Putin hints at new Ukraine escalation
On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted that he may escalate his military pressure against Ukraine.
Asked about the British deployment last week of its HMS Defender destroyer within 12 nautical miles of Russian-occupied Crimea, Putin said that the Defender had been joined by a U.S. surveillance aircraft. He even provided what he said was that aircraft’s tail number. Lamenting this U.S.-British “provocation” in the context of what he said was Russia’s greater respect for Western borders, Putin argued that his “more fundamental” concern rests with foreign military bases on Ukraine’s territory. Putin appears to be referring to a U.S.-led military training center at Yavoriv, in far-western Ukraine.
It’s a game.
Fewer than 15 miles from the Polish border, the Yavoriv center poses no threat to Russia‘s flanks. Putin is using that center as an excuse to legitimate his broader intimidation of Ukraine. But Putin wasn’t done. He suggested that the foreign military presence in Ukraine poses “significant security problems for us” and “really concerns the vital interests of the Russian Federation and the people of Russia … we must think about it.”
It’s vintage Putin, always the disregarded victim.
Regardless, Putin’s argument is farcical. The Yavoriv base is no threat. Moreover, Putin’s suggestion that Russia does not exert military pressure against the West’s periphery is absurd. A Russian fleet has recently been operating off Hawaii, and there are indications that a Russian submarine may have entered British territorial waters during the recent G-7 summit in Cornwall. True, a U.S.-led sea and air exercise is underway in the Black Sea, but that exercise is long-standing. I also understand that the Russians have been spoofing maritime traffic websites so as to make it appear that NATO warships have been acting aggressively. The top line: Russia wants to suggest that it is suffering deliberate and outrageous provocation.
Still, the timing and specificity of his rhetoric force us to ask whether Putin is simply ranting or preparing his people for further escalation in Ukraine.
Contrary to reporting that Russian has withdrawn recently massed military forces from Ukraine’s borders, Putin’s ground forces retain a significant operational presence within a short drive of Ukraine. Putin has the means of short-notice military escalation. Deeply frustrated by Ukraine’s refusal to subject itself to a political settlement on Russian terms, Putin has the motive to use force to cajole Kyiv’s acquiescence. And however fallacious it may be, Putin’s referencing of a NATO buildup gives him the domestic casus belli to take action. It fits the narrative of NATO as an offensive alliance. A narrative that carries weight, especially among the Kremlin security elite.
Contested Ukrainian territory and borders are worth watching closely in the coming days.
(c) Washington Examiner