Maksym Khylko (Russian and Belarusian Studies Program Director at the Foreign Policy Council "Ukrainian Prism") points out that the West should react decisively as Russia is escalating the tension at the borders of the Ukraine.
"The Kremlin pretends to ignore statements by NATO and the EU, Moscow is actually afraid of harsh sanctions, because the Russian economy is very dependent on the West and would collapse quickly without petrodollars from Europe," he notes in the interview with PolskieRadio24.pl.
PolskieRadio24.pl: How can we assess this threat, why does this situation seem particularly dangerous?
Maksym Khylko, Russian and Belarusian Studies Program Director at the Foreign Policy Council "Ukrainian Prism":
In recent weeks, Russia has deployed the largest number of troops to the border with Ukraine since 2014, and the build-up of troops and equipment continues. Moreover, the concentration of Russian troops is taking place in three directions at once − in the occupied Crimea, near the occupied districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as well as from the north-east of Ukraine − thus threatening with escalation from three directions simultaneously. In violation of its commitments under the 2011 OSCE Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures, Moscow has denied to provide the information on the reasons of significant increase in the military presence along the border.
All this is happening against the background of escalating shelling and provocations by the Russian occupation forces in the Donbas, as well as the intensification of anti-Ukrainian propaganda and hysteria in the Russian media.
What are Russia's goals?
Given the demonstrative audacity with which Russia is sending troops to the Ukrainian border, it is clear that this is primarily an attempt to intimidate Ukraine and its Western partners, especially Germany and France as participants of the Normandy negotiating format.
Moscow has lost hope that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would make unilateral concessions and implement the Minsk agreements in the Kremlin’s interpretation. Therefore, the Kremlin decided to intimidate Kyiv with military force, as well as to frighten Berlin and Paris with the threat of a large-scale war and thus to make them put pressure on Ukraine, forcing to agree on Moscow’s demands.
Another goal of the Kremlin is to test the resoluteness of the U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration. There were strong statements from Biden, but Moscow wants to check whether the White House is also ready to back up these words with no less decisive actions. Vladimir Putin will judge this from the practical reaction of the United States to the aggravation on the contact line between Ukrainian and Russian forces.
We should also not forget that parliamentary elections will be held in Russia this autumn. The socio-economic situation in Russia has been deteriorating for many years, and the level of public support of Putin’s regime party has fallen to a minimum since the occupation of Crimea. The Kremlin has nothing to offer but another attempt to mobilize the nationalist electorate under the pretext of a fake external threat or through a "small victorious war."
What are the main scenarios?
Most likely, the Kremlin now relies more on the effect of intimidation with weapons than on a large-scale offensive. However, there is a possibility that Russian troops may plan a local military operation in the Donbas – in order to advance deeper into Ukrainian-controlled areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and inflict painful losses on the Ukrainian side.
However, it cannot be ruled out that Russian provocations may result in larger-scale hostilities than may be planned. After all, with a large concentration of troops and continuous provocations by Russian forces in the occupied territories, an emergency situation may arise and large-scale hostilities may unfold.
How should the West react to this situation?
The West should not only talk about the abstract "cost" that Russia should pay in the event of escalation, but also have on the table a clear plan for really tough and painful sanctions to include the oil and gas sector as the main source of income for the Russian state budget, which allows the Kremlin to strengthen the army and finance military adventures.
A clear signal would be to provide Ukraine with modern lethal weapons, able to counterbalance Russia's military advantage and make the price of military escalation too high for the Kremlin.
It would also be important to make it clear that Russia's occupation of part of Ukraine's territory will not hinder its path to NATO membership. Moscow is now using the factor of occupation of the territories of Ukraine and Georgia to block their movement to NATO membership. It is worth sending a clear signal to the Kremlin that this strategy will not work.
How could you assess the effects of the meeting of the heads of the Polish and Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the EU and NATO actions?
The visit of Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau to Kyiv was an important signal of support, which was appreciated much in Kyiv, as well as support of our other Western counterparts. It is important for Ukraine to know that it is not alone against the Russian threat. Besides, despite the Kremlin’s pretending to ignore the statements of NATO and the EU, Moscow is actually afraid of harsh sanctions, as the Russian economy is very dependent on the West and would quickly collapse without petrodollars from Europe.