov, to the south in Crimea and to the west in the separatist Moldovan region of Transnistria. There are signs they are preparing for fighting.  


Last week, people in Crimea began posting online about a large deployment of artillery and tanks in the north of the peninsula and within range of Ukraine. The internet there was temporarily shut down.  


Ukrainian intelligence agencies say a Russian air defence regiment has been embedded with the separatists in Donbass. Launchers of the type that fired the Buk missile that downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July 2014, killing all 298 people aboard, are again being deployed.  


A photograph from Ilovaisk railway station shared online on Tuesday morning and verified by defence analysts interviewed for this article showed a train in the sidings, laden with heavy Russian tanks.  


“Preparations for conventional conflict between Russia and Ukraine are accelerating, and the likelihood of open war is increasing rapidly,” the Institute for the Study of War, a US think-tank, wrote in a report last Thursday. On Monday that appeared to move a step closer. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, vowed that “exhaustive measures” would be taken against Kiev in reprisal for what Russia called an attempted terror attack by Ukraine’s defence ministry.  


“These are very, very clear signals from Russia that say they are willing to escalate and to push boundaries,” says Kathleen Weinberger, a Russia and Ukraine expert at the ISW. “We’re seeing reports of big military convoys being sent into the separatist areas, Russian troops being sent to the border and a lot more naval equipment in the Black Sea — including some of their most advanced subs, which have quite powerful ground attack cruise missiles.”  


But, Ms Weinberger adds: “A lot of this is still unknown. Russia is showing us a very overt and threatening 20 per cent but leaving 80 per cent of what they’re doing unclear.”  

That ambiguity works to Russia’s advantage, Ms Weinberger points out. An actual invasion might not.  


That analysis is shared by many in Ukraine and among the western defence and intelligence community.  


“I do not expect a full-scale military invasion at the moment as the losses on Putin’s side would be big and a victory would be far from certain,” says Lieutenant-General Ihor Romanenko, former deputy head of the Ukrainian general staff. “He is [trying] to force international leaders into concessions, starting with easing of sanctions and forcing Ukraine to adopt the Minsk agreements according to his interpretation.”  


Russia wants elections in the Donbass before any ceasefire — a move that would probably cement the semi-autonomy of the region and fatally weaken Kiev’s ability to politically stand up to Moscow.  


That plan has been stalled for months. “[Putin] is not happy with the situation,” says Lt-Gen Romanenko. “He sees that as time drags on, the worse it plays out for his long-term Ukraine and Russia plans . . . So now he is trying to reshuffle the situation in his own interest.”  


Russia’s military build-up, he says, is a likely precursor to the Group of 20 summit on September 4 when Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, will inevitably meet Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and François Hollande, the French president, to discuss Ukraine.  


Russia is dialling the tension in the region up and down — as it has done in the past — ahead of another round of diplomatic negotiations, says one senior European intelligence official. The sabre-rattling is about reinterpreting the Minsk agreements in Russia’s favour, the official says.


While such a purpose might rule out an overt land-grab, it does not preclude serious military conflict — in fact, many intelligence analysts believe it probably depends on violence. 


“I think we’re about to see a controlled escalation all along the line of contact — higher shelling and much more violence and fighting,” says Alex Kokcharov, country risk analyst at IHS Markit. “Politically, if the separatists take more territory, that would play out badly for Russia in negotiations, but provoking Ukraine into hostilities without necessarily doing that might work to their advantage . . . they want to make Kiev into an untrustworthy partner and erode support for it in the west.”  


Casualty rates are already at their highest levels since last August. They will probably rise. Russia may seek to bring its anti-aircraft capabilities to bear too, or it could declare a no-fly zone to goad Kiev into fighting.  


The 25th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence on August 24 could be a powerful and symbolic moment at which fighting might erupt, says Mr Kokcharov. “That would give Putin 10 days before the G20,” enough time to make things uncomfortable for the west, he says.  


Fatigue among European nations over Ukraine is already running high. Mr Putin may be betting that with more violence — and a provoked, angry Ukrainian response — he can make them break ranks and recalibrate the Minsk protocol to his advantage.

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