Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Aug 19, 2016
The recent incidents in Crimea have escalated tensions between Russia and Ukraine and pose a threat to the peace and stability in the region.
Crimea incident a threat to regional stability

Last week, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) alleged that a terrorist attack under the aegis of Ukraine’s Defence Ministry’s Chief Intelligence Directorate was carried out in Armyansk (Crimea). The FSB claimed that the infiltrators intended to blow up a highway as motorcades carrying local officials and federal authorities were driving by. Russia has asserted that these acts were “planned” and were intended to “destabilise the socio-political situation in the region in the run-up to federal and regional elections.” But the Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Ministry has denied the accusations, through an official statement. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the Russian claims are nothing but “fantasy" and “a provocation” aimed at levelling military threats against Ukraine.

The relations between Russia and Ukraine have remained tense ever since the overthrow of the Yanukovych government and the Russian takeover of Crimea in February 2014 following a hasty referendum. While internationally the status of Crimea is in dispute, Russia clearly regards it as an integral part of its territory and includes the Crimean population as part of its official population.

In the Eastern Ukrainian region too, tension continues. The present escalation comes at a time when the region has witnessed a dramatic surge in casualties. <1> According to the report released by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, June alone saw 69 civilian casualties (12 deaths and 57 injured) while July saw 73 civilian casualties (eight dead and 65 injured). The report concludes that the civilian casualties for June and July were nearly the double of the monthly average for the previous nine months.

The recent incidents in Crimea have escalated tensions between Russia and Ukraine and pose a threat to the peace and stability in the region. Both the countries have now heightened military alert levels along the Russia-Ukraine border. The Russian navy has also announced plans for exercises in the Black Sea to rehearse combating underwater “sabotage attacks.”

While there is substantial evidence to prove that the firings indeed took place, there is no clarity as to who carried out the operations. Questions emerge in the present context regarding the timing of and motivation for the incidents. The confrontation between Russia and Ukraine is now over two years old, but no incidents similar to what the FSB claims happened in Crimea were reported so far.

If Ukraine was indeed involved, its motives are not immediately clear. Ukraine is well aware of the Russian military’s supremacy. Moreover, resorting to military means may not be the wisest decisions if it intends to maintain European support. In addition, Crimea’s well-patrolled access points are not easily breached. However, the involvement of non-state actors cannot be completely ruled out. Similarly, it is hard to fathom Russia’s intentions. With elections due in September, the Russian government has few reasons to engage in a military confrontation when the economy is down because of oil prices and Western sanctions.

The situation is murky and it is hard to point fingers. However, as pointed out earlier, the timing of the attack is dubious given a discussion in the “Normandy four” format — Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France — to resolve the situation in Ukraine is expected on the side-lines of the G20 meeting in China next month. Incidentally, Russia has repeatedly blamed Ukraine for not fulfilling the Minsk agreement obligations. On its part, Ukraine blames Russia for stirring trouble in eastern Ukraine by backing pro-Russian separatists in the region. As a result of these allegations and counter allegations, several measures under the Minsk accord continue to remain unimplemented. Thus, the current escalation of tension between Russia and Ukraine poses further hurdles for the already troubled Minsk process. Moreover, as long as the Minsk obligations are not implemented, sanctions on Russia will continue. Escalations such as the present one not only harm the peace process between Russia and Ukraine but also constrain the revival of West (European Union) and Russia relations.

In spite of the tension, an immediate military confrontation seems unlikely. The worst probable outcome is that of severing of diplomatic ties between the two countries. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s appeal is probably the sanest route. The minister said, “For now the main thing is not to give in to emotions, not to slip into taking some extreme actions but to try to stabilise the situation with restraint and concentration.”

<1> Major causes of casualties include shelling, mines, explosives and booby traps.

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