Throughout July 2016, one could observe framing of the information background both in Ukraine and Russia ahead of some forthcoming political changes around the conflict that broke out in 2014. Some observers forecasted tension in the relations with Ukraine for August 2016. And that forecast came true, though it was not a new flare up of hostilities in Donbass, but a provocation in Crimea.
On August 10 2016, two days after the incident, President Vladimir Putin said Ukraine “has switched to terror” in Crimea. In addition, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry military intelligence and not the uncontrolled national radicals were blamed for the incident. Putin said what happened in Crimea makes senseless the Normandy Four talks on sidelines of G20 in China in September 2016 which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced a day before. Putin addressed everyone “who supports the incumbent authorities in Kiev” urging them “to take any efficient steps to exert pressure on the Kiev authorities” if they really support the peace process. The Russian Foreign Ministry came out with a statement on the next day among others calling on Russia’s “partners, whose efforts play a large part in keeping the current regime in Kiev in power, to show common sense and finally get their Ukrainian wards to end their constant provocations and fulfill their obligations in accordance with Minsk Agreements on a political settlement in Ukraine.” “If the commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces [president Poroshenko] was involved in these decisions [preparations for Crimean diversions], he will have driven the final nail in the coffin of the peace process,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in the statement.
It is obvious that from Moscow’s point of view, the provisions of the Minsk Agreements dating back to February 2015 must be implemented in the sequence they are brought in the text of the Agreement, taking into account the modifications made in October 2015 concerning the priority of elections ahead of constitutional amendments. The last provision is the maximum concessions Moscow has so far agreed on. The fact of the breakthrough has inspired Kiev and “our partners” to demand more concessions from the Kremlin. A demand for deployment of international peacekeepers in the conflict zone has become a new point.
In response to the Kremlin’s demarche of August 10 and 11, 2016, with a demand to exert pressure on Kiev to make it implement the Minsk Agreements, Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt playing the role of “proconsul” in Kiev said: “U.S. government has seen nothing so far that corroborates Russian allegations of a 'Crimea incursion' and Ukraine has strongly refuted them.” According to Pyatt, Russia has a record of frequently levying false accusations at Ukraine to deflect attention from its own “illegal actions." He reaffirmed that U.S. will extend the sanctions against Russia over “occupation of the peninsula” until it returns Crimea to Ukraine. “We condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea," he added. “Crimea is, and will always remain, part of Ukraine," he wrote on Twitter.
Asked about the Russian assertion of a Ukrainian attack, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau referred questions to the government in Kiev. “We don’t want to be distracted from the real issue here, which is not only Russia’s occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea, but their continued aggression in eastern Ukraine,” Trudeau told reporters in Washington Wednesday.
Actually, the U.S. representatives slipped over the problem of Kiev’s failure to implement the Minsk Agreements and focused on the cause that they considered non-existing. Furthermore, they almost directly told Moscow that the ongoing hybrid war falls short of the soundness of Russia’s claims concerning the Crimean incident. When describing the conflict, they linked Crimea to the events in Eastern Ukraine.
The NATO headquarters, in turn, said Russia provided no evidence of its accusations against Kiev. “We are satisfied with the strong condemnation of terrorism by Ukraine in all its manifestations and forms,” they in Brussels said. NATO also said that Russia’s military activities in Crimea has not contributed to the easing of tensions and urged Russia to cancel the “illegitimate and illegal annexation” of Crimea.
The German Foreign Ministry has called the increased tension in the Moscow-Kiev relations as worrisome and urged the sides to avoid steps that might aggravate the situation. Actually, Germany’s stance certainly differed from the one of the United States, since it observed parity when calling the sides responsible for the aggravation of the conflict. At the same time, Berlin formally ignored both the cause and the Russian demand concerning the Minsk Agreements.
Although mass media have repeatedly underscored the fear of growing tensions, the West does not believe that Moscow is ready to launch offensive against Ukraine. The West does not think that the Kremlin may use the Crimea incident as a casus belli. “Given its economic problems, Moscow has been trying to distance itself from the fighting in Ukraine in hopes the sanctions will be lifted,” the New York Times wrote in an article covering the latest incident in Crimea.
