Putin hints at war in Ukraine but may be seeking diplomatic edge

For two years, Russia has been under US and EU sanctions over its annexation of Crimea and support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine

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Ukraine says it thinks Vladimir Putin is planning a new invasion, and it’s not hard to see why: the Russian leader has built up troops on its border and resumed the hostile rhetoric that preceded his annexation of Crimea two years ago.

But despite appearances, some experts say Putin is more likely seeking advantage through diplomacy than on the battlefield, at least this time around.

“It’s about sanctions,” Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow-based foreign policy think tank close to the Russian Foreign Ministry, told Reuters.

“It looks like a way of increasing pressure on Western participants of the Minsk peace process,” he said of a peace deal set up for eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have battled against government forces.

For two years, Russia has been under US and EU sanctions over its annexation of Crimea and support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine.

This week, tension escalated dramatically after Putin threatened to take unspecified counter-measures against Ukraine to retaliate for what his spies say was a plot to bomb targets across contested Crimea. Putin said two Russian servicemen were killed in a clash with Ukrainian saboteurs sent to Crimea.

Kiev says the incident never happened, and was concocted to create a phoney pretext for a new invasion. The United States and European Union also say there is no evidence it took place.

European talks between Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany meant to ensure the peace deal’s implementation have so far run into the sand. And talks between Victoria Nuland, US assistant secretary of state, and Vladislav Surkov, a Russian presidential aide, have not generated a breakthrough either.

In the meantime, pro-Kremlin separatists continue to control two self-declared republics in Donbass, eastern Ukraine, where low-level fighting with Ukrainian government forces continues, despite the ceasefire.

Under the deal, Kiev committed to grant Donbass special status, to pardon separatist fighters, and to organize elections. But in a country ripped apart by more than two years of war that has lost control of giant chunks of territory, following through on such pledges is politically toxic.

Kiev justifies its slowness to act by accusing Russia of failing to meet its own obligations: continuing to stir conflict in the east, and failing to give back control of Ukraine’s eastern border.

Kortunov said the aim of Putin’s latest saber rattling is to persuade Ukraine’s Western allies “to exert influence on Kiev to get it to fulfill its side of the bargain”.

Ultimately, Putin wants the world to forgive and forget Russia’s Crimean annexation and for the conflict in the east to freeze, leaving a pro-Russian stronghold inside Ukraine, outside of Kiev’s control.

It is a long-term settlement that Kiev would never officially accept. Meanwhile, as long as the peace deal is stalled, the sanctions remain in place, with the EU’s preconditions to lift them growing no closer.

With Russia’s reserve fund set to run out next year and Moscow’s access to Western credit markets still closed because of the sanctions, for Russia the clock is ticking.

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