This is war: why the shoot-out in Crimea has not been declared a misunderstanding

August 11, 2016

Russia’s FSB spy agency said on August 10 that it had foiled a series of attacks by armed Ukrainians on the peninsula. Minutes later, Vladimir Putin accused Kyiv’s pro-western government of choosing terror over peace. Meanwhile, largely unnoticed by the outside world, Russia has been stealthily shipping military vehicles to Crimea, which Putin annexed in the spring of 2014.

TOPSHOTS Russian soldiers patrol the area surrounding the Ukrainian military unit in Perevalnoye, outside Simferopol, on March 20, 2014. Kiev will never recognise Russia's annexation of Crimea and will fight for the "liberation" of the strategic Black Sea peninsula, Ukraine's parliament said in a resolution adopted on March 20. AFP PHOTO/ Filippo MONTEFORTE
Russian soldiers patrol the area surrounding the Ukrainian military unit in Perevalnoye, outside Simferopol, on March 20, 2014. AFP PHOTO/ Filippo MONTEFORTE

 Oleg Kashin

It’s difficult to remember who was the first to prophesy that the next escalation in the situation between Russia and Ukraine would start during Rio 2016. It was probably one of the Ukrainian commentators, who could have reasoned that the war with Georgia happened during the Beijing Olympics, and the annexation of Crimea immediately after the Sochi Winter Olympics; and now we have Rio. Will Russia really pass up the opportunity to do something while attention is focused on the Olympics? It seems that these commentators were actually right – fighting in Crimea has started right in the middle of the Olympics.

However, there is an important qualification to be made when talking about military engagements: events of recent years have taught us that there is not always a link between military action and military rhetoric. War on the ground and war on our TV screens could well not be connected: we saw what happened in Donbas, and is now going on in Syria. In this conflict, statements about withdrawing the fighting force and the re-designation of the Russian military headquarters as the “Centre for Peacemaking” preceded increased information about Russian losses. This Orwellian turn of events no longer surprises us, and the news of shooting on the border (qualification needed here – if there was actually any shooting and it wasn’t just an invention by the authors of the FSB press release) – is of itself not particularly significant. There is a “compromise” version, stemming from somewhere inside Ukraine, about some Russian deserters, who were being chased and returned fire; in order to avoid a situation which looked like a local police failure, it was virtually ramped up to the status of a Ukrainian diversion.

It’s highly unlikely that anyone will be able to say for sure if there were deserters or not, but it’s simpler to believe in an anti-terrorist performance, stage-managed by the Russians, than in a real Ukrainian attack on Crimea. To be more precise – it’s completely unimportant whether it was Ukrainians or deserters or some kind of virtual malefactors, played by officers of the FSB itself. If the objective had been to avoid escalating the situation, the whole affair would have ended in silence, or in rebuttals, and then someone else would have said something about Ukrainian partners who are responsible for security of the peninsula from their side of the border. But no, the news reports have upped the ante to such an extent that it’s practically real war. This manipulation has been managed by the Russians, who have no need of any compromise versions because they’re only interested in terrorism and in hardcore – in the sense that it’s not just enthusiasts, as it was during the energy blockade of Crimea, but “agents of the Ukrainian state” carrying out orders from Kyiv. Russia is consciously engineering escalation, while ignoring all possible chances for preserving the peaceful status quo ante.

It behoves us to remembeer that the FSB spent years studying just this in the Caucasus – daily reports of yet more victories over one criminal group after another, when each person shot is a terrorist, and each person doing the shooting, a hero. Crimea is, of course, not very like the Caucasus, but if you try hard enough, anything can be achieved.

This article first appeared in Slon

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