Why does Putin want a crisis in Ukraine?

Russia has suddenly started to prepare for a full-scale war in Ukraine, but what does its president, Vladimir Putin, really want?

“Will it happen or not? Let’s wait and see. In the West, they don’t know what to do,” this is how Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian security expert, summed up the situation on Friday April 2nd.

  • Unexploded shell in East Ukrainian mud (Photo: Corneliu Cazacu)

When Russian newspaper Rosbalt asked him why the Kremlin might want to start a war, he replied: “Address this question to a psychoanalyst”.

“The facts are there, everything is already happening,” he added.

“War in a month … at the start of May everything will be ready,” Felgenhauer said.

He spoke after Putin suddenly started massing troops on the Ukrainian border last week.

He also sent four warships from his Baltic Sea fleet across the Channel to reinforce the Black Sea units.

Russia has what Felgenhauer called a “shock tank brigade ready to break through” from Russian-occupied Crimea to southern Ukraine.

And it secretly controls two divisions – the “Donbass People’s Militia” and the “Luhansk People’s Militia” – in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine.

The maneuver comes amid a spike in deadly violence on the East Ukrainian contact line, creating pretexts for intervention.

And he sounded the alarm bells in Brussels.

“According to our intelligence assessment, Russia is [preparing] … deployment of regular units of the armed forces of the Russian Federation [in east Ukraine], citing the need to protect Russian citizens [there]Ukraine’s Ambassador to the EU, Mykola Tochytskyi, told EUobserver.

“An attempt to push the Russian occupation forces deep into Ukraine cannot be ruled out,” he added.

“The EU must remain vigilant, be ready to act and help its partners [Ukraine]Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis also told this website.

“I fear something serious is happening,” added a European diplomat.

“A Russian provocation, followed by Russian accusations of Ukrainian aggression: the Georgian scenario,” said the diplomat, referring to the Georgian war in 2008, when Russian tanks nearly invaded Tbilisi.

The Kremlin has explained little why it was mobilizing.

“We are doing it because we can,” Felgenhauer summed up as stated in Russia’s brief statements.

“For me, their [Russia’s] the silence (…) is quite frightening and eloquent, “an intelligence officer from a NATO partner country also told EUobserver.

Meanwhile, according to Tochytskyi’s psychoanalysis, what Putin ultimately wants is to reclaim Ukraine.

“The restoration of the Russian Empire will never be complete without Ukraine. This is Putin’s dream,” Tochytskyi said.

For Felgenhauer, Putin’s military options included taking Ukrainian ports such as Berdanysk, Mariupol and Odessa, cutting them off from the sea.

He could even dig a corridor to Transniestria, a region of Moldova occupied by the Russians.

“Or maybe not – start negotiating with the West [instead], as Putin usually does, “Felgenhauer told Rosbalt.

Shadow puppets?

Nightmarish scenarios aside, Putin might just try to scare Europe and Ukraine into smaller concessions for now.

He could also test the new US administration of President Joe Biden.

For Jamie Shea, a former senior NATO official, Putin’s “clatter” was aimed at forcing Kiev to grant Russian puppet authorities in occupied eastern Ukraine “special status” with constitutional powers.

The Kremlin wanted “France and Germany to put pressure on [Ukrainian president Volodymyr] Zelensky … giving the impression that the alternative – war – is a serious proposition, “said Shea.

Putin also wanted to “test the Biden administration’s resolve on Ukraine from the start,” Shea added.

“Is this [America] ready to degenerate or will it stick to the status quo? Will the threat of conflict increase or decrease US military aid to Kiev? Shea said.

“The Russians would like answers to these questions,” he said.

Even if he wanted to, Putin might find it difficult to divide Ukraine by force, Shea noted.

“The resistance will be stronger and the long-term costs for Russia will be even higher [then those of its existing occupation]. The Ukrainian army has improved a lot and been toughened up in combat, “said Shea, referring to the seven-year conflict in the Donbass.

Meanwhile, whatever happens next, there is an additional side effect: the depreciation of EU sanctions.

And developments risk making the fate of Russian opposition activists, such as jailed activist Alexei Navalny, whose health is deteriorating, less important.

The EU has blacklisted dozens of Russian officials over the war in Ukraine, human rights abuses, chemical weapons and cyber attacks.

He also restricted business with Russian banks and energy companies.

Mosquito bites

But the recent EU sanctions over Russia’s imprisonment of Navalny looked like “mosquito bites” alongside Russia’s threat of war in Europe, Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, former Ukrainian presidential aide and EU ambassador.

If Putin was concerned that Germany would cut off the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia or that the EU would exclude Russia from the Swift international banking payment system, it might make him think twice, Yelisieiev said.

But the strongest countermeasures would be for the EU to offer the Ukrainian people a “membership prospect” and for NATO to embrace Ukraine with a “membership action plan” [MAP]”said Yelisieiev, who now heads New Solutions Center, a think tank in Kiev.

“It would be a big failure for Putin – like autocephaly, which was the failure of the century for Russia,” Yelisieiev said, referring to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s secession from Russia in 2018.

It remains to be seen whether the EU powers and Biden will know what to do about Putin.

But in any case, “MAP is still premature,” Shea, the former NATO official, told this site.

“The allies will want to see more Ukrainian reforms, in the fight against corruption and in the justice system, and a more stable regional environment,” he said.

So far, NATO ambassadors have issued a “firm” verbal warning to Russia, Shea noted.

“The alliance demonstrates its commitment to Ukraine, while calling for restraint and not wanting to escalate,” he said.

Christi C. Elwood