Ukraine has been a thorn in Russia’s side for more than a decade, starting in the 2000s with the Orange Revolution, which ended with pro-democracy protests in Kiev in 2004. Russia sent thousands of troops to its eastern neighbor at the beginning of the European soccer championship in 2016. Following that incursion, Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman accused Moscow of intervening in Ukraine’s internal affairs, noting, “The elections on December 15 [in Russia] will turn out to be a precedent, not for Ukraine, but for the whole of Russia.”
Throughout this period, Russia has deployed its army, its FSB intelligence agency and its electronic warfare forces to Ukraine — a move that not only infringes on Ukrainian sovereignty, but potentially also raises the specter of World War III. And the Russian-Ukrainian chess game has reached its most serious points since the American-Ukrainian Encounter in 1927.
What do the Kremlin and the Ukrainian government want?
As the calendar rolls to December, Ukrainian security services and the military are both preparing for any scenario. And Russian President Vladimir Putin is reported to be approaching every crisis he faces with a contingency plan involving Crimea.
“Our military operations in Crimea and the conflict in Donbass bear the characteristics of a post-Soviet classic conflict,” says Yuri Burlakov, an expert with the Izvestia-Maxim Gorki Center in Moscow. “I think that Putin was given this history lesson by Viktor Yanukovych, our ousted prime minister. Our current administration was well aware of what turned Yanukovych from a small European country into an ogre, but there was little they could do.”
Ukraine’s forces are amassing in areas near the Crimean Peninsula. The Ukrainian military has also beefed up security and prepared for a massive ground operation, while Ukrainian journalists have started reporting reports of intensified Russian-backed separatist activity near the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukrainian security services are sending drones to nearby areas for surveillance. They’ve also taken down several Russian helicopters at the border.
“These D-Day preparations are part of the Ukrainian army’s ‘annual battle drills,’ which means that although these are not holidays, a period of increased military activity will definitely be decided this year,” says Volodymyr Chaly, head of the Ukraine International Institute of Strategic Studies (Ukriyor) in Kiev.
Russia has been more cautious with its military preparations, opting instead to plant enormous Russian flags in Ukrainian territory near the Russian border. This past summer, dozens of such Russian military vehicles crossed into eastern Ukraine. Many, like a truck, were loaded with firecrackers and other heavy equipment. In addition, it is estimated that more than 150 SU-24 fighter jets have been dispatched to Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave that borders Poland and Lithuania.
These air and ground maneuvers are seen as a show of force — including possible response forces — from the Kremlin against Ukraine’s rising nationalist movement and against the upcoming election in Russia. Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s saber-rattling around NATO’s presence in the Baltic has gradually tapered down in recent months.
For the Ukrainian government, however, this arsenal of unsupervised forces is a headache that could complicate its integration with NATO. And as Ukrainian military activity approaches its peak this year, the exercise will also likely provoke some displeasure in the West.
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