For several weeks now, Russia has been massing its forces on the border with Ukraine. A steady stream of footage has shown armoured vehicles, heavy artillery, tanks and troop transports heading West across Russia to Crimea and other bordering regions. The bulk of the movements seem to be destined for Crimea, which Russia has illegally occupied since 2014, but others show armoured vehicles disembarking in Kuban – across the sea of Azov from the key city of Mariupol.
What Russia’s true intentions are remain something of a mystery. Much of the speculation points to an attempt to capture the port city in order to secure the entire coastline of the sea of Azov – while others have speculated that they are after the canal system that feeds Crimea from the Dnipro river. Whatever the case, it seems undeniable that this will be one of Russia’s boldest moves in decades.
Why is it then that the Kremlin believes that they can get away with such a move? The answer is twofold – firstly it is a response to perceived Western weakness and division – secondly it is to do with unifying Russia itself in the face of growing political tensions.
In the first instance, the leadership of the Russian Federation currently sees the Western world as divided and weak. This view is perhaps fuelled by the fact that the EU is currently in a desperate situation when it comes to both the health of the bloc and its energy needs.
The Covid-19 epidemic has provided Russia with a perfect opportunity to divide the continent. Desperate western governments and Balkan nations that had turned all hope towards the European Commission’s ability to source vaccines have instead been forced to ask Russia and China to fill in the short fall. In turn, even Germany and France are now keen to adopt the so called ‘Sputnik V’ vaccine, which was developed with stolen intellectual property from the UK.
The producers of the ‘Sputnik V’ have even begun to use targeted advertising in Brussels, to try and influence EU policy-makers towards putting in large orders for the otherwise untested vaccine. As a result, the Russian government has been able to hang the vaccine over European countries as a means of winning favour.
This vaccine politics is playing against a backdrop of a much longer-term problem in Europe that Russia has sought to be the answer to – namely the energy shortage. For several years now Russia has been winning influence in Berlin and Brussels, pushing for the completion of the Nord Stream II gas pipeline under the Baltic sea, and creating dependence. Since Germany began decommissioning its nuclear power plants and fossil fuel stations, Europe needs Russian gas. The European Green Deal will only push that dependence further, with the Europe-wide roll-out of Germany’s poorly conceived energy strategy.
Due to this dependence on Russia, the German government – and many others in Western Europe – have been forced to soften their tone when dealing with their eastern neighbour. Most recently this has resulted in a bizarre set of statements on the build-up in Crimea in which Paris and Berlin called for a ‘de-escalation on both sides’. Very few in the world of foreign policy would claim that Ukraine had anything to do with the recent escalations in Eastern Europe, and yet the leadership in Germany and France bought into the Russian line that Ukraine is the aggressor.
All of this, paired with the belief that the United States would be unwilling to step in a defend Ukraine if something happened, has allowed Russia the perfect excuse to increase tensions in the region.
But why is Russia interested in pursuing this policy to begin with?
The answer is that Russia itself is facing increased pressure from within. The Kremlin’s chief strategy in the past when these situations arise is to deflect blame to an external power. In the past, political instability in Russia has been blamed on America, the EU and the United Kingdom for being aggressive players. In the build-up to the 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea, the Russian government claimed that ethnic Russians living in the region were being suppressed by the state. They claimed that the Maidan revolutions were a coup, and that Ukrainian nationalists had violently taken over. The reality was that Russia feared for its leases on the ports in Sevastopol and sought to exert full ownership instead.
Similar accusations were levied against Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2008 before Russia invaded and drove tanks all the way to the outskirts of Tbilisi. The 2008 invasion was against the backdrop of an increased unemployment rate at the beginning of the financial crisis, and a fear that Georgia was slipping from its sphere of influence.
The current situation is even more precarious than in the past. Parliamentary elections are due later this year and both Putin and his United Russia Party have suffered major setbacks. The arrest of dissident Alexei Navalny triggered nationwide protests and caused major disruption. The release of a documentary by Mr Navalny on corruption in the Kremlin moved public opinion slightly – but not drastically – away from President Putin.
The United Russia Party itself has fallen from 54 per cent to around 36 per cent, potentially denying them a majority in the State Duma. The poor polling is less reflective of recent scandals, but more a failure to recover from protests triggered by pension reforms proposed in 2018. No single party can challenge the United Russia Party, but apathy is just as dangerous as opposition support in Russia.
The establishment in Moscow is constantly haunted by reminders of how previous occupants of the Kremlin were hurled out – be it in 1917 or 1992. As a result, they are careful to keep the people on side, and often the best way of achieving that is through creating a perceived external threat. Ukraine has provided just that – with state media constantly reporting on the supposed rise of nationalism in the country, and the flow of NATO troops into the region.
The reality is that Ukraine has been arming itself since 2014 because it is afraid of what might come next. However, without Western support it is unlikely that the country will survive long. Russia knows this, and fully intends to exploit it.