Just for show?

Photographer: Alexei PavlishakTASS via Getty Images

Putin Fans the Flames in Ukraine Once Again

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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This is a perfect moment for the crisis in Ukraine to heat up, and worrying developments are afoot, prompting fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin might be planning an invasion or some other kind of hostile action against Kiev after all.

On Wednesday, Russia's secret police, the FSB, said it had prevented a series of terror attacks in Crimea and that one of its operatives and a Russian soldier were killed in several shootouts with what the FSB says were agents of the Ukrainian defense ministry's intelligence directorate. The FSB didn't elaborate on the foiled attacks, but said it had seized a cache of weapons and explosives and arrested a Ukrainian military intelligence operative named Yevgeny Panov.

The FSB announcement would normally be only moderately troubling. Russia has reported attempted Ukrainian terror attacks in Crimea before, though it has never  directly blamedauthorities in Kiev. But it was Putin's emotionally charged language that raised alarm bells: "The people who seized power in Kiev and who continue to hold on to it," he said, "have moved on to the practice of terror instead of looking for paths toward peaceful resolution."

Putin called off a "Normandy format" meeting of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany, tentatively planned during the G20 summit in China early next month. He called on Western powers to exert pressure on Ukraine to make it more interested in a "true peaceful settlement" and warned that Russia would "not look on" at hostile action against it.

This is the most aggressive rhetoric on Ukraine from Putin this year. It suggests that Putin is no longer vested in the Minsk peace process brokered by German Chancellor Angel Merkel and French President Francois Hollande. 

Under that process, Russia is supposed to return control of Ukraine's eastern border to Kiev once Ukraine grants amnesties to pro-Russian separatist rebels, agrees to elections in the areas they hold and gives these regions broad autonomy. Yet Kiev has dragged its feet on the elections, claiming (with some justification) that they would be impossible to hold fairly in areas under de-facto Russian control. So the semi-frozen conflict continues to claim lives every day.

That stalemate seemed to suit Putin fine: The persistent threat in the east destabilized Ukraine, limited its European integration ambitions and put enough economic pressure on the government so that it might be expected to collapse in the foreseeable future. Yet the status quo means Russia remains under Western sanctions, and Ukraine is learning to live as a partitioned country, even showing some timid economic growth. Putin may be tempted to give the situation a push.

This is a good time for him to do it. The U.S. is embroiled in a contentious presidential election campaign, and one of the candidates, Donald Trump, has stated his preference for not playing an active part in the Ukrainian situation. In France, which faces an election of its own in eight months, a series of deadly terror attacks has made domestic security the top priority for voters. Germany has faced several attacks, too, and though they were less severe than the French ones, Merkel is still preoccupied with security in addition to her Brexit-related concerns as Europe's de-facto leader. Ukraine is on the periphery of Western leaders' attention. 

Besides, the Olympics are on, and that's an ominous sign. During the Beijing games of 2008, Russia overran Georgia. During the Sochi winter games in 2014, the Crimea annexation was planned.

In Ukraine, there has been a wave of angry denials of the FSB report. Oleksandr Turchynov, head of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, called it a "hysterical lie." Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko declared the report "pointless and cynical" and said Ukraine was "dedicated to restoring its territorial integrity and sovereignty, including the cessation of the occupation of Crimea, exclusively by political and diplomatic means."

What actually happened in Crimea is not easy to figure out. The Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab attempted to find digital traces of the shootouts that reportedly led to the two Russian deaths. It failed to find much evidence that anyone in Crimea had witnessed the firefights and drew parallels between reports of armed Russian deserters on the loose in Crimea and the FSB information about Ukrainian "saboteurs" who, according to the Russian government-owned Rossiyskaya Gazeta, had been planning to blow up a major highway.

Panov, the alleged Ukrainian operative arrested by the FSB in Crimea, has been identified as a truck driver who had served in the Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine. One of his friends, a businessman, claimed it was he who had sent Panov to Crimea to check on some real estate the businessman owned there. 

Of course, one cannot entirely dismiss the possibility of Ukrainian attacks in Crimea. Last year, Kiev looked on as Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian nationalists blew up transmission towers near the border to cut off power supply to the occupied peninsula. 

But it's just as easy to suspect Russia of staging the whole thing to establish a casus belli. "False Russian accusations toward Ukraine to justify future 'retaliation'?" Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius wrote on Twitter. Vladimir Milov, a Russian anti-Putin politician, likened the incident to the Nazi false flag operation in the Silesian town of Gleiwitz just before World War II began. A group of German intelligence officers dressed in Polish uniforms briefly seized a radio station in the town, which then belonged to Germany, to broadcast a message in Polish. The idea was to blame Poland for the attack and use it to justify an invasion.

Of course, Putin is talking rather than shooting or moving tanks, and that likely means no large-scale operation is imminent. Yet the Russian leader clearly wants Poroshenko and his Western allies to worry. This is a signal that Russia is getting restless with the current peace deal. It forced the first ceasefire in eastern Ukraine by helping the separatists defeat the Ukrainian army at Ilovaysk, and it forced its renegotiation on more favorable terms by assisting another rebel push in the Debaltsevo area. It wouldn't be unrealistic to expect a quantitative leap in fighting around Donetsk and Luhansk so Russia could reenergize the negotiation process and perhaps get even better terms. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net