If I lived in Mariupol, I’d be moving. The port city of approximately 500,000 people sits on the coast of the Sea of Azov in southeastern Ukraine. The front lines of the conflict between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russian separatists are only a few miles away. The city has been shelled several times and residents fear a coming invasion as Ukrainian troops attempt to fortify the city’s borders to the east.
The problem is Mariupol sits in a very desirable place at the moment — right between the separatists and access to the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed by Russia last year. As the ceasefire that was signed in Minsk in April slowly fades, Ukraine and the West fear the worst.
NATO has repeatedly warned that Russia is massing forces on its border with Ukraine. Severe fighting just broke out in Maryinka and Krasnohorivka, outside of Donetsk, along the central front lines. There are rumors of significant casualties on both sides. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has warned of imminent all-out war with Russia.
Russia has no way of supplying the Crimean Peninsula from land. Everything must be done by sea and it is very expensive. Construction has started on a bridge over the Kerch Strait from mainland Russia to Crimea and is scheduled to be opened in 2019 to the public. However, a land bridge to Crimea along the southeastern Ukrainian coast must look very appetizing to the Kremlin. Enter Mariupol.
Interfax News recently reported, the speaker of the Federation Council (Russian parliament’s upper chamber), Valentina Matviyenko, said to legislators, referring to their upcoming recess, that “there might be a need to hold an additional session of the Federation Council. So I am asking you to not go far and remain in contact. If such a decision is made, we will inform you in a timely fashion.” This request, coincidentally, was made on the first day in some time that serious fighting erupted in East Ukraine. The last time Russian President Vladimir Putin called a special session of parliament was to obtain authorization to use military force in the neighboring country. It was rescinded a months later.
Mr. Putin likely knows he has 20 months to get what he wants before a new U.S. president is sworn into office. Mr. Putin, and the world, are very aware that President Obama will not get involved in a European conflict in Ukraine. Without the United States, NATO will not get involved either. The clock is ticking.
Yesterday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov avoided directly answering when asked if Putin would use an emergency session of the Duma to obtain authorization to use military force in Ukraine. “The president may use any of his constitutional rights. That’s his right,” he was quoted as saying by Russian media. Other Kremlin sources have denied Russia is intending to cross the border in an overt invasion and that the request for legislators to remain close is simply for administrative reasons.
I think Mr. Putin has decided that he wants this land bridge. I think he will take it. I think he is just waiting for the appropriate stars to line up on the geopolitical stage. Today Moscow rebuffed an olive branch from the German government to consider allowing Russia back into the G7. Russia stated a desire to further cement gains with emerging market countries such as China, India, and others, rather than cozy back up with the West.
Russia believes it has an historical right to control this territory. Mr. Putin famously told George W. Bush that Ukraine was not worth worrying about because it wasn’t even a country. This belief is procreated throughout social media channels from the separatist movement in Donetsk.
I think the only questions remaining are when will the Red Army move and what will the West do about it.