Russia has suddenly started preparing for full-scale war in Ukraine, but what does its president, Vladimir Putin, really want?
“Will it happen or not? Let’s wait and see. In the West, they don’t know what to do about it,” is how Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian security expert, summed up the situation on Friday (2 April).
When Russian newspaper Rosbalt asked him why the Kremlin might want to start a war, he answered: “Address this question to a psychoanalyst.”
“The facts are there, everything is already happening,” he added.
“War in a month … in early May, everything will be ready,” Felgenhauer said.
He spoke after Putin suddenly began massing troops on the Ukrainian border last week.
He also sent four warships from his Baltic Sea fleet through the English Channel to reinforce units in the Black Sea.
Russia has what Felgenhauer called “a shock tank brigade ready to break through” from Russia-occupied Crimea in southern Ukraine.
And it covertly controls two divisions – the ‘Donbas People’s Militia’ and ‘Luhansk People’s Militia’ – in Russia-occupied east Ukraine.
The manoeuvring comes amid a spike in lethal violence on the east-Ukrainian contact line, creating pretexts for intervention.
And it has set alarm bells ringing in Brussels.
“According to our intelligence assessment, Russia is [preparing] … deployment of regular units of the armed forces of the Russian Federation [in east Ukraine], citing the need to protect Russian citizens [there],” Ukraine’s EU ambassador, Mykola Tochytskyi, told EUobserver.
“An attempt to advance Russian occupation forces deep into Ukraine is not to be excluded,” he added.
“The EU must stay vigilant, be ready to act, and help its partners [Ukraine],” Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, also told this website.
“I’m worried something bad’s about to happen,” an EU diplomat added.
“A Russian provocation, followed by Russian accusations of Ukrainian aggression: the Georgia scenario,” the diplomat said, referring to the Georgia war in 2008, when Russian tanks nearly overran Tbilisi.
The Kremlin has said little on why it was mobilising.
“We do it because we can,” Felgenhauer summed up Russia’s brief statements as having indicated.
“For me, their [Russia’s] silence … is quite frightening and eloquent,” an intelligence officer from a NATO-partner country also told EUobserver.
According to Tochytskyi’s psychoanalysis, what Putin ultimately wants is to reconquer Ukraine.
“Restoration of the Russian empire will never be completed without Ukraine. It’s Putin’s dream,” Tochytskyi said.
For Felgenhauer, Putin’s military options included taking Ukrainian ports such as Berdanysk, Mariupol, and Odessa, cutting it off from the sea.
He could even carve a corridor all the way to Transniestria, a Russian-occupied region in Moldova.
“Or maybe not – start negotiating with the West [instead], as Putin usually does,” Felgenhauer told Rosbalt.
And nightmare scenarios aside, Putin might just be trying to frighten Europe and Ukraine into smaller concessions for now.
He might also be stress-testing the new US administration of President Joe Biden.
For Jamie Shea, a former senior NATO official, Putin’s “sabre rattling” was designed to force Kiev to give Russia-puppet authorities in occupied east-Ukraine “special status” with constitutional powers.
The Kremlin wanted “France and Germany to put pressure on [Ukrainian president Volodymyr] Zelensky … giving the impression that the alternative – war – is a serious proposition,” Shea said.
Putin also wanted to “test the Biden administration’s resolve on Ukraine early on,” Shea added.
“Is it [America] prepared to escalate or will it stick to the status quo? Will the threat of conflict increase or reduce US military aid to Kiev?” Shea said.
“The Russians would like answers to these questions,” he said.
And even if he wanted to, Putin might find it hard to carve up Ukraine by force, Shea noted.
“Resistance will be stronger, and the longer-term costs for Russia will be even higher. The Ukrainian army is much improved and has been battle-hardened,” by seven years of low-intensity fighting in eastern Ukraine, Shea said.
Meanwhile, whatever happens next, there is an added side-effect of belittling EU sanctions.
And developments risk making the fate of Russian opposition activists, such as jailed campaigner Alexei Navalny, whose health is deteriorating, seem less important.
The EU has blacklisted dozens of Russian officials on the grounds of the Ukraine war, human rights abuses, chemical weapons, and cyber-attacks.
It has also restricted business with Russian banks and energy firms.
But recent EU sanctions over Russia’s jailing of Navalny looked like “mosquito bites” next to Russia’s threat of war in Europe, Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, a Ukrainian former presidential aide and EU ambassador, told EUobserver.
If Putin feared Germany would halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia or the EU would lock out Russia from the Swift international bank-payment system, that might make him think twice, Yelisieiev said.
But the strongest counter-measures would be for the EU to offer Ukrainian people a “membership perspective” and for NATO to embrace Ukraine with a “Membership Action Plan [MAP],” Yelisieiev, who now runs New Solutions Centre, a think-tank in Kiev, said.
“That would be a great failure for Putin – like autocephaly, which was the failure of the century for Russia,” Yelisieiev said, referring to the secession of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church from the Russian one in 2018.
It remains to be seen if EU powers and Biden know what to do about Putin.
But in any case, “MAP is still premature,” Shea, the former NATO official, told this website.
“The allies will want to see more Ukrainian reforms, on anti-corruption and in the judiciary, and a more stable regional environment,” he said.
For now, NATO ambassadors have issued a “firm” verbal warning to Russia, Shea noted.
“The alliance is demonstrating its commitment to Ukraine, while calling for restraint, and not wanting to escalate,” he said.
By Andrew Rettman, Euobserver