As the result, Russia’s demands to implement the Minsk Agreement were ignored publicly, while the Crimean incident has become a good opportunity for Kiev to test the West’s reaction to possible flare up of hostilities. In that provocation, U.S. and EU have reaffirmed their full support to Ukraine. Most of the Western media showed skepticism at Russia’s coverage of the Crimean event. Ukraine’s leadership simply played up Moscow. It has turned out that Kiev’s possible sabotages against Russian military and transport infrastructures will not be condemned by the West. Furthermore, such sabotage attempts will be interpreted as an act of resistance against “Russian occupation” of Crimea. By that provocation, Kiev tried to show the world the factor of Crimean-Tatars. The West was ready to such turn of events, after a wave of fake reports on mass repressions against Crimean Tatars.
Actually, Russia’s actions against Kiev’s provocations will be assessed by the Western media as preparations for an aggression or an act of aggression, while Kiev’s hostile actions will be simply ignored. Such a biased approach will encourage Kiev for new provocations and aggravation of the conflict.
Yet, Kiev’s attempt to bring the problem of Crimea to the forefront has not changed the conflict’s settlement scheme through the Minsk Agreements and the West did not respond to it either. However, the Crimean incident has proved Russia’s fears that the settlement of the conflict in Ukraine goes beyond Donbass. After ceding Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, the West will raise the issue of Crimea.
Another reality. It is obvious that the sabotage in Crimea was directly connected with the stalemate in the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. U.S., namely the incumbent president’s administration, that needed some progress in the implementation of the Minsk Agreement by the end of Obama’s term and the upcoming presidential election, has driven Ukraine’s leadership into a trap. On the one hand, Ukraine raised the utility bills drastically for reforms promoted by the U.S. and EU. On the other hand, the West, namely IMF, has postponed at least until September the provision of the next $1 billion tranche to Ukraine.
President Poroshenko failed to implement the minimum requirements of the Department of State concerning the Minsk Agreement due to the stances of nationalist radicals and inter-party war in the Supreme Rada. In such situation, the conditional “party of war” in Kiev tried to discard the Minsk Agreements through provocations in Crimea and blaming Russia for it. Kiev called the incident in Crimea as Moscow’s gradual steps towards aggravation of the situation to undermine the Minsk Agreements. Figuratively speaking, the Kiev radicals in power started playing in the hands of the next, more bellicose presidential administration in U.S. in advance.
The main problem of the currently increased tensions between Russia and Ukraine is the Minsk Agreements, since it will be necessary to find the side guilty for breaching them to extend or partially lift the sanctions. At the end of last year, the implementation of the Minsk Agreements was extended until the end of 2016. The issue of sanctions will be discussed in three months. It appears that the Minsk Agreements will not be implemented this year either. In addition, the intensified shelling in Donbass and the provocation in Crimea show that the Minsk Agreements did not help ether to freeze the conflict in Donbass or to create a two-part scheme taking Crimea out of the context of Ukraine’s conflict with Russia.
Western media have already expressed regret that Moscow does not want to participate in the negotiation process. However, the Russian leadership’s latest statements cannot be interpreted as withdrawal from the Minsk process. The Minsk Agreements are death, long live the Minsk arrangements!
So what will come to replace the Minsk Agreements? As an alternative to it, it has been suggested to make a new agreement – figuratively speaking, Minsk -3 – that will require deployment of international peacekeepers in Donbass as the key measure. Part of the Russian expert society welcomes the suggestion as it will help defusing “geopolitical tension” in the relations of Russia and the West. However, they are concerned that deployment of “international peacekeepers” on the engagement line in Donbass will neither freeze the conflict nor resolve t. What if Ukraine refuses to implement the main part of the Minsk Agreement even after such measures and uses the presence of “international peacekeepers” as an instrument of new military provocations? After all, Kiev has been shown an absolute inability to negotiate throughout the previous year.
The most recent developments in Crimea showed that Kiev may resort to a wide range of steps when it comes to provocations and obstructions. The incident in Crimea made it clear to Moscow that there will be no conditional face-saving concession. Russia’s enemies need a full political capitulation of its leadership. So far, the incident in Crimea revealed that U.S. is ready to raise the stakes in the conflict in Ukraine, while Russia that observes the Minsk Agreement - is not ready to do it.