Photo: Vasily Maximov/AFP via Getty Images
On August 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to comment on the latest developments in Crimea. He explained that the increase in Russian military activity on the peninsula was nothing other than preventive action against some “Ukrainian sabotage and reconnaissance group” that attempted to “organize a terrorist act in Crimea.”
It is noteworthy that Putin’s statement was made only on August 10 whereas the events themselves, according to the Russian side, took place as early as August 7 or 8. Why was the declaration announced only now?
Version 1. Pretext for declaring war
Many experts have drawn historical analogies between the “Gleiwitz incident” (false flag Nazi operation in August 1939 that served as Germany’s pretext for invading Poland — Ed.) when Germany staged an attack by Poland on itself, creating a formal pretext for the start of World War II.
As fantastic as this version appears, it is nonetheless true that both on the Russian and the Ukrainian side predictions about the approaching “major war” are voiced with increasing frequency. The escalation of hostilities in Eastern Ukraine and the declarations about Crimea may be links in the same chain.
Given the fact that Russian propaganda frequently resorts to methods used by Nazi Germany, it is impossible to rule anything out. However, the main problem with this version is that the “attack on Crimea” cannot serve as adequate explanation for intensifying actions against Ukraine since the international community considers Crimea as Ukraine.
Version 2. Provoking Ukraine to make mistakes
In order to understand Putin’s statement on Crimea, it is worth reviewing the not-so-distant events in Georgia eight years ago. The August Russian-Georgian war was preceded by informational attacks, each one similar to Putin’s statement.
The purpose of these actions was to provoke the Georgian side to react. At the same time, the Russians were trying to arrange everything to make it appear that Tbilisi had gone crazy and that the Georgians themselves had attacked Russia.
In this case, Russia hopes to sow doubts in the international community and provide pretexts for Ukraine’s partners to distance themselves from Kyiv. In 2008, Georgia succumbed to such provocations to some extent, which is why Ukraine must not repeat Tbilisi’s mistakes.
Version 3. Elections in Russia
Recent opinion polls indicate that although support for Vladimir Putin remains high in Russian society, a growing number of Russians are indifferent to the Russian president.
This situation would not be critical if did not occur before elections to the Russian State Duma, to be held in September. Putin is deathly afraid of an internal explosion and often uses amplification and hysteria about foreign enemies to distract the Russian population from domestic problems.
Given that Turkey is a friend again and the US is not paying special attention to Moscow’s forces, the Kremlin has returned to the long hackneyed scenario with “Ukrainian fascists.”
Version 4. Raising the stakes on the international scene
Vladimir Putin in his Crimean declaration has already managed to emphasize that, given the current situation, negotiations in the “Normandy format” are meaningless.
In fact, the Russian president hinted that Moscow does not see any sense in the Minsk agreement and threatened to withdraw from the peace process.
Keeping in mind that the West frequently states that there is no alternative to Minsk 2, Putin’s statement may be nothing more than basic bargaining: for example, offer us something if you do not want us to withdraw from the “Minsk process.”
What the Kremlin wants exactly is unclear. However, since Crimea was chosen for the newest provocation, it is possible Crimea itself is subject to bargaining.
Moscow often “tosses out” unexpected topics into the foreign policy dialogue in order to raise the stakes. This has happened many times. One could mention the unexpectedly active intervention in the Syrian conflict. The Kremlin likes to draw attention to itself because this is the only way the Kremlin boss feels important.
Version 5. Crackdown in Crimea
In assessing Putin’s statement it is necessary to take into account the foreign policy aspect. On August 9, Putin held a meeting with the Turkish leader Recep Erdogan, which was presented as a reconciliation between Russia and Turkey.
Turkey has long taken the position of not recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and has supported the Crimean Tatars, although it did not support sanctions against Russia in response to the annexation.
Russia’s inability to break the resistance of the Crimean Tatars on the peninsula is obvious and the Kremlin needs some explanation for even greater crackdowns in Crimea. “Ukraine’s incursion” appears a strong argument for Russia’s behavior. Nevertheless, given Turkish support for the Crimean Tatars, tough countermeasures could have caused Ankara’s displeasure. Therefore, one should not exclude the possibility that during Putin’s meeting with Erdogan, the Turkish president could have promised not to interfere in the situation in Crimea in exchange for something more substantial for himself.
Any of these versions is nothing more than a guess. However, Ukrainian authorities should take the statements by Putin seriously since they are evidence of a change of position on Ukraine. Pretending that nothing is happening is not a good idea.