As winter approaches, the temperature has gotten exponentially hotter on the Crimean Peninsula and Ukraine’s border with Russia.
It is as if both Moscow and Kiev can see the writing on the wall, that a final solution is about to be imposed to the smoldering contest for dominance in Ukraine’s Donbass region. Although there is no hot war in Crimea, twice in the last several months, Russia has expressed outrage at alleged actions by Ukrainian “special forces” troops inside Crimea, which is now firmly under Russian control. The supposed terrorist sabotage has been accompanied by claims of abductions of Russian nationals.
What actually happened is anyone’s guess, and only the world’s intelligence agencies know the true story. What is important are not the actual facts on the ground but the narrative that each side is trying to spin in the international press.
Russia wants to portray Ukraine as the aggressor, possibly to set up justification for military action in Donbass or even further into Ukraine proper. Or perhaps Moscow’s accusations are meant for the domestic audience, to remind ordinary Russians of the perceived danger to their compatriots in Crimea, even as another brutal winter and a season of continued economic decline settle in. Russia recently moved two motorized rifle divisions to the Ukrainian border. It is safe to say, Kiev noticed.
For their part, the Ukrainians are also clearly prepping the journalistic battlefield.
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The perceived shift in the American policy toward reduced support for Ukraine under the incoming Trump administration has been noticed in Kiev as well. Ukraine’s narrative is that it is facing destruction from a exponentially more powerful neighbor. Kiev may even be intentionally poking the Russian bear in order to obtain sympathy and attention from a West that is much more focused on its own problems. Perhaps Ukraine wants to force the Trump transition team to take notice and reconsider what a Russian victory in Ukraine would mean for Europe and NATO.
Ratcheting up tensions even more, Ukraine just conducted surface-to-air missile tests near the Crimean Peninsula, even declaring Crimean territorial waters “danger areas.” Moscow responded by positioning additional warships in the Black Sea off the Ukrainian coast, setting up an impenetrable air defense network for the new Russian territory, with its weapon systems reportedly on hair-trigger settings to instantly shoot down any errant aircraft Moscow doesn’t like.
It seems both sides have concluded the final confrontation is coming and are preparing for the worst. Ukraine is obviously very worried about Russia taking things to the next level, and are concerned President-elect Donald Trump’s ambivalence toward Ukraine and NATO has emboldened President Vladimir Putin to take advantage of the U.S. transition period, when the president-elect will be learning the ropes.
It seems unlikely that Mr. Putin would take more territory and face the obvious consequences that would follow, that he would be so reckless in order to further his dreams of Russian empire. However, retired Gen. Jack Keane, who recently turned down Mr. Trump’s offer to be secretary of defense, just put out a warning that Mr. Putin could overrun the Baltics in the next 50 days. Gen. Keane, a serious man, doesn’t make such comments lightly.
Once again, 70 years since the last great war, the chill of war is being felt in Europe. One would hope the Trump administration has its eyes wide open to the horrific possibilities in an area where 10,000 people have already died since the 2014 Sochi Olympics. President Obama has left Mr. Trump with a geopolitical mess, and not just in Ukraine. However, the possibility of another all-out war in Europe should be at the top of the next president’s priority list.
• L. Todd Wood is a former special operations helicopter pilot and Wall Street debt trader, and has contributed to Fox Business, The Moscow Times, National Review, the New York Post and many other publications. He can be reached through his website, LToddWood.com.
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