EU Referendum

Ukraine: mischievous alarmism?


An extremely interesting report here suggests that Ukrainian politicians may have been deliberately ramping up the tension, possibly with a view to galvanising external support.

The report relates to recent planned "tactical exercises" conducted by the Russian Army, in the Rostov, Belgorod and Kursk regions. These have attracted "heightened attention" from Ukraine, with the acting defence Minister Admiral Igor Tenyukh claiming that Moscow has been preparing for an invasion.

Tenyukh has been asserting that Russia had amassed as many as 220,000 troops, 1,800 tanks and more than 400 helicopters, whereas Russia denies that anything like this scale of deployment has been involved. Forces in the Western, and Central Military districts we placed on alert last month for an "unannounced inspection" (part of the routine military protocol, to ensure readiness).  This was a "sudden readiness check", notified on 20 February by order of Presidient Putin, and widely reported at the time

According to official sources 150,000 troops, 870 tanks, 90 aircraft, 120 helicopters and 1,500 other assets (ships, artillery ordnance, armoured personnel carriers and vehicles) were mobilised (see video clip above). 

Crucially, though, all these forces had returned to their barracks by 7 March, something that Admiral Tenyukh could not have failed to have known as an official announcement was made about this by the Russian Military. Yet, four days later, Tenyukh made his allegations about Russian troop movements. More videos of such movements have emerged. See below:

Throughout the period, though, the Ukrainian military had been offered free access to fly reconnaissance aircraft over the exercise areas so that they could reassure themselves about Russian intentions. They could see for themselves that there was no plan to invade.

This is seen as explaining recent statement by Russian Deputy Minister for Defence, Anatoliy Antonov. He stated that, "The Ukrainian Military Department are already well aware that the Russian Southern and Western Military Districts combined do not amount to the numbers of tanks and combat helicopters cited by Mr. Teryukh".

The number of personnel deployed to the Ukrainian border zone, he suggested, was "in all probability based on calculations that took into account the families of servicemen".

Needless to say, we see continuous media reports, such as in today's Daily Mail about supposed mobilisations. But, in a country where almost every other car seems to have a dash-cam, and there is free access to the web, no reliable evidence has emerged that would indicate that a full-scale military operation is planned.

Helen Szamuely has been watching the situation very carefully, and earlier today she told me she thought there were no political signs that would indicate an impending invasion. And she reminds us that, even in the days of the Czech invasion, there were plenty of warning signs that the Russians were planning their action.

In these says, it is virtually impossible for there to be large-scale troop movements without them being observed. But it isn't just the fact of movements which tell the story. As we have previously noted, the equipment and the nature of the units involved also tell a story. And there is simply nothing there to suggest a major action.

Meanwhile, a report on Window on Russia suggests that Putin's action could, under certain circumstances, be seen as "not just understandable, but quite reasonable".

Control over the Crimea provides the Russians with control over the Black Sea and all the southern underbelly of Ukraine. In this scenario, it blocks off any expansionist ambitions of the West, and renders unattractive the whole of Ukraine as a NATO military springboard.

With that, the feeling is that Putin has gone about as far as he needs to go, and will go no further without more provocation. Whether the western nations understand this remains to be seen, but there is no indication – from today's Council meeting that the EU has learned any lessons.

It is still moving ahead with the signing of the political provisions of the Association Agreement with the Ukraine on 21 March in Brussels and had confirmed "its commitment to proceed to the signature and conclusion of the remaining parts of the Agreement which together with the political provisions constitute a single instrument".

Whether Putin decides that to treat this as provocation is anyone's guess but, with the Russian strategic position having been secured by the return of Crimea to Russia, he may think that enough has been done. If the situation does calm down now, therefore, it will be no thanks to the EU.