MS Risk Blog

Kremlin Warns that War with Ukraine on Brink of Escalation

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The Kremlin ramped its media to warn that the frozen war in eastern Ukraine was on the brink of dangerous escalation. Moscow and Kyiv blamed one another for a recent surge in violence where 10 Ukrainian soldiers were killed since 2021. Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, accused Kyiv’s forces of shelling in breach of the ceasefire agreement and entering areas where they were not meant to be. Ukraine accused pro-Russian forces, which are widely believed to be under Russian command, of shelling its troops to provoke retaliation. Mr Peskov said Russia, which officially denies deploying its own troops to the area, was using its influence to restrain pro-Russian forces and called on France and Germany to do the same for Ukraine.

We consider that a disinformation campaign is being conducted against Ukraine that could support renewed Russian offensive conventional operations later in 2021, but Russia is unlikely to launch an all-war offensive operation in the coming month. Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine deployed to full combat readiness on March 16. Despite the potential indicators of a possible operation, the Russian military is not postured to support an imminent large-scale offensive, nevertheless, the possibility of “blitzkrieg” tactical incursion by proxies cannot be excluded. The Kremlin’s disinformation campaign may be intended to pressure Ukraine into engaging in negotiations on unfavourable terms or to set conditions for a Russian escalation in late summer 2021 or both.

In February 2021, President Volodymyr Zelensky took off the air three pro-Russian television channels connected to the pro-Russian Opposition Platform–For Life party, which won 43 seats in the Verkhovna Rada in the 2019 Ukrainian parliamentary election. Kyiv also imposed sanctions on the leader of the pro-Russian opposition, Viktor Medvedchuk, who was accused of “financing terrorists”—paying the Donbas separatists money. Medvedchuk (66) is a Ukrainian oligarch and a personal friend of Putin’s. He fervently wants to see Ukraine stay clear of NATO, the US and the EU, while keeping close ties with “brotherly Russia”. In parallel the Ukrainian intelligence reported Russia’s proxy forces deployed to the highest degree of combat readiness, withdrew personnel from vacations early, and replenished ammunition for front line units on March 16. Russian proxies have also increased their pace of readiness drills since early March. Ukrainian intelligence and independent reporting confirmed that Russia’s proxies are currently improving their defensive positions.

We further analyse that despite Russia conducting an annual Russian Airborne (VDV) exercise in Crimea from March 16-19, 2021, involving 2,000 troops, the exercise was pre-planned and has occurred in mid-March every year since 2017. No reporting of any other Russian forces redeploying or conducting snap exercises near Ukraine in recent weeks were collected. Russia has not deployed additional combat assets into Donbas, such as artillery and armour units, to support a large-scale operation. Ukrainian intelligence characterizes ongoing Russian proxy activity as preparations for “provoking tension” and “provocative action,” not a new offensive. The increased readiness drills and improved defensive positions in the absence of necessary preparations for offensive action indicate that imminent escalation is unlikely.

Additionally, we are making allowances that the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign may be intended to pressure Ukrainian President Zelensky into renewed unfavourable negotiations with the Kremlin or direct engagement with Russian proxies. Kremlin representatives and media outlets have accused Ukrainian President Zelensky of preparing for an offensive due to his unwillingness to continue negotiations with Russia. Ukraine has refrained from direct engagement with Russia’s proxies in Donbas to avoid legitimizing them as independent actors through direct engagement. Russian envoy Gryzlov accused Ukraine of preparing an escalation to break the “impasse” on negotiations and claimed Ukraine’s only alternative to a military escalation is direct talks with Russian proxies. Lukashevich similarly accused Ukraine of preparing an escalation to avoid what the Kremlin frames as Kyiv’s “commitment” to begin direct engagement with Russian proxies in Donbas.

What cannot be excluded is the possibility that the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign may be setting conditions for its own kinetic escalation in later in 2021. The Kremlin routinely accuses Ukraine of refusing to consider Russia-favourable negotiations and of perpetuating the conflict in eastern Ukraine. However, claims emanating directly from the Kremlin overtly accusing Ukraine of preparing for an offensive are unusual. Russian claims of an Ukrainian offensive might indicate that Russian leaders intend to conduct a kinetic escalation, yet new military assets were not reported. The Kremlin likely intends to build its disinformation campaign over several months and may seek to provoke Ukrainian forces into acting against Russia, this framings will be used as a justification for a renewed offensive against Ukraine.

In conclusion, regardless of the Ukrainian officials attempts to counter the onslaught of belligerency in the Moscow media by announcing Ukraine is ready to meet an enemy attack even if it takes the form of a massive invasion, the risk of escalations is estimated to be low, be it from proxies of conventional Russian troops. The snow is just begging to melt on the East European. It is currently “Rasputitsa” or mud season, which is incredibly problematic for offensive manoeuvre warfare. Maybe six to eight weeks remain before belligerent rhetoric and sporadic bombardments in Donbas might truly transform into something much more ominous.