The Olympics Are Back and Tensions Between Russia and Ukraine Are Heating Up

Putin called Ukraine terrorists, while Poroshenko called the Russians "cynical and insane."


This post has been updated. 

On August 8, 2008, shortly after the opening ceremonies for the Beijing Summer Olympics, Russia and Georgia kicked off a five-day war. More than five years later, following the conclusion of the Sochi Winter Olympics and ouster of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in late February 2014, soldiers without insignia — later confirmed to be Russian special forces — appeared in Crimea, sparking a chain of events that ended with Moscow annexing the peninsula from Ukraine less than a month later.

Now, with the Rio Summer Games in full swing, tensions on Russia’s periphery are once again rising — this time with Kiev, along Crimea’s de-facto border with Ukraine.

The FSB, Russia’s state security service, said on Wednesday it had foiled two attempted incursions by Ukrainian special forces to launch attacks in Crimea on critical infrastructure over the weekend and on Monday. The FSB said one of its officers had been killed during a shootout on Saturday night, when a group of armed combatants were allegedly found just across the Crimean border with mainland Ukraine. A Russian soldier was also killed on Monday, according to the FSB, after coming under “heavy fire” from the Ukrainian side.

Ukrainian officials have flatly denied the accusations by the Russian security agency, dismissing the claims as fake, adding that the assertions from Moscow could be used as a pretext for further “offensive operations.” Over the weekend, reports circulated that Russia was moving military equipment and personnel to Crimea’s northern border with Ukraine.

“Putin wants more war. Russia escalates, desperately looks for casus belli against Ukraine, tests West’s reaction,” Dmytro Kuleba, a spokesman for Ukraine’s foreign ministry, wrote on Twitter.

The alleged raid, and the denials from Kiev, drew the Kremlin’s ire, with Russian President Vladimir Putin telling reporters on Wednesday that Ukraine’s actions were “stupid and criminal” and Russia would take “further security measures” in Crimea.

“Instead of trying to find peaceful solutions, Ukraine has resorted to the practice of terror,” said Putin.

The Russian president also added that given the raid it made no sense to hold planned talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at the G20 summit in China next month to discuss the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

In a stern reply to Putin’s comments, Poroshenko said in a statement on Wednesday that Ukraine strongly condemns terrorism and called on the Russian side to uphold its obligations under international law.

“Russian accusations that Ukraine launched terror attacks in the occupied Crimea are equally cynical and insane as its claims there is no Russian troops in eastern Ukraine,” said Poroshenko, referring to the area of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists. 

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Volodymyr Yelchenko, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, drew parallels between the current situation in Crimea and the outbreak of the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, which also coincided with the Summer Olympics and a U.S. election. 

“This scenario looks very similar and very familiar,” said Yelchenko. “That’s why we stand ready for further provocative developments.”

The war in Georgia began after an escalation of clashes between pro-Russian separatists and Georgian forces, who tried to seize back South Ossetia, a breakaway region of Georgia. But Russian troops quickly retook the area and pushed deeper into Georgian territory, stopping short of Tbilisi, the capital.

Throughout the more than two year-old war in Ukraine, Crimea has remained relatively unaffected by the still on-going conflict in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian and Ukrainian government forces. But this weekend’s military buildup and the alleged raid have inflamed already strained relations between Moscow and Kiev.

In its statement, the FSB said it also broke up and detained agents and accomplices working for Ukrainian military intelligence in Crimea. The only name released by the agency was Evgeny Panov, a Ukrainian citizen whom the security service described as a Ukrainian military intelligence officer. The FSB said he had made a confession, but gave no further information.

The agency said Ukraine’s aim with the incursion was the “destabilization of the socio-political situation in the region during preparation for elections.” Russia will hold parliamentary elections on September 18, with Crimea participating for the first time since it was annexed in 2014. Meanwhile, Kiev is preparing to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Ukrainian independence on August 24, with officials having suggested that the Kremlin may aim to spoil the commemoration.

The renewed hostilities in Crimea come as violence has surged during the summer months in eastern Ukraine despite a nominal ceasefire. More than 9,000 have died since the war began in April 2014, with more than 600 Ukrainian soldiers killed in fighting so far this year. According to recently released figures by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, civilian casualties have spiked to a level not seen since August 2015, prior to the implementation of the most recent ceasefire.

FP‘s Colum Lynch contributed reporting to this article. 

Photo credit: SEAN GALLUP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan