US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter sails in the Bosphorus, Istanbul, on its way to the Black Sea, January 28, 2021
The terrible beauty of “frozen conflicts” is that it takes hardly any effort to turn up the heat and re-escalate them into hot violence, but pressing the “pause” button later would need consensus, which is not so easy. The frozen conflict in Ukraine’s Donbass has gone through this cycle repeatedly, and is lurching toward another.
However, this time around, great uncertainties arise, as the international environment is complicated and a consensus involving Russia on one side and France, Germany, and the US on the other is almost impossible to reach. Russia’s relations with Europe are in doldrums and a willing suspension of hostility toward Moscow may not be appealing to the Biden administration.
The residual violations of the ceasefire in Donbass apart, Kiev has lately shifted to a hostile mode toward Moscow. Ukraine withdrew in February from the agreements on civil aviation and the use of airspace signed within the framework of the Commonwealth of Independent States in December 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Kiev has also sharply atrophied its trade with Russia and reduced it to a minuscule.
The Kremlin regretted on February 26 that the Ukrainian leadership “actually rejects any relations and chooses a very unfriendly, and often even hostile, path.” Coincidence or not, this risky trajectory also runs parallel with the Biden administration’s belligerent rhetoric toward Russia and continuing NATO deployments toward Russia’s western borders, especially the Black Sea.
Moscow revealed last week that the number of NATO spy plane flights near Russia’s state borders grew by over 30% in the first three months of 2021– and, Russian radars tracked 50 foreign aircraft that conducted air reconnaissance near the state borders over the past week alone.
Of course, what would worry Russia most is that the US Navy, along with its NATO allies, “has dramatically increased a maritime presence in the Black Sea, (as) part of a strategy to emphasise that Russian militarisation of the waters between Europe and Asia since the 2014 annexation of Crimea will not go unchallenged,” as a commentary by Voice of America put it in early February, just a fortnight into the Biden presidency.
Specifically, the commentary was reflecting on “the largest deployment of the US Navy in the Black Sea since 2017” — USS Porter, a guided missile destroyer, entering the Black Sea waters to join the USS Donald Cook and a refuelling ship, the USNS Laramie to patrol alongside other NATO and Ukrainian warships in joint exercises in February.
A NATO spokesman was quoted as saying that the Western alliance was boosting its Black Sea presence “in response to Russia’s illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its ongoing military buildup.” Interestingly, just ahead of the US naval deployment in the Black Sea, Biden inserted himself to warn Moscow that he would “act firmly” against Russian aggression in the region.
Unsurprisingly, Russia reacted to these Western exercises in early February, dispatching a Bastion missile defense system to Crimea and deploying the Admiral Makarov frigate in the Black Sea. Indeed, the VOA commentary was quite explicit about the overall thrust of the US-led NATO escalation in the Black Sea:
“Kremlin wants to prevent the Black Sea from becoming a “NATO lake” but aims to ensure that no new East-West energy corridor can bypass Russia or weaken its grip on oil and gas exports. The Russian military has also been using the Black Sea for naval operations in the Eastern Mediterranean in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and to assist the warlord Gen. Khalifa Haftar in Libya.”
Suffice to say, Ukraine is primed up as a geopolitical tool against Russia. Of course, it is a “win-win” for Washington and Kiev. The leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky who came to power in 2019 on a plank of resolving the Donbass stalemate and navigate ties with Russia toward calmer waters is staring at a stalemate in the east and plummeting ties with the Kremlin. Worse still, Europe lost interest in him and Donald Trump had simply ignored him.
Today, ex-comedian Zelensky has nothing to lose by showing the middle finger at Russia. He will be pandering to his domestic audience that is disappointed with his performance in office, making himself available for Biden’s team in Washington as an indispensable bell boy in Eurasia, and, perhaps, may even gain something out of it in terms of US support —politically, militarily and financially.
Moscow’s reported deployment of troops on the Ukrainian border in the last week appears to be a precautionary step lest Zelensky did something rash as Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili once did in 2008 on Hillary Clinton’s instigation that led to a nasty brawl with Russia and the dismemberment of Georgia. In fact, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov openly warned Thursday that any attempts spearheaded by the West to start a new military conflict in Ukraine’s war-torn east would culminate in the destruction of Ukraine.
Lavrov said most of Ukraine’s military appeared to understand the danger of a “hot conflict” in Donbass. ”I very much hope that they will not be incited by politicians, who in turn will be incited by the West, led by the United States. Russian President Putin said this not long ago, but this statement is still relevant today, that those who would try to start a new war in Donbass will destroy Ukraine,” Lavrov added.
The Kremlin cannot but be on guard, given Russia’s forthcoming parliamentary election. But concerns over Zelensky’s erratic behaviour apart, in the assessment of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, “Russia is unlikely to be preparing for either a major or a localised offensive at this time.” This is also the sense David Ignatius at the Washington Post got from Pentagon officials who see in the Russian deployments (reportedly some 4000 troops) more the “evidence of a training operation, rather than preparations for an invasion” of Ukraine.
But the problem with frozen conflicts that are geopolitical in character is that once they are heated up, they acquire a dynamic of their own. In fact, Ignatius quoted a senior Biden administration official: “We are not looking to reset our relations with Russia nor to escalate. Our goal is to impose costs for actions we consider unacceptable, while seeking stability, predictability, turning down the temperature. If they’re inclined to turn the temperature up, we’re ready for that.” Ignatius noted that US options include “expedited assistance to Ukraine and sanctions .”
Herein lies the catch. Zelensky’s latest call for NATO deployments to Ukraine may have more to it than meets the eye. The flurry of phone calls from Washington to Kiev — from state secretary and defence secretary to President Biden himself — in the past 2-3 days vowing to defend Ukraine convey a strong signal to Moscow, which has repeatedly described Ukraine’s membership of NATO and the deployment of troops there as a red line.
Significantly, the Kremlin-funded RT noted in a commentary that “The situation has echoes of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis … that led the two superpowers close to nuclear war.” The Kremlin appears to seek a denouement as had happened in 1962. But then, unlike Kennedy, does Biden really want a denouement when the name of the game is to poke the bear?
Consider the seamless possibilities here for the Biden administration to set a “bear trap” for the Kremlin. A protracted standoff bogs down Russia and takes some shine off Putin during an important election year in Russia, while Washington gets a free hand to play Kiev against Moscow, rally the NATO allies and consolidate its transatlantic leadership over Europe. All in all, Biden may not be in a hurry to press the “pause” button and revert Ukraine to a frozen conflict mode.