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Putin Visits Crimea After Ukraine Warns of ‘Full-Scale Russian Invasion’

Vladimir Putin’s visit to Crimea is sure to inflame tensions with Ukraine even further and comes on the heels of stark warnings from Kiev.

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With tensions still simmering and war drums banging between Russia and Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin visited Crimea on Friday to deliver a few more jabs during a meeting with his Security Council at an airbase near the Crimean naval port of Sevastopol.

Nearly two years after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, the peninsula is once again at the center of tensions between Moscow and Kiev. Last week, the FSB, Russia’s state security service, said that it thwarted attempts by a Ukrainian intelligence officer to enter Crimea — accusations that Kiev promptly denied and the European Union have called “not credible.” Since then, Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko have traded insults, Ukrainian troops were placed on high alert, and Russia began building up its forces along its Western border and in Crimea itself.

“Judging by all accounts, our partners in Kiev have decided to escalate the situation,” said Putin on Friday just before discussing war games with his team of security advisors. “It is clear why this has been done — because [Ukraine] does not want to or cannot, for whatever reasons, fulfill the Minsk agreement,” referring to the peace process brokered between Kiev, Moscow, and pro-Russian separatists in the capital of Belarus in February 2015, and which has subsequently been all but a diplomatic dead-letter.

Putin’s visit to Crimea is sure to inflame tensions with Ukraine even further and comes on the heels of comments made by Poroshenko on Thursday, in which the Ukrainian president warned of the deteriorating situation in eastern Ukraine, and said that a military draft or even martial law could be introduced if hostilities continued.

“The probability of escalation of the conflict remains very significant,” Poroshenko said during a televised speech. “We don’t rule out a full-scale Russian invasion.”

Russia is currently preparing to hold major annual military exercises, called Caucasus 2016, near the Ukrainian border in September. The exercises are the the military’s first aimed at integrating Crimea and the peninsula’s defense into its plans. Moscow is also in the process of bolstering its military presence along its Western frontier in a bid to counter deployments by Western NATO forces in Eastern Europe and Ukrainian troops.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine has increased since the beginning of the current standoff, with small arms fire and shelling reaching levels not seen since last year, prior to a cease-fire agreement in September, according the Ukrainian armed forces. Throughout the war in Ukraine, Russia has stationed tens of thousands of troops on the border in temporary camps to support pro-Russian separatists with military hardware and even direct support on the battlefield.

Ukrainian officials said, according to the Wall Street Journal, that Russia slipped new air defense equipment and troops across the border into eastern Ukraine this week, as part of an effort to step up pressure on Kiev.

Although Kiev remains nervous that the Kremlin is preparing for an invasion, some experts believe that Russia’s recent actions are intended to provoke an overreaction from Ukrainian officials and put Moscow on more favorable footing as Europe prepares to debate extending tough economic sanctions that were levied following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine. 

As the current round of escalation comes just weeks ahead of a G20 meeting in China on 4-5 September 2016, Russia is likely attempting to raise the stakes in negotiations and demand reformatting the Donbass talks,” said Alex Kokcharov, the Ukraine and Russia analyst at IHS Markit, a London-based consultancy, referring to the Minsk peace process.

Both the European Union and the United States have tied the decision to remove economic sanctions on Russia to the success of the Minsk deal. However, both Moscow and Kiev have become frustrated with the stalled and oft-violated agreement and are hoping to leverage concessions from the other side ahead of the next round of talks.

While some European countries have signaled a willingness to relax sanctions on Russia, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the German outlet Redaktions Netzwerk Deutschland on Friday that she supports keeping the sanctions in place and that implementing the Minsk deal “is and remains the yardstick for the future of sanctions.”

Photo credit: YURI LASHOV/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He was formerly an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @reidstan

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