Russia and Ukraine seem closer than ever to direct combat

To fight or not to fight?
To fight or not to fight?
Image: Reuters/Ivan Sekretarev
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Only yesterday, Russian president Vladimir Putin seemed to be effectively waving the white flag and signaling that he was prepared to step back from a war footing in Ukraine. Now, Russia and Ukraine appear again to be teetering on the verge of direct combat.

In an Aug. 14 speech in Crimea, Putin sounded conciliatory, saying that he intended to stand up for Russia but “not fence it off from the outside world. We need to consolidate and mobilize, but not for war or any kind of confrontation.”

Meanwhile, he dispatched a 275-vehicle convoy of what Russian officials identified as humanitarian goods to Ukraine. Kyiv suspected a ruse such as a Trojan Horse but along the route journalists checked trucks at random and found just sleeping bags, food, and other products with no military application.

But suspicions in Kyiv and at NATO remained acute when evidence surfaced of a separate, overnight incursion by Russian military vehicles into Ukraine (supported by eye-witness accounts from British journalists). NATO and Kyiv called this the continuation of numerous days of destabilizing actions by Moscow.

Then today Kyiv announced that it had attacked and destroyed some of the Russian armored vehicles that it said had crossed its border. It said rounds of fire were coming from the Russian side of the border.

In a statement, Russia’s foreign ministry expressed concern about a disruption to the humanitarian convoy. Russia has persistently denied any cross-border incursions or shooting.

Ukraine’s actions seemed to push the already-tense bilateral friction to a new level. By carrying out the attack at a time its forces seem already close to crushing separatists in their last enclave of Donetsk, the move seemed designed to taunt Putin.

Matthew Rojansky, a Russia and Ukraine expert at the Wilson Center, said that the risk of a Russian invasion remained, and he rejected the notion that Putin’s speech in Crimea yesterday signaled that he was backing off of Ukraine. Instead, he posited, we are watching a dual-track strategy—Putin attempting to appear big-hearted with the humanitarian gesture, while the pro-Russian separatists continue the war. Rojansky told Quartz by email,

Are the separatists and their allies on the Russian side of the border going to try to take advantage by slipping something under the wire? Sure, why wouldn’t they? It’s win-win. If the Ukrainians attack Russian forces directly it creates a casus belli for Russian intervention. If they don’t do anything, the rebels get supplies and reinforcements.

Looping back to Putin’s speech in Crimea, perhaps the most important fact is that, unlike virtually every other of his utterances, Putin’s words weren’t broadcast live in Russia. This could suggest either that Putin wanted to avoid appearing soft before the Russian public after months of a hard-edged and threatening defiance of the West; or that the speech was intended to mislead the West.

Whatever the case, the markets believe that the threat of direct fighting has risen, and that seems right.