Ukraine’s ‘quiet war’ with Russia threatens to turn into a full-scale conflict

With their back to the wall, Ukraine’s commanders are marshaling their forces and opening new supply lines in order to chase Russia out of the Crimea.

Over the last few months, in the wake of Russian adventurism in Crimea, Ukraine’s navy chief, Maksim Sushchenko, has refitted an abandoned naval base in Mariupol, and ordered his troops to gather at key territorial waters in the Crimea. On the frontline of the tense conflict in the Donbass region, commander Sushchenko says that the arrival of a dozen Russian naval vessels has brought tensions to “dangerous levels.”

Having spent a quarter-century in the Soviet Navy, Sushchenko sees a defining moment for the country’s armed forces. “If we do not catch Putin now, it will be 10 years more and we will still be in an identical situation to what we are now,” he said.

In the spring, Ukraine allowed the intervention of Turkish forces to allow Turkish weapons to be delivered to the separatists in the Donbass, sending a message that Ankara was involved in the fray. But before Moscow could meddle, the separatists overtook their adversary.

On Friday, Russian news agencies reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin was about to allow Moscow’s navy to take part in an anti-piracy naval exercise off Somalia. The global mobilization to deal with the migrant crisis has made the sea an attractive location for joint exercises. According to reports, of the 75 ships that NATO is planning to send to the Mediterranean in July, 30 will be military vessels.

Amid Russia’s posturing, Ukraine is reeling, losing ground to the separatists — and now being pushed out of the Crimean port of Mariupol by Russian-backed separatists.

Many in Ukraine’s political elite complain that the West is not doing enough. Dmitry Yarosh, the leader of the far-right political group Right Sector, who has been an outspoken opponent of a ceasefire, says that NATO should send its help to Ukraine — although he does not appear to be in a hurry to get them there. He says that the EU is “playing with Russian symbols” and that a real war with Russia would be too expensive.

Slavko Patonuk, the chairman of the War Policy and Strategy Committee in Ukraine’s parliament, told the Guardian that if President Putin continued to pose a threat to Ukraine, then he should use Syria’s airfields to support separatists in the east. (Patonuk, who like all members of the Committee represents a political party instead of a party in parliament, did not specify if this meant Russia should provide some of the rebels’ weapons.)

Ukraine’s frustration highlights a fundamental divide in the country. In a country which remains almost entirely controlled by the post-Soviet sphere of influence, many remain attached to the ethos of the Soviet Union and to a different period in its history, one where collective responsibility for matters of the nation was clear.

The heavy casualties in the Donbass, however, have made the conflict more difficult to manage. As a result, President Petro Poroshenko is turning to the United States for help, although Ukraine’s biggest relief effort since WWII. This month, the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, the United States and Poland will come together to review joint military exercises and coordinate future plans to bolster the military. Poroshenko is set to visit Washington in August for further talks.

As in Ukraine, the United States is running diplomatic operations to train the rebels in the Donbass. There is an ambitious $400 million Pentagon program to train Ukrainian troops. But without real assistance, these NATO and EU programs may prove too small and too inadequate to check Moscow’s ambitions.

Ukraine’s navy, with help from the militia groups, has increased its presence off the Crimean coast, and will concentrate there, including involving the country’s Navy base at Feodosia, on the outskirts of Crimea’s capital.

Captain Sushchenko insists that the move was defensive, but admits that it will be dangerous. He spoke of an eerie calm over his forces: “We are now waiting for the other side.”

It’s a silent war, he says. “We need time for this one to cool down.”


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