Russia may be about to escalate its conflict with Ukraine, including possibly launching a breakout offensive from Crimea. This is according to Ukrainian officials.
Specifically, Ukrainian officials are accusing Moscow-backed separatists in their country’s Donbas region of violating the latest cease-fire (called a “New Year’s Truce”) by attacking Ukrainian positions with a heavy-calibre weapon banned under the Minsk peace agreements.
As reported by Voice of America, an increasing number of Russian military convoys have been spotted moving toward the border between Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Moscow in 2014, and Ukrainian-held territory, and there have been ominous fighter-jet redeployments to Crimean airfields, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.
“Russia continues to build up and prepare its military forces for possible offensive operations against Ukraine from the Crimean peninsula and the East,” the institute has reported. It says Russia could conduct such operations on short notice.
Analysts say the movements are threatening, but they are divided over the intent, with some suggesting President Vladimir Putin is keeping the West guessing.
“The data suggests that Putin is preparing to attack, although alternative interpretations are possible,” the institute said.
“The unpredictability is the point,” a senior European defence official told Voice of America. “Putin is testing Ukraine and the West to see if he’ll be checked, to see what he can get away with, and maybe with an eye to securing another summit early this year with [US President] Donald Trump,” he added.
Meanwhile, the press service of the Joint Forces Operation, the military command structure overseeing Ukraine’s defence against the Russian-led military intervention in eastern Ukraine, said Ukrainian positions near Novotashkivsk were struck by 120 millimetre mortar rounds on January 1.
Russian-led forces shelled Ukrainian positions also near the port city of Mariupol with 82mm mortars, the press service said.
A former adviser to Putin, Andrey Illarionov, now one of the Russian leader’s most strident critics, warned last month that Moscow is ready to deploy special forces to seize a vital Communist-era canal that used to provide 85% of Crimea’s fresh water before Ukraine blocked it in 2014. He said the peninsula will face a severe water shortage in the summer, impacting farms and factories, as well as households.
According to Voice of America, some analysts suggest that Putin might cast any seizing of the canal as an intervention necessitated to prevent a Ukraine-provoked humanitarian crisis on the peninsula.
As for the redeployments and military build up, former commander of US Army Europe, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who retired last year from active service, said it is alarming. The Russia government is seeking to redraw the borders more, he fears.
In an interview with the Military Times newspaper, Hodges said, unless there’s greater Western pushback, “they won’t stop until they completely own the Sea of Azov and have choked out Ukraine’s very important seaport of Mariupol”.
“The next phase will probably be land and sea operations that would eventually secure maybe even Mariupol but continue to take the Ukrainian coastline and connect Crimea back up to Russia along the Sea of Azov,” Hodges said. “It’s not going to happen in the next six months, but this is the direction they’re taking until they completely own the Black Sea and they’ve isolated Ukraine,” he added.