More than two months after Russia detained 24 Ukrainian sailors in the Kerch Strait, the European Union has redoubled its pressure on Moscow for their release. The EU’s Moscow envoy, Markus Ederer, has issued a personal demand to Russia’s deputy foreign minister that the Kremlin immediately and unconditionally release the crewmen. Meanwhile, the U.S. Special envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, has warned that Russia may face fresh sanctions from both Washington and Brussels if it doesn’t comply, vindicating the demands made by both Denmark and the Czech Republic.
But so far, Russia has paid little heed to the Western demands. In fact, Moscow has actually extended the sailors’ pre-trial detention, and told Ederer that the EU should focus its attentions elsewhere. This intransigence has only fuelled concerns that Vladimir Putin is preparing a fresh offensive against Ukraine to coincide with the country’s presidential elections, which may represent his last hope of stopping Kiev drifting even further away from Moscow under pro-EU President Petro Poroshenko.
Putin has been hassling Ukraine ever since Poroshenko took over in 2014, following the revolution which ousted the Russophile Viktor Yanukovych. Moscow has spent the past five years backing an insurgency by pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region, despite economic sanctions from the U.S. and EU which, according to some estimates, have already drained the Kremlin’s coffers of an estimated €150 billion.
But now, Poroshenko believes Russia is ready to escalate its hostility and launch a “full-scale war” to bring Ukraine to heel. He points to the fact that Russia has used the Kerch Strait as a pretext for further aggression, moving to take full control of the surrounding waters – despite a 2003 treaty which established Ukraine’s joint control – and flooding them with military vessels and submarines. To compound these fears, various satellite images show scores of troops, tanks and missile launchers being arrayed along the Ukrainian border. According to Poroshenko, 80,000 soldiers are waiting to move against his country.
Yet the Ukrainian premier remains defiant. He demands that Russia respect “our right to go our own way” down a path which, he says, leads away from Moscow and towards Brussels. Russia’s intention, he adds, is to divide and rule, to “split us into parts [and] easily swallow us,” but the “national idea”, which is guiding Ukraine into the arms of both the EU and NATO, will ultimately prove too strong.
For Putin, this is a nightmare scenario. He’s built his political career on pledges to make Russia great again following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet now, he faces the prospect of one of Moscow’s closest neighbours, with which it has a history of close cultural links, breaking away forever.
Poroshenko has already taken Ukraine a long way down this road. He’s terminated Ukraine’s friendship treaty with Russia, encouraged the renaissance of the Ukrainian language and backed constitutional changes that facilitate accession to the EU. In a particularly symbolic step, he’s also overseen the separation of the Ukrainian orthodox church from its Russian counterpart, breaking a 400-year period of hegemony. Ukrainians are in no doubt how significant this move is; one diplomat has said that, by achieving autocephaly, “we have torn up the last chains that tied us to Moscow.”
But now, Poroshenko faces a battle for re-election. And despite his bold promise to bid for EU membership in 2024, he’s trailing in the polls. His challenger? Veteran oligarch Yulia Tymoshenko, who has served two terms as Ukraine’s prime minister and is now campaigning on a populist ticket, promising to reverse Poroshenko’s reforms – which, according to some Ukrainians, aren’t moving quickly enough – and implement populist measures, such as raising wages and pensions for ordinary people.
Echoing her opponent, Tymoshenko has promised to prioritize EU and NATO membership, and reclaim all territories recently lost to Russia. But her track record provides grounds for scepticism. She has regularly launched scathing attacks against Ukraine’s reformist parties, despite the endorsement they have secured from the EU. More worrying still are her ties to Moscow; a native Russian-speaker, she has happily aligned herself with the Kremlin in the past, notably in 2008 when she conspired with Putin to oust then-president Viktor Yushchenko, her former revolutionary comrade. She’s also apologized for Russian aggression in Georgia and, most infamously of all, negotiated a gas deal which was so favourable to Moscow that she ended up being jailed for it.
Having repeatedly endorsed Tymoshenko in the past, it’s not hard to work out who Putin is rooting for this time. Given the repeated allegations of Russian involvement in Western elections, Ukraine is already on high alert. The country’s military commander in the east says he expects an escalation in fighting to coincide with the elections, while the chief of police has predicted major provocation from Moscow to stir up those who still harbour Russian and Soviet sympathies. Poroshenko, for his part, has warned that Russia will use the election as a “final chance to get its revenge.”
Will Russia take this chance, or will Poroshenko beat Putin back? The polling suggests that, at present, it’s too close to call. But, given the strategic and historical significance of Ukraine, we can be certain that Putin will turn the election into a new battleground, and mount a concerted campaign of intimidation to swing it his way. The EU may think it can pressure Moscow to relent, but all it will achieve is to make the Kremlin strongman more determined.