Diplomacy in Eastern Europe in December was dominated by heightened tensions between Russia and the West, after a US intelligence report on Russian troop movements, sounding alarms in the West that Russian military forces were amassing near the Ukrainian border in preparation for a potential invasion as early as the first months of 2022. Russia and Ukraine have been in conflict since February 2014, when the Euromaidan protests resulted in the removal of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. In early March 2014, the Russia launched an overt military operation to annex the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, after which a Russian-organized referendum held in the region returned a result heavily in favour of joining the Russian Federation. On 18 March 2014 Russia formally annexed Crimea and has since supported the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in their conflict with Ukraine, supplying troops and equipment.
On 3 December 2021 US intelligence assessed that over 94,000 Russian military personnel were assembled near Ukraine, along with medical, fuel and supply stockpiles. Russian authorities dismissed the invasion accusations as lies and blamed NATO for escalating tensions, citing armaments transfers to Ukraine and military exercises close to Russia’s borders. A series of telephone and video-call negotiations were held throughout December between Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden and his EU and NATO allies, in which the West pushed for a de-escalation and a drawdown of Russian forces, while Moscow attempted to leverage the situation to secure ‘redline’ security guarantees, including a pledge to end military deployments in Eastern Europe and former Soviet states, as well as a bar against any future Ukrainian membership of NATO.
The US, EU and NATO strategy in addressing the crisis has been to attempt to present a united front in standing firm against Moscow’s demands, jointly agreeing a raft of sanctions that would be enacted in the event of an invasion, including financial sanctions against Russian banks and a block on the exchange of Rubles into foreign currencies. Meanwhile, the US put pressure on the new German government of Olaf Scholz to delay the completion of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline between Germany and Russia. US President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg issued clear statements to Russia that the future membership of NATO would be decided only by the alliance itself, refusing Russia’s demand for a bar on Ukrainian membership.
The Russian strategy during the conflict appears to be a continuation of the ‘hybrid warfare’ – the combination of military tactics with political warfare methods such as cyber warfare, disinformation, and diplomacy – that was employed during its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Senior Russian politicians have vigorously denied accusations that Moscow is planning any invasion of Ukraine, while accusing Ukraine and NATO of escalating tensions through their own military build-ups in the region. Simultaneously, Russian officials have issued repeated warnings of unspecified military responses if their demands are not met, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stating that “if there is no constructive response within a reasonable time and the West continues its aggressive line, then Russia will be forced to take all necessary measures to ensure strategic balance and eliminate unacceptable threats to our security.” Vladimir Putin has publicly projected a desire to negotiate a diplomatic de-escalation of tensions by engaging in one-on-one talks with President Biden over the course of the conflict, however his insistence on demanding security guarantees to which he almost certainly knows NATO cannot agree call his sincerity into question.
Despite some reports in late December that a small fraction, around 10,000, of the Russian build-up around Ukraine has been withdrawn, there is little evidence to believe that a significant thawing of relations over military build-ups over the Russian-Ukrainian border is imminent. A Russian diplomatic delegation is scheduled to meet with US, NATO and European allies in three meetings from 9-13 January. However, with neither side appearing willing to abandon its own ‘red lines’ it is difficult to anticipate that significant progress will be made toward de-escalation.
Following months of rising tension between the Ukrainian government and former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has finally resulted in Saakashvili’s deportation from Ukraine which spurred a massive backlash from his supporters who are calling for Saakashvili’s former ally Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s resignation.
Following a Ukrainian court ruling that Saakashvili was residing in the country illegally, Ukrainian Immigration officials informed Saakashvili on 12 February that he was going to be deported back to Poland. The courts had ruled that Saakashvili had illegally crossed to Ukraine on 19 September 2017 after the Ukrainian government had stripped him of his citizenship while he was travelling abroad. Earlier in the day on 12 February Saakashvili supporters posted a video which allegedly showed unidentified men in camouflage detain Saakashvili in a Kiev restaurant. Saakashvili’s lawyer, Ruslan Chornolutsky has called the incident a kidnapping rather than a detainment. It was reported that Saakashvili was thrown into a van and then transported from Kiev to Warsaw via helicopter. Polish authorities confirmed on 12 February that Saakashvili had been admitted into Poland at the request Ukrainian immigration authorities. In an interview with Polish Radio RMF FM, Saakashvili confirmed that he had been deported to Poland and that Polish authorities were treating him well. Saakashvili, through a Facebook statement, called the deportation illegal and said that the deportation has shown Poroshenko’s weakness and then called Poroshenko “a sneaky speculator who wants to destroy Ukraine.”
