Does Russia Want War With Ukraine? Not Really—Or Not Yet

Image: A vehicle at Russia’s international military games. Photo via Russian Ministry of Defense.

Nothing short of occupying Kiev would achieve Russia's goals in Ukraine—and that won't happen.

The recent escalation of hostilities in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region and increased military-political tensions around Crimea bring to mind the refrain of a popular song from the times when both these territories were still part of one country: “Do Russians want war?” Upon examining conflicting reports of allegations that Ukrainian agents crossed into Russian-controlled Crimea on August 7 to attempt acts of sabotage and of Russia’s reaction to that alleged incursion, my answer is: “Not yet.” While pro-Russian forces in Donbass may be ratcheting up armed violence, the “full-scale Russian invasion” feared by Ukrainian leaders appears unlikely, if only because no territorial gains, short of an occupation of Kiev, would advance Russia’s main, minimally acceptable demand vis-à-vis Ukraine: the latter’s military-political neutrality.

Known Unknowns

A number of questions about the events of August 7-9 in Crimea remain unanswered to date. Did Ukrainian saboteurs clad in camouflage fatigues really sneak into Crimea under cover of night August 7-8 to realize an evil plot for “killing tourism” in the peninsula, as Russian authorities insist? Or did Russian secret services kidnap an innocent Ukrainian citizen and force false confessions out of him, as Ukrainian law-enforcers would want us to believe? Russia seems to have produced greater volumes of what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has described as “irrefutable evidence” of the alleged Ukrainian sabotage. Yet Kiev continues to deny that any Ukrainian “green men” crossed into Crimea. In doing so, the Ukrainians may be borrowing a page from the Russians’ own playbook for Operation Crimea-2014, which redefined the notion of what constitutes a covert operation: In an age when multiple nations maintain 24/7 eyes in the sky, “covert” is no longer what you manage to expertly conceal, but what you staunchly deny.

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