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Shots fired at the Crimean border. What does it mean for Russia and Ukraine?
On August 10, Russia's Federal Security Service announced that it had captured Ukrainian “saboteurs” who crossed into Crimea with a plan to commit a series of terrorist attacks. Afterwards, Vladimir Putin said that he long longer sees a reason to continue negotiations for a peace settlement in war-torn eastern Ukraine. Observers in Russia, Ukraine, and the West have been alarmed by reports of shootouts at the Crimean border, where an alleged skirmish near the town of Armyansk appears to pose a serious obstacle to stabilizing Russian-Ukrainian relations, and could possibly trigger a new armed conflict. Meduza looks at the different interpretations of the contentious clashes in Crimea.
What happened in Crimea?
Russia's version. According to the Federal Security Service (FSB), there was a shootout with seven Ukrainian “saboteurs”—Ukrainian military intelligence agents—on the night of August 7 in the area of Armyansk. One FSB special forces commander died in this skirmish, along with two Ukrainian spies, according to the newspaper Kommersant. Russian officials managed to capture a few of the agents, some of whom turned out to be residents of Crimea. Some of these men are reportedly Russian citizens. (The FSB and Foreign Ministry has identified two of the men taken prisoner: Evgeny Panov and Andrei Zakhtei.) In custody, the captured spies reportedly confessed that they received special training in Ukraine and planned to carry out terrorist attacks in Crimea. Contrary to earlier reports that the spies were plotting an attack on local government officials, the men said they were targeting the tourism industry. Citing anonymous sources, Kommersant says the “saboteurs” planned to organize “a series of small explosions in different points at a resort that would have caused a panic among vacationers, without killing anyone.” The stunt was meant to “kill tourism” in the peninsula.
The next night, on August 8, Russian officials say they captured a second group of Ukrainian spies crossing into Crimea over the Syvash, across which they planned to return to Ukraine. During a firefight, one of the infiltrators was killed. Multiple Russian commandos were injured, as well. Representatives for the FSB say Russian officials discovered nearly a dozen improvised explosive devices, along with ammunition, grenades, weapons, and various types of mines.
Ukraine's version. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called the FSB's accusations as “senseless and cynical” as the Kremlin's claims that there are no Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. “These fantasies are just a pretext for the next military threats against Ukraine,” Poroshenko said in a statement published on his official website. Ukraine's Defense Ministry has called Russia's allegations “groundless,” speculating that Moscow is trying to distract the Crimean people from “the fact that Russia has practically transformed the whole peninsula into an isolated military base.”
The immediate aftermath: Russia and Ukraine are building up troops
The apparent incident in Crimea has already had serious consequences for Russian-Ukrainian relations. President Putin has accused the government in Kiev of “choosing the practice of terror” over peace, declaring that further attempts to negotiate a settlement in eastern Ukraine would be pointless. With these remarks, Putin seems to have canceled peace talks set to take place in China next month between Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany.
Putin also promised to take “serious additional measures” to ensure the safety of citizens and vital infrastructure in Crimea. According to Kommersant, reserve troops and armored vehicles have already been mobilized on the peninsula.
On August 11, Ukraine began a series of planned military training exercises north of Crimea. The same day, Ukrainian intelligence officials reported crossfire between Russian troops and Russian border guards. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko next instructed the country's military leaders to reinforce their positions along the borders with Crimea and the rebel republics in eastern Ukraine. Poroshenko then ordered Ukraine's Foreign Ministry to organize a telephone call with the heads of France and Germany, and invite US Vice President Joe Biden and European Council President Donald Tusk to join the conversation. (He also asked to start a discussion with Vladimir Putin, but this has yet to happen.)
Even the UN Security Council has promised to discuss the rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine, following an appeal by the Ukrainian mission to the United Nations.
What happens next?
Scenario 1: Tough negotiations. Observers in Russia agree that the skirmishes at the Crimean border will test bilateral relations with Ukraine. According to one theory, Russian officials are trying to use the captured Ukrainian “saboteurs” in order to put pressure on the participants of the “Normandy-format” talks (the peace negotiations between Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany on resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine). Russian political analyst Yekaterina Shulman points out that deliberately escalating a situation is one of Moscow's common negotiation tactics. “We scare everyone, we exaggerate the stakes, we cause a panic, and then we gently roll it back, and everybody's relieved. In the summer of 2014, this is what happened. Apparently, something similar is planned now. This is a game of nerves,” Shulman wrote on Facebook. “And, I repeat, it's no cakewalk. That, and there are bodies again.”
Russian journalist Ilya Barabanov, who's reported extensively about the conflict in eastern Ukraine, has noted that Vladimir Putin has, so far, limited himself to very concise comments about the situation in Crimea. “If the ‘Normandy format’ is pointless, then does that mean further attempts to fulfill the Minsk agreement are meaningless? If yes, then it's war. If no, then you've got to explain what happens next. Look outside and it's August now. In a month, there are [parliamentary] elections. I don't like any of this at all,” Barabanov writes.
Scenario 2: Martial law is coming to Crimea. As early as August 8, Krym.Realii, the Crimean branch of the US-government-supported media outlet RFE/RL, reported as early as August 8 that Russian officials had instituted new restrictions at checkpoints along the border with Ukraine. Sergei Stelmakh, one of Krym.Realii's reporters, called the incident in Armyansk “a large-scale provocation” and tied it to Russian military exercises in the region. “The military exercises hint precisely at a second theory: that Crimeans are getting martial law or a state-enforced curfew. For example, in some areas of [Russia's] North Caucasus there is a constant so-called ‘Counter-Terrorist Operation’ underway. The same thing now awaits this hostage peninsula. Fear is the only instrument occupiers can wield to keep the local population in quiet submission,” Stelmakh wrote in an editorial.
Scenario 3: There will be a new armed conflict. Le Monde notes the changed intonation in Putin's remarks: Russia's president has again started calling his Ukrainian counterparts “the people who seized power in Kiev.” “The phrase recalls the times when Moscow called the Kiev government a ‘junta’ and reflects a serious shift in the mood over at the Kremlin,” the newspaper writes.
The Guardian published several reports about the situation in Crimea, including an editorial by Luke Harding titled “Vladimir Putin May Believe Time Is Ripe For Another Invasion.” Harding notes the similarities between new claims about skirmishes in Crimea and events on the peninsula two years ago. Just like last time, he argues, the “crisis has come from nowhere.” (In 2014, the arrival of Russian troops ended in a controversial secessionist referendum to leave Ukraine and be absorbed into the Russian Federation.) Harding reminds his readers that “[Putin's] previous invasions have coincided with Olympic Games,” citing Russia's armed intervention in Georgia in 2008 during the Beijing Summer Olympics (when Dmitry Medvedev was Russia's president and commander in chief) and the annexation of Crimea after the Winter Games in Sochi in 2014.
Finally, the newspaper Die Welt called the Crimean incident a planned provocation. “It all looks as if Putin, using obvious propaganda, a provocation clearly fabricated by the Russian special forces, and barefaced threats is preparing new military aggression or even a full-scale invasion of Ukraine,” writes Richard Herzinger in an editorial, calling on Western leaders to “wake up from their madness” and take measures against Putin. Like Harding, he recalls Russia's past military interventions that occurred during the Olympic Games.
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