After the deportation on 12 February, thousands of Saakashvili’s supporters took the streets to protest the deportation and also demanded the impeachment of Poroshenko. Ukrainian police estimated that 3,000 protesters were in attendance while non-governmental sources claim as many as 10,000 protesters were in attendance Protesters carried banners with a red line drawn over Poroshenko’s face and chanted “impeachment”, “resignation” and “Poroshenko is a thief.” It was also reported that Ukrainian authorities shut down nine metro stations in central Kiev due to bomb alerts. However, claims have been made that the closures were to prevent other demonstrators from joining the protests.
On February 14 It was reported that Saakashvili had travelled from Poland to the Netherlands and to apply for Dutch residency. Saakashvili is married to a Dutch national. Oscar Hammerstein, another lawyer representing Saakashvili, said that the request had been arranged and approved by Dutch authorities. It was also reported that the Dutch justice ministry in 2017 made it known that they were willing to help Saakashvili and allow him to stay in the country on the basis of family reunification.
On 29 May 2015 Poroshenko granted Saakashvili Ukrainian citizenship and then on 30 May 2015 Poroshenko appointed Saakashvili as Governor of Odessa Oblast. Relations soured between the two when Saakashvili resigned from his position on 7 November 2016 and joined the opposition against Poroshenko. Saakashvili accused Poroshenko of obstructing his attempts at government reform, fighting corruption and that the Ukrainian government lacked commitment to reform. Saakashvili has faced multiple criminal investigations and has been arrested by Ukrainian authorities multiple times. On 5 January A Georgian court sentenced Saakashvili in absentia to three years in prison for seeking to cover up evidence about the murder of a Georgian banker when he was president – a verdict which he denounced as illegal. Saakashvili has also been accused of abusing his power during his time as Georgian president.
An international team of prosecutors investigating the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014 released its findings on 28 September, stating that the missile, which downed the plane “came from Russia.”
The Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which has been investigating the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine and which includes prosecutors from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine, disclosed Wednesday that the Buk missile that hit the plane was transported from Russia. According to chief Dutch police investigator Wilbert Paulissen, “based on the criminal investigation, we have concluded that flight MH17 was downed by a Buk missile of the series 9M83 that came from the territory of the Russian Federation.” He added that the missile launcher, which fired one missile from the village of Pervomaysk, was later taken back to Russia. During a news conference, prosecutors played recordings from intercepted phone calls. They further stated that witnesses reported seeing the missile launcher move from Russia into Ukraine and presented pictures and videos, adding that the launch site was pinpointed by “many witnesses.” Prosecutors noted however that it was not clear whether an order had been given for fighters to launch the missile or whether they had acted independently. The investigative team has identified 100 people who were described as being of interest to them however they have not yet formally identified individual suspects.
An earlier inquiry by the Dutch Safety Board concluded that a Russian-made Buk missile had hit the plane. The Safety Board (DSB) report disclosed in October 2015 that the missile was fired from a 320 square kilometre area southeast of where the plane came down, with the head of the DSB disclosing that the area was under rebel control.
