Donald Trump might consider sounding a wee bit less enamored of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he ostensibly invited to interfere in our elections. Putin may be staging a repeat of the invasion he launched in Georgia in 2008. The location this time, unsurprisingly, is Ukraine — where Trump did not understand Putin’s forces have been active (and not simply in Crimea).
President Vladimir Putin promised to respond to what he called Kiev’s “terror” tactics in Crimea, raising the stakes as fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed rebels intensifies in the country once again.
The flare-up derailed plans to rekindle diplomatic talks over the war-ravaged region, with Putin telling reporters Wednesday in Moscow that a proposal to hold peace negotiations on the sidelines of a Group of 20 meeting in China next month is now “pointless.” His secret service earlier accused its counterpart in the neighboring country of having killed two Russian servicemen in two separate incidents during a covert operation on the disputed peninsula. Ukraine’s president called the accusations “cynical.”
“We certainly won’t let such things pass by,” Putin said. “We will adopt additional security measures, and they will be very serious additional measures.”
This suggests that another pretext for military action is in the works:
Two Russian servicemen died in separate incidents over the past week as security forces detained armed Ukrainian intelligence officers planning subversive acts in Crimea, the Federal Security Service, the main successor of the Soviet-era KGB that’s known as FSB, said on Wednesday.
Ukraine denied involvement in any attacks and National Security and Defense Council head Oleksandr Turchynov in an e-mailed statement called the accusation an example of Russia’s “hybrid war.” President Petro Poroshenko said the accusation is “fiction” that could serve as an “excuse for further military threats,” while he pledged to stay committed to politics and diplomacy to resolve the conflict.
Russia-watchers see a familiar pattern. “The parallels with the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war are striking,” writes Anders Aslund. “That conflict started with the Olympic games in Beijing. The United States president was a lame duck amid the presidential election campaign. Russia was pursuing a large-scale military exercise called Caucasus 2008 in the Northern Caucasus. The Kremlin blamed Georgia for an implausible attack.” He points out that now, as then, Russia is claiming it’s the victim:
During August 6-7, Russian troops amassed in northern Crimea. Roadblocks were set up and the three checkpoints connecting the region to the rest of Ukraine were closed. Vague Russian reports complained about some Ukrainian incursion. President Petro Poroshenko called the Ukrainian troops on high alert. . . .
The FSB, the KGB’s successor, published a statement on its website claiming that it had averted terrorist attacks prepared by Ukraine’s special forces against critical infrastructure in Crimea.
There is no evidence to back up Moscow’s claim, but Putin is leaving very little to the imagination. He asserts, “Ukraine is choosing terror,” and vows, “We will do everything we can, of course, to ensure security at infrastructure facilities and protect people, and we will take additional security measures, serious additional measures, technical and others.” Ukraine claims that this is all a ruse.
At the State Department briefing yesterday, spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau sounded nonchalant:
MS TRUDEAU: Okay. So we’ve seen the reports. We’re going to refer you to the Government of Ukraine for further information. I would note that we’re also directly in touch with Ukrainians ourselves.
QUESTION: So Crimea, you do not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Correct?
MS TRUDEAU: No. And in fact, I welcome the question, because we don’t want to be distracted from the real issue here, which is not only Russia’s occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea, but their continued aggression in eastern Ukraine. Our view on Crimea is well known. Crimea is and will always be part of Ukraine. We condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea, and our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns the peninsula to Ukraine.
QUESTION: So if you don’t recognize the annexation of Crimea by Russia, doesn’t Ukraine have the right to send anybody it wants into what is, after all, Ukrainian territory?
MS TRUDEAU: What I would say is that we would refer you to the Government of Ukraine to speak to these reports of actions. As I said, I’m not in a position to confirm it, but we are directly in touch with Ukrainians as well.
One would hope that the United States, behind closed doors, is more emphatic than that. In the meantime, Trump — who never seems to take issue with Russia and who surrounds himself with Putin fanboys — may be about to get a lesson on why we just can’t all get along with Russia.