Opening for an invasion

A service member of the Ukrainian armed forces walks with a weapon at fighting positions on the line of separation near the Moscow-controlled city of Donetsk. PHOTO: Serhiy Takhmazov / Reuteres / Scanpix

The situation is becoming increasingly tense on Ukraine’s eastern border. While Ukraine claims Russia has consciously put a strain on the eastern part of the country and troop movements have given rise to rumors of the war picking up again, the Kremlin’s goals remain unclear for the time being.

Chairman of the Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee Marko Mihkelson told the “Otse Postimehest” webcast that President Vladimir Putin’s decisions stem from his desire to restore the influence of the former Russian empire. That is likely the driving force behind the Kremlin’s irrational decisions, also in the Ukrainian context, Mihkelson found.

Chairman of the Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee Marko Mihkelson on the “Otse Postimehest” webcast. PHOTO: Eero Vabamägi

The Verkhovna Rada recently urged Western governments to continue putting economic and political pressure on Russia – is that like waving a red flag in front of Moscow?

The Verkhovna Rada’s statement from a week ago is a direct reaction to mounting tensions in eastern Ukraine that go beyond Russia dispatching additional troops to the region and the Crimean Peninsula. An attack in eastern Ukraine that cost the lives of four Ukrainian soldiers in March is what prompted the reaction from the Verkhovna Rada. That and massive propaganda in Russia. The West’s reaction suggests that Ukraine can rely on its allies.

Accusations are flying on both sides. Russia claims Ukraine is provoking it to take steps.

Ukraine has been fighting for its territorial integrity for seven years. The fact the situation has become more tense in recent weeks suggests that Russian propaganda according to which Ukraine is preparing to retake the Donbas region is baseless. It is an obviously provocative excuse for amassing more troops on the border and potentially launching operations.

The war has indeed been going on for years. Does that make it easier for Russia to provoke a reaction?

I believe that Ukraine has learned from the past. Several leading figures in Russia have said that should Ukraine attack and try to liberate the Donbas region, Russia would have no choice but to protect its people. However, Russia has in recent years made citizens out of roughly half a million people in eastern Ukraine so to speak. It takes us back to Georgia in 2008 where the country seemingly attacked South Ossetia and Russia had to intervene in order to protect its citizens. The result is that one-fifth of the territory of Georgia remains occupied to this day. The Russian side has also hinted that this time the response would go beyond Donbas and all the way to Kiev.

Russia has not denied amassing troops, while it has failed to give a reason.

Things like that are difficult to deny in the social media age. But it would be very expensive if these massive troop movements were just for show. We must keep in mind that Russia, Belarus and potentially China are looking at the major Zapad 2021 exercise this year. We remain on high alert in terms of what will be happening in our region and so do our allies.

Putin signed a law on Monday that allows him to continue as president of Russia for two more six-year terms. Could this be a sign that he is making other far-reaching plans?

It seems to me that is not his main priority today. Looking at the main drivers of Russian foreign policy in Putin’s statements, we see that the goal of restoring the former glory of the Russian empire is what has been pushing these irrational decisions in the Ukrainian context. Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote back in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that if Russia wants to restore even a semblance of its imperial influence, it cannot do so without controlling Ukraine. I believe we are now in very dangerous territory where Russia has not made it a secret that it feels the Ukrainian state should not exist at all. I believe that the Kremlin’s goal is to undermine Ukrainian statehood one way or another.

Should Estonia be concerned over what is happening in Ukraine in terms of Russia wanting to come to the aid of its citizens here so to speak?

Estonia must soberly analyze everything happening around it, while there is no need for panic. We need to be aware of what is happening on nearby borders. We need to be able to understand Russia’s deeper strategic plans and it is vital to work with allies to be able to deter whatever kinds of threats.

Analysts have proposed various possibilities in terms of Russia’s aims. What do you believe is the most realistic scenario?

What is currently taking place is first and foremost a psychological game of nerves. Feeling for reactions, making sure the West is invested, gauging whether it is keeping an eye on developments and is prepared to react. The next question concerns Chekhov’s Gun or whether a pistol put on stage in the first act must fire in the second. Things are tenser than they have been in the last few years and the international situation provides for speculation in terms of whether Putin wants to test the resolve of Biden and Europe in supporting Ukraine in the conditions of the pandemic.

Analysts have suggested that the Kremlin will be ready to launch a full-scale assault on Ukraine next month. How likely do you hold that to be?

The question is whether a large-scale attack is feasible. Ukraine’s defensive capacity is very different from what it was in 2014 and a massive assault on Ukrainian independence and territorial integrity would merit a very strong reaction primarily from Ukraine itself. There is a window of opportunity for military escalation inside the next two months and a lot will depend on the clarity of messages coming from the West.

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