Pro-Russian rebels have been blamed by Ukraine and the West for shooting down the plane. At the time of the incident, Ukrainian government forces were involved in heavy fighting with pro-Russian separatists. Wednesday’s findings will challenge Moscow’s suggestion that the plane was brought by the Ukrainian military. In the past, Russia has denied any involvement, including allegations that the Buk missile launcher had come from Russian territory. Repeating those details on Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated, “first-hand radar data identified all flying objects, which could have been launched or were in the air over the territory controlled by rebels at the moment,” adding that “the data are clear-cut…there is no rocket. If there was a rocket, it could only have been fired from elsewhere.” Investigators have noted that they did not have access to the new radar images on which Moscow was basing its latest statements. Separatist rebels have also denied their involvement. Eduard Basurin, military deputy operational commander at the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic, told Interfax news agency, “we never had such air defense systems, not the people who could operate them…Therefore we could not have shot down the Boeing (flight MH17).”
After the attack, the European Union (EU) and the United States extended sanctions on Russia that had been initially introduced after the Ukraine conflict began. Earlier this week, Russia produced radar images, which it argued depicted that the plane could not have come from rebel-held areas. Critics however have pointed out that Russian officials have given three versions of events since the plane was shot down over two years ago.
All 298 people on board the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 died when the plane broke apart in mid-air while it was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Most of those on board were Dutch citizens.
Ukraine’s security service reported this month that it had blocked channels that were being used by jihadists travelling to fight with the so-called Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, adding that they detained an ‘IS recruiter’ from one of the former Soviet republics.
In a statement, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) disclosed that “the Ukrainian security service, prosecutor’s office, police and migration service have blocked several channels for the transit of foreign fighters to the IS international terrorist group throughout state’s territory,” adding that the discovery was made in a wave of security sweeps that were carried out across several major cities in the country. The SBU further reported that an apartment in the government-held northeastern city of Kharkiv was being used as a temporary shelter by alleged IS members who intended to travel to both Syria and Iraq. The statement says that “this ‘transit point’ had four nationals from Asian states,” adding, “two of them had been earlier deported from Turkey in connection with their involvement in terrorist activity.” The SBU also disclosed that they held several fake passports from various countries and that two of them had been waiting to receive forged Ukrainian documents so that they could enter Syria through Turkey. The Ukrainian service indicated that the four were being financed and assisted by foreign countries, however they did not reveal which ones, adding, “two of the foreigners have already been expelled from the territory of our state…Investigations into the other two are continuing.”
The SBU also disclosed that it had also detained an “IS recruiter from one of the former Soviet republics that was being sought by Interpol” pan-European police organization. It reported that security agents had detained another “IS supporter” in the Kiev region who had undergone training in “Syrian terrorist camps.” The individual, who has not been named, is facing a court hearing and has not yet been charged.
In January and June the SBU disclosed that it detained four alleged IS fighters headed for Europe from Central Asia and Russia.
Ukraine has been riven by a 27-month pro-Moscow insurgency in its industrial east that has claimed the lives of more than 9,500 people and left around 400 kilometres (250 miles) of its southeastern border with Russia under rebel control. Ukraine’s security service has been under increasing pressure to show its strength as the pro-Western government in Kiev ties to meet President Petro Poroshenko’s pledge to apply for EU membership by 2020. Some EU nations and leaders however have called the bid far too optimistic as Ukraine not only lacks control of its separatist east and the Russian-annexed Crimea peninsula, but it also remains riddled with other security threats. This includes what appears to be the increasing use of Ukraine and its porous borders to ship IS fighters to stage attacks in Europe or to joint he group in Syria and Iraq.
The European Union (EU) has extended for another year the sanctions, which it imposed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea in March 2014.
In mid-June, the 28 EU member states renewed a ban on economic ties with Crimean businesses, which include a block on EU tourism and investment in the Black Sea peninsula. Other EU sanctions target top Russian officials over the Ukraine insurgency.
The annexation, which occurred after pro-Russian forces seized Ukrainian bases in Crimea and then held a referendum, drew international condemnation. While Crimea has a Russian-speaking majority, the referendum was organized by the new authorities and was deemed illegal by the West. After the Crimea annexation, pro-Russian insurgents seized power in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine in April 2014. The EU, United States and some other countries then ratcheted up their sanctions against Russia.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia retained control of the important Black Sea naval base in Sevastopol. However Ukraine had control of the rest of Crimea until the 2014 crisis.