The war in eastern Ukraine has lately resembled the anecdote about boiling a frog: the fighting has been slowly increasing in intensity, but the international community has thus far acted as if nothing was happening. Then, over the weekend, a car bomb went off wounding Igor Plotnitsky, the head of the so-called breakaway Luhansk People’s Republic, prompting Kyiv and the separatists to lob accusations at each other as to who was behind the attack. Nervous reports by Ukrainian officials that Russia was sending fresh tanks over the border into Donbas and massing troops on the crossing into Crimea had Ukraine-watchers fingering their panic buttons. Today, the Poroshenko Administration went as far as to announce it was putting its forces on high alert in anticipation of some kind of Russian attack. The frog looked set to leap out of the pot.
Why is this happening right now? An open attack by Russian forces on Ukraine at this juncture makes vanishingly little sense. Russia wants Kermit right where he is, simmering away contentedly. With the European consensus on sanctions apparently buckling, and the United States reportedly looking for an agreement with the Kremlin that might include the breaking up of Minsk II into a set of discrete milestones, it would behoove Moscow to just sit and let matters take their course. Brazenly rolling tanks into battle with Ukrainian troops in a bid to capture more territory would instantly implant a backbone into an increasingly spineless Western coalition.
Of course, one should never put it past a country’s leadership to miscalculate badly. People seem to have quickly forgotten that while the barely-frozen conflict in the Donbas is an acceptable outcome for the Kremlin, it was hardly its first choice. Putin himself first publicly floated the idea of Novorossiya—a term describing the territory stretching from the Donbas through to Odessa, connecting the Russian state to Transnistria in Moldova—in the early days of his country’s fight in Ukraine. The terminology was quickly taken up by the rebels, who declared a confederation between the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics under the same banner in 2014. The accompanying propaganda drum-beat in Russia went on for just over a year, until all of a sudden it stopped. By May of last year, the Kremlin appeared to be pressuring its clients in Ukraine to abandon the project amid growing realization that it could not realistically realize its ambitions. The fact that Russia is still in full control of Crimea and has thousands of troops in Donbas obscures the reality of just how badly the Kremlin misjudged the reality in Ukraine.
Could the Kremlin miscalculate again? Facing ongoing delays and cost overruns in its ambitious project to build a bridge across the Kerch straits (a project farmed out to Putin’s good buddy Arkady Rotenberg, who has made his billions fleecing the state with exactly these kinds of boondoggles), maybe the siloviki have decided that this is their last chance to secure a land bridge to Crimea before a more hawkish President Clinton takes the helm in Washington. Putin’s siloviki are prone to paranoia, and tend to see their standoff with the West in zero-sum terms.
Maybe, but probably not. Though a member of the Duma’s upper house blamed Ukrainian special forces for the assassination attempt, the Kremlin’s inner circle has remained notably quiet. In fact, if the plan is to let matters take their course as Europe comes around to lifting sanctions on Russia, it’s more likely than not that it’s the Kremlin itself that was behind the attempt at Plotnitsky’s life. It wouldn’t be the first time that rebel leaders potentially pulling Moscow in a direction it didn’t want to go met a mysterious end, or were outright sidelined in favor of more pliant alternatives. Russia watchers usually assume that the separatists goons in eastern Ukraine march in lockstep with Moscow, when the reality is much messier. The near-miss on Plotnitsky could just as easily be a warning shot at anxious rebel gangsters who sense that Moscow is in the slow process of trading them away for sanctions relief.
As for those Russian tanks crossing the border and troops massing in Crimea, even Ukrainian military analysts concede that the buildup might be part of Moscow’s decision to bulk up its forces in its Southern Military District, largely in response to the joint U.S./Ukrainian naval exercises—Sea Breeze 2016—which are set to last through mid-September.
There’s no reason to breathe a sigh of relief, however. With Ukrainian defense forces on trigger alert, any exchange of fire could quickly spiral out of control. And that the Russians have plans to seize as much land as possible in case of a wider war should be doubted by no one. Alas, that’s the nature of unstable semi-frozen conflicts: even if neither side stands to gain from kicking off another round of fighting, the fight may yet materialize.
[Post edited for clarity/specificity re: Novorossiya project.]