Monday

19th Apr 2021

Analysis

Why does Putin want a Ukraine crisis?

  • Contact line with Russian-occupied regions in east Ukraine (Photo: Christopher Bobyn)

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).

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • Unexploded round in east-Ukrainian mud (Photo: Corneliu Cazacu)

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.

Shadow puppetry?

Nightmare scenarios aside, Putin might just be trying to frighten Europe and Ukraine into smaller concessions for now.

He might also be 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.

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 [then those of its existing occupation]. 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 grounds of the Ukraine war, human-rights abuses, chemical weapons, and cyber-attacks.

It has also restricted business with Russian banks and energy firms.

Mosquito bites

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.

Nato and US urge Russia to back off on Ukraine

Nato and the US have put on a show of solidarity with Ukraine over Russia's military build-up, with American president Joe Biden offering to hold a summit with Russia to defuse tensions.

Exclusive

Four deaths after taking Russian Sputnik V vaccine

Four people recently died after taking Russia's Sputnik V anti-corona jab in previously unreported cases, which are being taken "seriously" by the EU regulator, the European Medicines Agency.

News in Brief

  1. EU postpones decision on labelling gas 'sustainable'
  2. MEPs call for mass surveillance ban in EU public spaces
  3. Greek and Turkish ministers trade jibes in Ankara
  4. Biden repeats opposition to Russia-Germany pipeline
  5. Navalny in danger, letter warns EU foreign ministers
  6. Lithuania keen to use Denmark's AstraZeneca vaccines
  7. Gas plants largest source of power-sector emissions
  8. Study: Higher risk of blood clots from Covid than vaccines

Opinion

Does new EU-ACP deal really 'decolonise' aid?

Since 2018, when the EU and the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries started negotiations on the deal that would replace the Cotonou Partnership Agreement, calls for "de-colonising aid" and a strong role for local actors in development have grown.

Commission demands equal treatment of EU presidents

The European Commission says its president should be treated on an equal footing with the president of the European Council. The issue came to a head over a meeting in Ankara which saw von der Leyen separated from male counterparts.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersDigitalisation can help us pick up the green pace
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCOVID19 is a wake-up call in the fight against antibiotic resistance
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region can and should play a leading role in Europe’s digital development
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council to host EU webinars on energy, digitalisation and antibiotic resistance
  5. UNESDAEU Code of Conduct can showcase PPPs delivering healthier more sustainable society
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen benefit in the digitalised labour market

Latest News

  1. US rejects Slovenia-linked plan to break up Bosnia
  2. Ukraine urges Borrell to visit Russia front line
  3. Could US sanctions hit Russia vaccine sales to EU?
  4. Polish court pushes out critical ombudsman
  5. Political crises in Romania and Bulgaria amid third wave
  6. Von der Leyen's summer plans undisclosed, after Ukraine snub
  7. Over a million EU citizens back farm-animal cage ban
  8. Three options for West on Putin's Ukraine build-up

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us