Accelerating escalation

The Bell

Hello! It seems inevitable that the confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine will only get worse amid a Russian offensive and the tense situation in the south of Ukraine. The West is providing Kyiv with ever more sophisticated weaponry and Moscow’s rhetoric gets ever more threatening. Peace talks, apparently, are all but forgotten – both sides last week released statements complaining of a deadlock in negotiations. However, that’s not quite true: talks continue and the month-old Istnabul agreement remains acceptable to both sides, sources told The Bell. But the draft that was agreed upon at the initial rounds of negotiations has long since lost its relevance. For the moment, the two sides are only interested in military success and what happens in areas under Russian occupation.

Rising tension

The longer Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine lasts, and the more Western countries are embroiled into the conflict, the more Moscow appears willing to take decisive action – or at least threaten to do so.

  • The formal reason for Moscow’s particularly aggressive rhetoric last week was a comment from the British under-secretary of state for defense, James Heappey, who said Ukraine had a legal right to attack military targets inside Russia. Since early April, there have been regular reports of explosions at oil terminals and warehouses in Russia’s border regions and at least one of them has been officially attributed to the Ukrainian military. The latest took place Sunday at a military facility in Russia’s Belgorod Region.  Russia’s Bryansk, Belgorod and Kursk regions, as well as parts of Voronezh Region, the annexed peninsula of Crimea and Krasnodar region have been under on a “high level of terrorist alert” for almost a month.
  • Russia’s defense ministry said Tuesday that encouraging Ukraine to attack targets inside Russia would “lead to a proportional response”, adding that Russian forces “were on round the clock standby to retaliate with long-range precision weapons aimed at decision-making centers in Kyiv”.
  • Putin said Wednesday that if anybody created unacceptable strategic risks for Russia in Ukraine, Moscow would respond instantly. “We have all the tools for this, things that nobody else can boast of right now. And there will be no idle threats, we will use them if necessary. All the decisions have been made,” Putin said.
  • The day after Putin’s comments, Russia launched its first missile attacks on Kyiv for almost two weeks – while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was visiting the city (two days after he was in Moscow for a meeting with Putin). The raid came just an hour after Guterres gave a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. One missile exploded not far from the hotel where Guterres was staying, according to his press secretary. At the time of the attack, Guterres himself was at a meeting with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal. The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed the target of the missiles was a munitions factory in central Kyiv. But one rocket landed on an apartment block, killing a Radio Liberty journalist and injuring 10 others.
  • Last week also saw Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region, on Ukraine’s western border, become a new flashpoint in the war. The republic’s pro-Russian government has never been recognized by any UN member, including Russia. Last week, though, a senior Russian general said one of Russia’s war aims was “access to Transnistria”. In the days that followed, there were a series of explosions at different locations in the republic, two of which disabled powerful transmitters used to broadcast Russian TV and radio. The Transnistrian authorities – and Russian sources – both blamed “people arriving from Ukrainian territory” for the blasts. Kyiv, meanwhile, claimed it was a provocation by the Russian secret services. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday that Moldova – and Transnistria – was being “drawn into NATO.”

Western commitment

The Kremlin appears to have decided to ratchet up the tension not just because its ‘special military operation’ is making slow progress, but because the West has significantly increased its level of military aid for Ukraine. In addition to Soviet equipment salvaged from NATO warehouses and anti-tank and anti-aircraft defenses, Ukraine is starting to receive huge amounts of Western heavy weaponry.

  • Late last week, the Pentagon announced its latest $800 million aid package for Ukraine would include 72 155mm M777 howitzers (earlier, the U.S. promised to deliver 18 of these weapons). Australia is offering a further six M777s, with four more from Canada. In total, Ukraine is in line to receive 100 pieces of heavy artillery. In addition, the U.S. is transferring 120 Phoenix drones and 700 Switchblade kamikaze drones to Ukraine.
  • France has said it will supply Ukraine with about a dozen Caesar self-propelled artillery systems, and the Netherlands is offering the German Panzerhaubitze 2000 artillery units. Germany was the last to join the rush to supply heavy weaponry, but German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has approved the transfer of Gepard anti-aircraft systems to Ukraine, and there is a pending request for permission to sell 88 Leopard tanks and 100 Marder infantry fighting vehicles (although both are outdated models).
  • That’s just for starters. The U.S. Congress approved Thursday amendments that allow President Joe Biden to use the lend-lease act — initially passed in 1941 to provide weapons to European nations including the Soviet Union who were fighting Nazi Germany. The same act now allows arms sales to Ukraine without the need for further approvals (just Biden’s signature). On the same day, the president put a new $33 billion Ukraine aid package before Congress. The new tranche of support is to be delivered over the next five months, and half the funds are expected to be for direct military assistance. The exact contents of the package are unknown, but Ukraine is counting on receiving even more heavy weapons.

What about the talks?

Peace talks between Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul took place just over a month ago and there has been no sign of anybody implementing any agreement since then. Zelenskyy spoke Friday of a serious risk of the talks collapsing completely, while Lavrov complained of “Kyiv’s inconsistent position and their constant desire to play games.”

  • Talks are talks and war is war — and the two are continuing in tandem, a source close to the negotiations told The Bell. Since the Istanbul declaration, two things have changed: evidence of civilian massacres in Bucha and other towns near Kyiv, and the sinking of Russia’s Black Sea flagship, the Moskva.
  • Our source added that territorial questions have not been discussed. The starting point for that dialog will depend on the outcome of the military operation, which is currently far from clear. Ukraine is willing to agree to a ceasefire, but will not give up territory in the country’s east. In turn, the Kremlin regards the complete ‘liberation’ of Ukraine’s eastern regions as the aim of the second phase of its ‘special military operation’. But, even so, significant Russian gains on the ground seem a long way off: after almost two weeks of fighting, the Ministry of Defense has not reported any notable successes.
  • Similarly, at the talks nobody has raised the issue of the parts of southern Ukraine occupied by Russian forces, particularly around Kherson and Zaporozhiye. The new authorities in these regions are hinting at a gradual integration into Russia: for example, Kherson switching to the use of the Russian ruble. At the same time, though, the new authorities have apparently rejected any possibility of a referendum on secession. Zelenskyy said last month that Ukraine would abandon peace talks if there was a referendum carried out in any of the occupied parts of Ukraine.
  • The Bell’s source close to the peace talk is certain it would still be possible to sign an agreement within a few days with the necessary political will. But he added that, for the moment, the war is everyone’s focus — and there is no guarantee that the active military phase will end anytime soon.

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