When the Russian FSB (Federal Security Service) announced on August 10 that it had captured a group of Ukrainian “saboteurs” allegedly planning to attack tourist facilities in Crimea, many analysts feared Russia would use the incident as a pretext for war. These fears now seem misplaced. After all, if Russia wanted war, it would have been a far more believable casus belli to let the attacks take place. 

In reality, the arrests weren’t a justification for military action, but rather an attempt to start a conversation with the West about what the Kremlin believes is Ukraine’s failure to uphold the Minsk Protocols. Russia will always look like the aggressor in Ukraine, confirming the West’s worst suspicions. But by showing that Ukraine is attempting to move the war into Russian territory (illegally annexed as it may be), Russia can confirm the West’s worst suspicions about Ukraine as well.

From the perspective of Ukraine’s leaders, time is running out on Crimea: Russia has managed to make the annexation of Crimea and the War in Donbas separate issues. Donbas is being addressed through peace talks, Crimea is not. There are even different sanctions regimes for Crimea and Donbas, and the more time passes, the more distinct the two conflicts become. Violence in Crimea has the potential to reignite discussions about war and peace there, bring Crimea back into the limelight, and put the peninsula back on the agenda in international negotiations.

Kremlin spokespeople have made it clear what Russia hopes to gain from this situation. First, it is important to note that the discovery of the saboteurs is unlikely to lead to outright war. This would contradict the logic of recent Russian diplomacy, which has sought to convince the West to lift sanctions, restore relations to where they were before March 2014, and convince its partners and it's own population of its domestic successes. The Kremlin may resort to other means if it doesn’t achieve these goals, but for now that seems unnecessary.

Russia is using the situation to point out Ukraine’s unwillingness to negotiate to the West. Of course, Ukraine is currently participating in peace talks, but what it likes about them is the process, not the result. Understandably, neither the Ukrainian public nor its politicians like the outcome of the Minsk Protocols, according to which the country must accept Russian-imposed autonomy in the East.

Suspected saboteur Eugene Panov (in the middle). Photo: Alexei Pavlishak / TASS

As the separatist republics come to terms with the fact that Ukraine doesn’t need them—and their citizens get used to independence—it will become harder and harder for Russia to foist it back onto Ukraine. Russia wants to manufacture greater certainty and greater equilibrium because the present situation, in which both sides discuss peace but prepare for war, is far too risky. This uncertainty means that Russian political machinations in the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics could unravel at any moment—not necessarily at Moscow’s direction. An old, frozen conflict is one thing, but one that’s been simmering for nearly three years is something else entirely.

The Kremlin is convinced that for progress to be made on Donbas, it needs greater freedom than it is currently afforded under the Minsk Protocols. It must shed some of its present obligations. To do so, it must portray Ukraine as the aggressor. Perhaps to this end, Putin suggested in the wake of the arrests of the Crimean saboteurs that the government in Kyiv is illegitimate—a talking point that Russian officials used immidiately after the EuroMaidan Revolution but later abandoned. “Those people who at one point seized power in Kyiv continue to hold it” the president said.

Russian officials have reproached Ukraine for failing to control some of the armed groups that are fighting for it in the Donbas. Now, they claim that Ukraine is sending troops into battle in places where there hadn’t been much conflict, and that it is supporting terrorism in Crimea. This incriminates Ukrainians, who argue that their goal is the peaceful resolution of the crisis. Accordingly, Putin is now questioning Ukraine’s readiness to participate in negotiations. 

Putin does not seem to believe Europe has the power to force Poroshenko to agree to the part of the Minsk Agreement that requires the decentralization of the Ukrainian government. “They can’t even get him to respect the ceasefire agreement,” Putin thinks. 

From the Russian president’s perspective, it makes sense to go directly to the Americans, who do have the power to influence Poroshenko. It might be fruitful to organize talks like those held between Putin advisor Vladislav Surkov and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland or like the Minsk meetings, at which Ukraine can communicate with the separatist republics. After all, facilitating talks between Ukraine and the people’s republics is now one of the main goals of Russian diplomacy. 

And what if the Americans can’t convince Ukraine to uphold Minsk II? Moscow will think that it has no choice but to take matters into its own hands.

The Kremlin is using the alleged terrorist plot in Crimea as way of delivering an ultimatum to its Western partners. It’s saying: “You said yourselves that there can be no military solution to the deadlock over Crimea and Donbas, so go ahead and broker a peaceful settlement. If you can’t, Russia reserves the right to make the next move.”

The next move won’t necessarily be war. It could be a change in the political status of the separatist republics. Perhaps Russia will recognize the republics’ referenda on independence. Then, it might offer to provide military guarantees to the Donbas statelets. There are even rumors floating around that Russia is considering a diplomatic freeze with Ukraine. These rumors don’t guarantee that Russia will sever diplomatic ties, but they do signify that, because Ukraine has “resorted to terrorism” (according to Putin), Russia may deviate from its current plan. Until recently, Russia’s plan was to adhere to Minsk II. Now, the Kremlin is making it clear that it has other plans.

  • Alexander Baunov