WASHINGTON, September 7, 2016 — Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to ratchet up pressure on Ukraine in early August, with the bizarre accusation that Ukrainian military saboteurs attempted to infiltrate Crimea to commit destabilizing, terrorist attacks.
His motive for those accusations may have involved meetings with German and French leaders at the G20 summit in Hangzhou. Those meetings failed.
Putin’s evidence last month included bombs made of plastic soda bottles and other improvised explosives. That made no sense. Ukraine has a military industry capable of producing standard explosive devices, with no need to improvise bombs in some babushka’s kitchen.
Aside from the improbability of the bottle bombs, the odds that a group of military saboteurs with IEDs could enter and destabilize Crimea, which the Kremlin has sealed off as tightly as a military base, are vanishingly small. That kind of operation would have no military or political justification.
Putin’s reasons for making the accusation at first struck some observers as obscure. Ukrainian officials said the accusation might be a pretext for another Russian invasion. A more likely possibility was that Russia, needing western sanctions to be lifted, wanted to shift blame for the stalemate in progress under the Minsk II peace accord entirely to Kyiv.
Putin made that argument on August 10, during a joint press conference with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan in Yerevan.
However, I would like to appeal to our American and European partners too. I think it is now clear to all that the authorities in Kiev today are not looking for a solution to the problem through negotiations, but are resorting to terror. This is a very worrying development.
What we have seen just now in Crimea looks like a foolish and criminal action. It is foolish because you cannot have a positive impact on the people in Crimea in this manner, and it is criminal because people have lost their lives.
At the G20 summit this week, Putin planned to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande to discuss Ukraine. The meeting was announced in August, two weeks after Russia discovered the terrorist plot.
It was clearly Putin’s hope to arrange a private agreement with Merkel and Hollande without the presence of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. It would have been his own version of Munich or of Yalta, an arrangement with other “great powers” that could be imposed on the nation not invited to the meeting.
As Radio Free Europe’s Brian Whitmore observes, this is classically Russian SOP. And to their credit, Merkel and Hollande did not fall for it.
The two leaders met separately with Putin and followed those meetings with a separate meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama. They did not allow themselves to be buffaloed by Putin’s manufactured crises in Crimea and Ukraine.
Hollande and Merkel refused to deal with Putin on Ukraine without the participation of the Ukrainians. In a press conference afterward, Putin admitted that he will have to meet with Poroshenko to continue the four-way talks between Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany. “There are no other options to regulate the conflict,” said Putin.
Before Russia invaded Crimea, Russian sources claimed that the Ukrainian “fascists” who had toppled the legitimate regime in Kyiv were planning to invade Crimea themselves. Since the annexation of Crimea, Russia has been faced with the problem of securing the peninsula. Their main options—building infrastructure to connect Crimea to Russia or invading Ukraine to secure a land bridge—are both expensive. With Russia’s economy contracting 4 percent last year and an expected 2 percent this year, and with its military heavily involved with Syria, Russia can scarcely afford either.
So Putin needs the sanctions dropped. A separate agreement with France and Germany would have done it.
In August, Russian state TV ran footage of a battered man in handcuffs, identified as Ukrainian military intelligence agent Evgeny Panov. Military interrogators declare that Panov has confessed to the provocation in Crimea. This, too, is Russian SOP. Putin knows and appreciates the classics. The West at last seems to be paying attention to them, too. That isn’t the music that Putin wished to hear.