Since Russia’s naval aggression in the Kerch Strait – when its ships rammed, shelled, and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels on Nov. 25 – Kyiv has warned that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is preparing to escalate his war against the country.
American think tank, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), has endorsed that warning in a detailed assessment that has been widely-read by American and other countries’ political and military decision-makers and has added urgency to the calls for more Western support for Ukraine.
The Kyiv Post spoke to Catherine Harris, an expert in Russian global campaigns to undermine the West. She is one of the three authors of the “Russia Poised to Escalate Ukraine Campaign” report who said the danger signals have only grown since the assessment was first published on Dec. 11.
The Kremlin still holds 24 Ukrainian navy sailors they captured, including three who were wounded by shellfire. It was the first time the Russian military openly attacked Ukrainian forces. Previously, despite overwhelming evidence, Moscow denied its regular forces had been involved in the fighting in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
The report drew on information, corroborated by satellite surveillance and on-the-ground witnesses of a huge Russian military buildup, involving troops, armor and planes on the border with Ukraine and in occupied Crimea.
A summary of the report, whose other authors were Mason Clark and Nicole Geis, made these key points:
- Russia will likely escalate militarily against Ukraine imminently. Russia is setting military conditions to prepare its forces for open conflict with Ukraine.
- Russia will create pretexts for an attack on Ukraine.
- Russia is already creating the pretext to escalate by circulating the false narrative that Ukraine and the West are preparing imminent attacks, including a chemical weapons attack, in eastern Ukraine. Russia may fabricate evidence of a chemical weapons attack – or may itself conduct a chemical weapons attack — near Russia-backed areas of Ukraine to create chaos, justify the overt involvement of the Russian Armed Forces, and set conditions for future military operations.
- NATO’s inaction following Russia’s aggression in the Azov Sea is likely emboldening Putin to continue challenging the West in Ukraine. “NATO must reassess the threat that Russia poses to European security and the rules-based international order and respond decisively to deter an increasingly likely Russian military escalation in Ukraine itself,” reads the report.
The report also warned that the buildup in Crimea may be in preparation for Russian forces to break out into the Ukrainian mainland at Kherson to capture a water canal and reservoir system that used to provide the mostly barren peninsula with 85 percent of its fresh water supplies. Those were cut off after Moscow’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea. By June, many warn, water supplies in Crimea will fall to critical levels, thereby tempting Putin to invade.
Capturing territory in Kherson would also fit in with the plans many experts believe Moscow has always harbored to forge a land bridge between Crimea and Russian-occupied areas of the Donbas.
Harris said the fact that Russia did not try to hide its involvement in the naval attack meant that Putin was testing what the Western reaction would be. She said the Western response, criticized by many as very weak, increases the danger of further Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Quoting the report, she said: “Moscow may calculate that the international community will not meaningfully respond if the visibility of its role in the war now increases.”
The report said that although Washington had condemned Moscow’s Azov Sea aggression, “it is likely insufficient to deter further offensive action by Russia in Ukraine.”
Trump’s Syria withdrawal
Harris said that Putin will also have been heartened by U.S. President Donald Trump’s surprise decision last month to withdraw America’s troops from Syria, where Russian and Iran have been propping up the oppressive regime of Syrian dictator al-Bashar Assad.
The ISW, in this report, long before Trump’s announcement, predicted that “Russia, Assad, and Iran are setting military conditions to ultimately expel the U.S.-led coalition from Eastern Syria.”
Trump, who admires and often voices support for Putin, took the step against the advice of many senior members of his own administration. Withdrawal of U.S. troops will leave America’s Kurdish allies in Syria vulnerable to extermination by Assad, Putin and their Turkish enemies.
U.S. Defense Secretary General Jim Mattis opposed the withdrawal because he had promised the Kurds, who had fought for years alongside American forces, he would not abandon them.
Mattis resigned as a matter of honor after failing to persuade Trump to act otherwise. Mattis has been one of the key proponents of military support for Ukraine within the White House administration.
Harris said that European Union members, beset by an array of problems such as the U.K.s “Brexit” from the E.U. and political turmoil in other countries, “are not in a position to actually re-orient on prioritizing on standing up against Russia. The rhetoric we saw coming from (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel after the incident in the Sea of Azov was to champion diplomacy. The E.U. states seem to be turning inward.”
That was why, she believes, America needed to play a vigorous role in demonstrating to the Kremlin that a military offensive against Ukraine would not be tolerated. However, Harris said: “[America’s] shift away from the traditional lead in foreign policy will further embolden Putin.”
Ominous Russian military exercises
The report points to another ominous indicator of possible Russian escalation as Moscow began snap preparations for its “Center-2019” military exercise last month, much earlier than had been scheduled for the maneuvers, which are supposed to happen in September.
The report’s authors wrote: “This early start to the exercises is atypical and may signal preparation for open conflict with Ukraine under the auspices of military exercises. Russia has previously used military exercises as cover to prepare for offensive operations.”
Harris said Ukraine’s success in gaining autocephaly, an independent Orthodox Church to be officially finalized by the Orthodox Church’s most senior authorities in Istanbul this weekend on Ukrainian Christmas Eve (Jan. 6), has also infuriated Putin.
“From the Russian perspective, seeing the church of Bartholomew [Eastern Orthodoxy’s most influential leader in Istanbul] granting Ukraine autocephaly was a great loss for Putin,” she said. “Something he certainly won’t forget.”
The Turkish factor
Harris also said that Turkey has an important role to play in the region. But as the country’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been flirting with Russia and has committed to buy anti-air defense weapons from Moscow, she said Ukraine should not depend on Istanbul for support in case of Russian aggression.
“Turkey will try to play a mediating role when it can… Erdogan kind of tried that after the escalation in the Sea of Azov but he wasn’t necessarily successful and it’s mainly because he doesn’t have a big stake in the game,” she said. “The bigger question I have is: If Putin escalates militarily or continues to build up force posture in the Black Sea… how then will Turkey react?
“My hope obviously is that Turkey would become more committed to the NATO alliance and re-orient back to NATO and away from Russia. I think that we will have to make sure that Erdogan remembers that he’s a NATO alliance member before he is a temporary partner to Putin in Syria.”
One bright glimmer on the horizon for Ukraine, thinks Harris, is that the new U.S. Congress assembled on Jan. 3 has the Democratic Party, rivals of Republican Party leader Trump, controlling the House of Representatives following November elections.
The Democrats are likely to continue their support for Ukraine and for economic sanctions and other pressure to be maintained on the Kremlin.
Ukraine has been one of the few issues where Republicans and Democrats have mostly worked together in a bi-partisan manner. The Republican-dominated Senate will scrutinize carefully candidates to fill the role of defense secretary following Mattis’ resignation and will likely want someone who shares Mattis’ traditional U.S. foreign policy views.
Harris said: “Putin will carefully evaluate the next defense secretary and the new Congress and I think that will determine a lot of the next steps that he takes.”