Russia’s Testing or Bullying?

The most popular question among foreign politicians and journalists is now whether Russia going to openly attack Ukraine, and whether this is preparation for a new war.

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Hanna Shelest, Security Studies Program Director at the  Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism” for Georgian Foundation For Strategic and International Studies

Since January 2021, the security situation in the East of Ukraine has been deteriorating. This is in addition to Russia’s growing military presence at the borders with Ukraine, and the de facto refusal to continue the Normandy Four negotiations. The rapid increase in military personnel and equipment made the biggest buzz in both media and political circles. While 2020 saw some decrease in violence, partly due to the pandemic, partly due to the agreed cease-fire, the first months of 2021 have already borne witness to a significant increase in cease-fire violations (5 times compared to August 2020), active work by snipers, and the killing of 18 Ukrainian soldiers. However, all this was just a prelude to the Russian forces’ rapid deployment on the borders and sharpening rhetoric of the Russian leadership. The most popular question among foreign politicians and journalists is now whether Russia going to openly attack Ukraine, and whether this is preparation for a new war.

What one can definitely respond to is that, for Ukraine, the war never stopped. While a cease-fire was announced (yet another during seven years of war), it has never been fully implemented, although it did at least decrease the shooting. In fact, the war has been continued as hybrid warfare, lawfare, cyber warfare and a battle within international organizations. Within the last few months, the Russian Federation’s actions within the Trilateral Contact Group appeared as a form of open trolling and bullying of the Ukrainian delegation and the OSCE mediators.

In March 2021, France and Germany presented their propositions for implementation of the Minsk Agreement. The Russian Federation wanted to add a point prohibiting the Ukrainian army from opening fire, even in response, and fix it in the written agreement. This proposition came against the backdrop of both increased shootings and a previous agreement experience, when in December 2019 at the Normandy Four Summit in Paris, Ukraine agreed to withdraw its forces from three locations; a move which led not to an improvement of the situation, but to several serious incidents with intensified fire from the Russian controlled territories.

Moscow is also intensively pressing for direct “dialogue” between central government and separatists district representatives, inviting them without permission to the Trilateral contact group video conferences, and insisting that Russia is just a mediator, while negotiation should happen between Donetsk, Lugansk and Kyiv, thus promoting its narrative of “civil war” in Ukraine. With new types of Russian weapons being reported by the OSCE SMM in the uncontrolled territories, such persistence is odd, and reminds experts of the same tactics chosen in the Georgia and Moldova cases.

The main questions are why Russia has been behaving so, and why now? And can it lead to a new round of aggression similar to 2014?

While it is not in the interest of the Russian Federation to launch an open attack in Ukraine, one cannot dismiss such an option. However, it is better to start from the assumption that the main goal is to test Ukraine and the West’s resolution, first of all, that of the new US administration and NATO to defend Ukraine.

Some experts considered asymmetric the response to the events happening within the last few months, among them the US and European partners restoring Transatlantic unity, Biden naming Putin a “killer,” sanctions for the Navalny poisoning, Ukraine introducing sanctions against pro-Russian TV channels and politicians who happen to be personal friends of President Putin, the Russian spies scandals in Italy and Bulgaria –  to name just a few.

A third reason, which can be a part of any combination with the previous ones, can be a wish to pressure Ukraine before negotiations, so as to strengthen the Russian negotiating position, which has not been particularly stable or advantageous. One has already seen an increase in violence and aggressive rhetoric before each new round of the Normandy negotiations and before important historical or national dates, such as Independence Day or the Revolution of Dignity anniversary. Ukraine announced a Crimean Platform summit for 23 August 2021 and has invited 100 leaders of different states and organizations to Ukraine, and so the idea of disrupting the attendance and information background also looks very possible.

Ukraine greatly needs its partners in such situations as those developing now. The comprehension that, first of all, it should rely on its own forces – military, diplomatic, civil society – has long been a developed conviction. However, it is always better to know that somebody backs you. That is what Ukraine missed in 2014, when the only reaction was “deep concern,” that in some way opened the doors for further aggression from Russia.

In 2021, Ukraine saw a different reaction – a week of important telephone calls with presidents, prime ministers, ministers of foreign affairs and defence of the USA, UK, Canada, NATO’s Secretary-General; statements from the EU leadership, as well as G7 states condemning the Russian build-up and naming Moscow party to the conflict but not a mediator. In the last two years, the increase in military and military-technical support, including training, joint exercises,  information exchange, NATO’s navy ships entering the Black Sea, or flights of US and UK military jets over Ukrainian territories, etc., were also in place.

This reaction came from three baskets of experience. First, long-term actions and statements from the Russian Federation, which was not eager to negotiate with Ukraine, violated international law, ignored human rights, and openly supported separatists. Second, the Western states’ own experience of interacting with malign Russian influence and covert operations, including cyber-attacks, intervention in elections and referendums, the Salisbury case, and Navalny incident, provocations in the Baltics, the North Sea and in the Middle East. Third, the cooperation that has been already established and is increasing between Ukraine and NATO, and Ukraine and individual states such as the USA, UK, Turkey, etc. Ukraine’s receiving of a NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partner status in June and the signing of a Strategic Partnership Agreement with the UK in October 2020 allowed an even better level of interaction, especially in such a crisis.

Still, the question remains as to whether Russia is ready for further provocations, and how far this bullying and testing will go. In such conditions, international support and a firm position, not only of “deep concern” but of backing Ukraine in case of aggression, can be an important containment measure.