As the West momentarily turned its attention to the Rio Olympics and the latest developments in the U.S. presidential campaign, tensions between Ukraine and Russia dramatically increased over the last week.
On Wednesday, August 10, Russia accused Ukrainian special forces of launching a planned “terrorist attack” in Crimea and claimed that two Russian servicemen were killed in follow-on clashes.
Although Russia has illegally occupied Crimea since March 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared outraged over the alleged incident and commented to the press that these actions by the Kyiv government would not go “unanswered.” Calling on the United States and Europe to take concrete steps to exert influence on the Ukrainian government, Putin remarked, “Today’s authorities in Kyiv are not looking for ways to solve problems through negotiations; they have chosen terror.”
In characterizing the alleged attack as “terror,” how does Mr. Putin classify his systematic campaign utilizing hard and soft power over the last several years to delegitimize and impede the progress of Ukraine’s democratically elected government? Let us not forget the thousands of Russian troops that are currently conducting illegal operations in Ukraine—let alone the reported 40,000 Russian troops that appear to be preparing for additional incursions into Ukraine at eight different staging areas along the Russia-Ukraine border. And let’s certainly not forget Russia’s military and “humanitarian” support to the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, two self-proclaimed states that have emerged in the separatist-controlled territories of Ukraine’s Donbas region.
If in fact the Ukrainian government has chosen terror and the deaths of these two Russian servicemen must not go unanswered, how then would Mr. Putin answer to the families of the thousands of Ukrainian troops who have been killed defending their sovereign territory from Russia and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas? What would Mr. Putin say to the nearly two million Ukrainians who have been forced to flee their homes in Crimea and the Donbas and seek safety in other parts of Ukraine away from the front lines? How would Mr. Putin justify the widespread devastation reaped across the Donbas region, from the bombing of schools and hospitals to the collapse of the region’s economy—damage that will take years to repair and will have a lasting effect on the lives of ordinary citizens.
Moreover, if it is Ukraine that is allegedly committing acts of terror, why will he not allow monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) into Crimea or give them “unfettered” access in eastern Ukraine? What is Mr. Putin hiding?
As to be expected, the Ukrainian government strongly refuted Russia’s allegations that it was behind this “terrorist attack” in Crimea and the killing of two Russian servicemen, as did the United States government. In response to Mr. Putin’s aforementioned comments, U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt fired back, stating that Russia has a record of levying false accusations at Ukraine “to deflect attention from its own illegal actions.” The Ambassador also reiterated the United States’ position on Crimea by adding, “Our view on Crimea’s status is well known. Crimea is, and will always remain, part of Ukraine.” The European Union also did not accept the Russian accusations, issuing a statement noting that “there has been no independent confirmation of the claims made by the Russian authorities” and noting the OSCE’s lack of access to the peninsula.
The lack of evidence and the myriad examples of terror caused by Mr. Putin against Ukraine underscore the absurdity of Russia’s accusations; nevertheless, they must be taken seriously. Many Ukraine watchers believe that these accusations will be used as a pretense for increased military intervention—in east or elsewhere—and it should be noted that violence has been on the rise along the frontlines in recent weeks. Moreover, we cannot forget that we have all seen these tactics before in the lead up to the August 2008 invasion of Georgia.
These accusations and the subsequent ratcheting up of tensions represent the latest attempts by Mr. Putin to delegitimize the democratically elected Ukrainian government, which is under enormous strain to realize the reforms demanded by citizens during the Revolution of Dignity. Although the challenges the Kyiv government face are many and the road to democratic consolidation is long, the country’s leaders have made progress in several notable areas, including the introduction of new patrol police, the passage of sweeping judicial reforms, and undertaking much needed energy reform—to name a few. While Mr. Putin would have the West believe that the Ukrainian government is incapable of implementing reforms—and more importantly that the country’s revolution was in vain—the progress that the Kyiv government has made and their commitment to further reforms is commendable, in spite of the several existential threats they face.
Put simply, the West cannot be fooled by Mr. Putin’s attempts to obfuscate the truth about Ukraine. It is not Ukraine that has chosen terror; he has.Top