Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said there are more than 100,000 Russian troops in Crimea and near the border with Eastern Ukraine. The numbers are higher than those given in recent days by Kiev.
The war in Eastern Ukraine started seven years ago, in 2014, and today is a frozen conflict, even more after the last ceasefire in July 2020.
But in 2021, especially in recent weeks, there has been a new escalation of violence. The clashes have resumed on the front line in the Donbas region, and almost simultaneously Moscow has moved troops and vehicles near the Ukrainian border.
The first real agreement between the parties in 2015 (Minsk II) has never been implemented and this does not help. But Putin’s decision, which perhaps he himself will clarify in the state of the nation speech next Wednesday, seems above all an answer and a message to the West,
In recent months:
- Moscow has been accused at the United Nations of obstructing the solution of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine
- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said NATO should speed up Ukraine’s path toward membership
- Kiev has blocked media close to Russia once more
- in early March, during a visit to the front line in the Donbas region the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, reiterated that Brussels will maintain sanctions against Russia
Is Russia planning an invasion of Ukraine?
Most Russian analysts rule it out, although Moscow will hardly stand by in case there was a major attack on the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people in those regions have now a Russian passport.
It seems that Putin’s goal is to send some very clear signals:
- the future of the countries bordering Russia, essentially those in the post-Soviet space, cannot be decided by the West against our interests
- Russia will not stand by if the government in Kiev should intensify its military operations in the Donbas region
- Charles Michel’s visit to the front line in Eastern Ukraine was a provocation
In this perspective it therefore seems that the last Russian military manoeuvres are a major deterrent. But here there is also a direct message to the Biden administration: is better that you do not adopt new sanctions, because we are able to undermine Western interests or those of your allies (Kiev asking for NATO membership).
The Kremlin also wants to test the White House. In recent days Biden has called Putin directly and it appears that Washington has withdrawn its request to Turkey to send two ships in the Black Sea through the Bosphorus.
The situation is serious. The West knows very well (should know very well) that any provocation must be avoided. European foreign ministers have not adopted new sanctions today.
European countries do not always agree on policy towards Russia. One of the main issues at stake is the North Stream 2, which should bring Russian gas to Germany, the most important European country, across the Baltic Sea.