Things have been heating up in Ukraine. As we noted on Monday, tensions were already high in Ukraine through the weekend, with scattered reports of a large buildup of Russian troops in Crimea and Donbas coinciding with a mysterious attempt on the life of the leader of the so-called breakaway Luhansk People’s Republic. Ukraine had put its troops on high alert in expectation of a Russian attack at any moment.Then, earlier today, Russia’s FSB claimed that it had intercepted a group of saboteurs infiltrating Crimea. The FSB said that it had detained several individuals of both Ukrainian and Russian origin who were found with a large cache of firearms and explosives. Two Russians—an FSB agent and a soldier—were reported killed.Up until this point, the commanding heights of Russia’s Power Vertical had stayed mum on all the developments. This evening, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin opened up. If you speak Russian, we encourage you to watch the video above to get the full sense of the tone of the remarks. If not, here’s a quick translation:
Journalist: In Baku, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov talked about the possibility of another meeting in the Normandy format on the sidelines of the G20 summit in China. Vladimir Vladimirovich, how likely is such a meeting, especially given that there were recent reports that Russian special services foiled an attack by Ukrainian special services in Crimea?Vladimir Putin: Yes, it is very disturbing information. It’s true, our special services prevented a reconnaissance/sabotage group from the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine from penetrating into the territory of Crimea. Of course, as a result of this, meeting in the Normandy format makes no sense, especially not [at the G20 summit] in China. Because, apparently, those people who seized power in Kyiv and continue to hold it, instead of looking for the kind of compromise that I have just talked about in relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement, instead of looking for means to a peaceful settlement, have switched over to utilizing terror.Related to this, I can’t not mention that we consider the attempt on the life of the head of the Luhansk People’s Republic in this very context. And now an attempt to penetrate into the territory of Crimea. I also want to mention—and I think the media has reported it—that on the Russian side there were losses: two soldiers were killed. We definitely will not let such things pass.And I would also like to address our American and European partners. I think that it is obvious to everyone that the current authorities in Kyiv are not looking for ways to solve problems through negotiations, and have moved on to terror. This is a very disturbing thing.At first glance, what we have seen take place in Crimea would appear to be a stupid, criminal move. Stupid, because it is impossible to have a positive impact on the people living in Crimea in this manner. And criminal, because people died.And I think that in fact the situation is even more alarming. Because apart from diverting the attention of their own people from the plight of Ukraine’s economy, and from the plight of a significant number of its citizens, there is no other conceivable reason for undertaking such moves.An attempt to provoke a burst of violence, to provoke conflict—it’s nothing but a wish to divert the attention of the public of the country away from those who have seized power in Kyiv, who continue to hold it, and who continue to rob their own people, so as to further lengthen the hold on power, and to create conditions for the further plunder of its citizens. But this is a futile attempt. This is a very dangerous game.Of course, we will do everything to ensure the safety of infrastructure, and of our citizens; will take additional measures to ensure security, serious additional measures—technical measures, but not only technical ones.The most important thing now is that those who support today’s authorities in Kyiv must decide what they want. Do they want their clients to continue engaging in provocations of this kind, or do they still want a real peace settlement? If indeed they still want that which I really hope they do, they should take real steps to bring adequate pressure on the current government in Kyiv.
A couple of very quick thoughts:
- Putin, no fan of Ukraine’s democratically elected government, is particularly truculent in denouncing its legitimacy. He comes back twice to the illegality of the power seizure—a reference to the Maidan’s overthrow of Yanukovych in 2014—and harps on the theme of the rampant corruption of the Poroshenko government.
- But the remarks aren’t addressed to the Ukrainian people. Instead, they are addressed to the West. It’s an easy point to miss at first listen/read, but the final paragraph in particular is addressed to Washington and Brussels directly.
- In calling the continuation of the Normandy Format talks “senseless”, Putin appears to be telling the West that Minsk 2 is dead. This is, of course, stating the obvious. As written, Minsk 2 had zero chance of being implemented: there weren’t the votes in the Ukrainian parliament to pass the contentious “decentralization” laws granting the rebels autonomy, and Russia had no intention of giving up control over its border crossings with the Donbas.
- Putin’s opening demand for negotiating whatever comes next appears to be “Kyiv cannot be at the table”. In this context, it’s important to keep in mind that the United States and Russia have had a “channel” open for some time now between Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov and Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland. Nothing substantive has leaked about those talks, but most observers assume that Minsk 2 has been one of the main topics at their meetings.
Let’s just leave it at that for now. This is a very fast-moving story, with all sorts of opportunities for miscalculations spiraling events out of everyone’s control. Stay tuned!