Russia has a habit of using international sporting events as a distraction for its under-hand foreign policy manoeuvres. Jack Mountford looks at how the Kremlin has used the Rio games as cover for its Crimean agitations.
Between 6-8 August 2016, Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, claimed to have arrested a number of Ukrainian “saboteurs” along with a large cache of explosives in the northern Crimean town of Armyansk. More seriously, it is also alleged to have repelled an attack by Ukrainian special forces, with a Russian soldier apparently being killed in a subsequent cross-border artillery attack.
The Kremlin issued a strong rebuke to the alleged attack, with Russian President Vladimir Putin describing the incident as “terrorist practices”. Additionally, Putin seemed to withdraw Russian involvement from the “Normandy Four” meetings, the periodic negotiations between the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia aimed at regulating the conflict in southeast Ukraine. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described the FSB allegations as “fantasies”, and whilst there are credible reports of an exchange of gunfire, no evidence exists of any shelling. A subsequent report by Ukrainian intelligence described the gunfire as the result of an accidental engagement between Russian forces.
In his response to the FSB allegations, Poroshenko described the concern shared by many observers over a possible Russian motivation for this incident: that they are a pretext for more military threats against Ukraine. There are fears, particularly in Ukraine, that Russia has amassed forces in preparation for a renewed offensive whilst the eyes of the world focused on the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro – from the latter of which, the Russian team has been barred from competing.
There is a precedent for such activity. In 2008, shortly after the Beijing games, Russian forces invaded Georgia and the Crimean Peninsula itself was seized following the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. A number of other favourable conditions are also present, with Europe in disarray following the Brexit vote and the United States hamstrung by a divisive presidential election. Unsurprisingly, recent weeks have seen a flurry of Russian military activity in Crimea, with military exercises accompanied by the arrival of advanced surface-to-air missiles. It would seem that, once again, the Russian government has made use of the flurry of international attention surrounding the games in order to conduct some under-hand foreign policy manoeuvers.
There are myriad possible motives and rationales for renewed Russian action in Ukraine, such as the imminent elections to Russia’s lower house, or State Duma; Putin is likely to be keen to enthuse voters in an attempt to bolster support for his party, United Russia. Market analyst Timothy Ash notes that Putin will wish to “impress on the Russian election his own strength” – especially when one considers the approaching presidential election in March 2018. What’s more, Putin likely wishes to distract attention from more contentious domestic politics. With a rising death toll, culminating in a deadly attack on a helicopter, support amongst Russians for the Kremlin’s intervention in Syria has softened. Some observers believe that this latest escalation in Ukraine is a further attempt by Putin to consolidate his domestic support; analyst Daragh McDowell characterises it as “demonstrative (of the) strong-man security state” typical of Putin’s regime.
The international response has, quite rightly, been largely in support of Ukraine. It is of utmost importance that the European community, as well as the United States, maintain full diplomatic and political support for the Ukrainian government. For one, this will lend increased legitimacy to the latter, which will aid in stabilisation efforts in the East of the country. Most important, however, is that clear political support will act as a strong deterrent to the Russian government. For its part, the European Commission reaffirmed EU “condemnation… of the illegal annexation of Crimea”, adding that there is no “independent confirmation of the claims made by Russian authorities”. US Vice President Joe Biden – who has taken an active role in negotiating the Crimean conflict– spoke to President Poroshenko by telephone, maintaining US non-recognition of Crimea’s annexation, whilst also urging the Ukrainian leader to “do his part” to avoid escalating tensions.
However, political support alone is insufficient. It is also important that Nato and its European partners continue to conduct operations and exercises designed to provide ‘reassurance’ to those nations in Eastern Europe which are threatened. Indeed, recent months have also seen large-scale military exercises conducted by Nato in partnership with Eastern European nations including Poland and Latvia. In June, Poland played host to the largest military exercise since the end of the Cold War. Dubbed “Anakonda-2016”, the wargame involved 31,000 troops and thousands of vehicles from 24 countries and was designed specifically in response to Russian aggression and assertiveness. However, whilst these exercises have been welcomed by Nato allies in the region, some defence experts warn that a misunderstanding could provoke a belligerent response from Moscow. Nonetheless, it is important that Nato maintain a military presence in the region, in order to reinforce its attempts to deter Russian aggression.
With this latest escalation on the Crimean Peninsula, it is vital that Nato and its allies in Eastern Europe should maintain pressure, both diplomatic and economic, on Russia in order to deter any further aggression against Ukraine, or indeed any other nation in the region that is threatened by Russian expansionism. In the face of renewed Russian aggression, strenuous efforts must also be made to contain and de-escalate the situation, in order to avoid any armed conflict. Whilst the combined political (and military) strength of Nato and the European community will likely deter any further aggression on the part of Russia, western leaders must not be caught off guard, as was the case in 2014, with the initial annexation of Crimea. It seems wise that, when a major sporting event is in progress, close attention must be paid to Russian foreign policy.
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