Western media may not be paying much attention now to Ukraine, but this does not mean that the conflict there has been frozen, much less settled. The ceasefire concluded in February 2015 has not held, and the frontline has seen incessant fighting. Moscow continues to undermine Kyiv and plans for far more aggressive measures in the future.
Russia has not relinquished its goal of maintaining some form of control over Ukraine – a central component of its expansionist geopolitical strategy in Eurasia – and has clearly kept open the option of doing so by military means. To that end, Russia has been building up its armed forces along the Ukrainian border, and is in the process of establishing four new divisions: the 150th Motorized Rifle Division in the Rostov region, the 10th Armored Division and the 3rd Mechanized Division in the Voronezh region, and the 144th Motorized Rifle Division near Smolensk. They will be headquartered 50, 45, and 255 kilometers from the border, respectively.
In addition, the headquarters of the Russian 20th Army has been moved closer to Ukraine – from its former base east of Moscow to Voronezh. A new 8th Army headquarters is being established in the Rostov region. And three motorized rifle brigades that were previously located deep inside Russian territory, near Kazakhstan and in the Volga Basin – the 9th, 23rd and 28th – are also being shifted westward. They will be based in the Belgorod, Bryansk and Voronezh regions, all less than 50 kilometers from the Ukrainian border.
These are dangerous developments because their purpose is clearly not defensive. Ukraine is hardly prepared for a serious offensive, even on its own territory, while Russia already enjoys a secure upper hand on the border. The Kremlin’s moves therefore amount to forward positioning, and the fact that it has been spending huge resources on this effort at the time of budgetary crisis means that it is committed to undermining Ukrainian sovereignty by any means.
Another indication of Moscow’s intentions is its incessant propaganda campaign against Kyiv. The campaign gained momentum following the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine, when Putin personally endorsed the idea of “Novorossiya,” a territory that is envisioned as comprising Ukraine’s eight eastern and southern provinces, not counting Crimea.
Moscow keeps pushing the idea that Ukraine will shortly and inevitably disintegrate into several parts: a Russian-dominated eastern and southern region, a buffer-like entity in today’s central Ukraine (including Kyiv), a separate western Ukraine (either controlled by nationalists or dominated by Poland), and smaller territories that come under the control of Hungary and Romania.
In parallel, Russia has sought to isolate Ukraine, by working methodically to turn its friends and neighbors into rivals. Poland, in particular, has been a target, as Russia’s online troll army conducts information offensives to kindle historic grievances between the Poles and Ukrainians. Similar Internet campaigns are afoot in Hungary and Slovakia.
Another strategic tool employed by the Kremlin is cyber warfare. Ukraine’s government estimates that in November and December of 2016 Russia staged 6,500 cyber attacks against various Ukrainian institutions, including the defense and finance ministries and the treasury. Hackers also targeted Kyiv’s power grid, which resulted in a blackout in parts of the capital. In fact, the first known power outage as a result of a cyber attack occurred one year before that, when Russian hackers took down the power grid in western Ukraine in December 2015.
The purpose of this cyber warfare is still unclear, since sporadic attacks of this kind have a very limited impact period. When used during a major military offensive, as Russia did in Georgia in August 2008, they can distract and confuse the enemy. Yet in Ukraine, where the Donbas conflict has been simmering for two years, cyber strikes have little immediate purpose. Their most logical explanation could be that Russian is testing its cyber capabilities and exploring Ukraine’s vulnerabilities in preparation for a wider war in the future.
All these signs add up to a disturbing prospect, especially in the mid- to long-term. Before it becomes reality, however, Ukraine and the international community face a critical time window in which to prepare and deter it.
A Russian offensive in the near future is unlikely for three reasons. First, the Russian military regrouping is still incomplete. Second, the Kremlin hopes that the results of the upcoming elections in both France (in April and May) and Germany (in September) will weaken European resistance to Russian expansionism. It might spoil the game, if Moscow acted aggressively before then, since it might strengthen the chances of candidates unfavorable to Kremlin. Thirdly, Moscow would prefer to first engage with the Trump administration before going on the offensive, in the hopes that it could soften Washington’s eventual reaction.
By next year, however, the risks for Ukraine could drastically increase. Russia will be more prepared to conduct a major offensive. And Putin’s regime also might feel pressure to act aggressively so as to distract the Russian population from deteriorating fiscal, economic, and social conditions at home.
Where the United States and the EU stand a year from now could be of crucial importance. If by that time Moscow concludes that they are unlikely to actively oppose its aggression, the likelihood of a wider war in Ukraine will increase. What approach the Trump administration and European governments adopt vis-à-vis Moscow will have profound impact on Ukraine’s stability and indeed its sovereignty.
David Batashvili is an international relations analyst. He worked in the National Security Council of Georgia in 2008-2013.