As Russia and Ukraine continue to exchange barbs over an alleged terrorist incident in Crimea, the international community braces itself for a new flare-up in tensions between Moscow and Kiev.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko during the NATO Summit, in Warsaw, Poland, July 9, 2016. Photo: AP

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict shows no signs of finally quieting down. After a mostly uneventful summer, there are now reports about armed skirmishes along the Crimean border and potential terrorist attacks within Crimea itself. The top leaders of both countries are now exchanging accusations.

So, what was it: a sabotage operation, a terrorist attack, a provocation, or just a new round of the information war?

Meanwhile, the international community, while not officially recognizing Crimea as part of Russia, seems to be reconciling itself to the fact that the isolation of Russia may no longer be possible: cooperation with Moscow is necessary despite any principles or wishes. Moreover, the cost of propping up Ukraine’s economy is simply becoming too high for many Western partners.

Orchestrated sabotage?

The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) claims that it discovered a group of saboteurs during the night of Aug. 6-7, in a suburb of the city of Armyansk on the border of the Crimean peninsula. During their arrest, a firefight occurred, killing at least one of the FSB officers.

At the site of the firefight, 20 homemade explosive devices were found (with a power equivalent to 40 kg of TNT). The FSB also discovered firearms, anti-personnel and magnetic mines, as well as grenades and firearms used in the special units of the Ukrainian army.

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“During the night of Aug. 8, special units of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry undertook two more breakthrough attempts by sabotage-terrorist groups, which were deterred by the operative units of the FSB of Russia and related structures. The breakthrough attempts were covered by massive fire from the Ukrainian side,” reads a release by the FSB press service. “A serviceman of the Defense Ministry was killed in the engagement.”

According to sources from Kommersant, at least 10 servicemen were wounded in the skirmish, although this has not been officially confirmed. It is worth mentioning that reports of the incident, which the Russian mass media are referring to as “the Crimean incident,” appeared only on Aug. 10.

For some unknown reason, the FSB immediately defined the purpose of the sabotage as “destabilization of the social-political situation in the region in the period of preparation for and holding of the federal and local elections.”

Currently, ten participants of the sabotage have been detained in Russia. Reportedly, two have been arrested and are making confessions. Meanwhile, the security services released videos of the interrogations in which the detained men allegedly claimed that they were on active service in Ukraine.

Thus, Yevgeny Panov introduced himself as a former contract serviceman of the 37th Infantry Battalion of the 56th brigade of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry; according to him, he is currently an employee of the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant. As confessed by the arrested man himself, one of his former commanding officers had ordered him to go to Crimea to scout out spots for committing sabotage, where he was later detained.

That was followed by a confession of another detainee, an unemployed resident of the same Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, Ridwan Sulemanov. The man explained that he had been operating in Crimea under the instruction of the Ukrainian military intelligence.

Finally, a third alleged member of the underground, as designated by the security services, is Andrey Zakhtey, a native of the Lvov Region, who has been identified by the Ukrainian authorities as someone who served prison terms for robbery and fraud. According to the confession he has made to the FSB, he was ordered to meet four spy saboteurs near the Armyansk cemetery. However, when he arrived at the spot, he heard the shooting and soon was detained by the FSB operatives.

Two other men detained in the case are residents of Crimea who recently obtained Russian citizenship. The search for the escaped saboteurs is still continuing in Crimea.

Incongruities in the Russian narrative

On Aug. 12, three Russian news agencies  Interfax, RIA Novosti and TASS  reported that the intended sabotage operations in Crimea had been organized and coordinated by an officer of the Chief Directorate of Intelligence (HUR) of Ukraine's Defense Ministry, Vladimir Serdyuk. They cited sources in the Russian security services for the claim.

According to the news agencies, Serdyuk is the intelligence chief of the 37th Infantry Battalion of the 56th Brigade of the Chief Directorate of Intelligence of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry. According to the sources, before sending three sabotage groups to Crimea, Serdyuk had visited the Kherson Region in order to coordinate their actions and secure their withdrawal after the sabotage acts were committed.

On Aug. 13, the Ukraine's Defense Ministry issued a statement that there had never been a 37th Infantry Battalion of the 56th Brigade within the Chief Directorate of Intelligence. 

“The persons mentioned in the reports [by the Russian side] do not belong to the Chief Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine,” adds a source in the Ministry.

However, already on Aug. 14, Serdyuk himself came out with a statement that he “served in the 37th Battalion as an officer-psychologist,” and that he had “never had any relation to the security services.”

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“I’ve never been a security chief,” Serdyuk told the Ukrainian TV channel Gromads’ke TV. “It is only this morning that I gained access to the Internet and read all the stuff that’s being written. At the moment, I’m still reeling from all that. Shocked.”

This is far from the only inconsistency in the story about the “Crimean incident.” Social networks in both Russia and Ukraine have started speculating that the incident could mean an escalation of the conflict, which might even lead to a war.

However, Alexander Baunov, an ex-diplomat and currently chief editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center’s website, rejects such speculations. Firstly, for that purpose, the spies should have been caught after the explosions rather than before. Secondly, if there had been such a strong need for a casus belli, an attempted assassination of the head of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, Igor Plotnitsky, could have been used as an even stronger pretext for war.

Another popular version of the incident is that there was no sabotage, and the whole story is just a fabrication planted by the Russian security services. That version surfaced when the head of the Chief Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, lieutenant general Valery Kondratyuk, reported that, according to the available information, there had been a skirmish with the use of firearms between servicemen of the Russian Army and the FSB border guards.

In fact, the Ukrainian officials have claimed that the Russians fired at themselves. A source in Russia's Defense Ministry told Russia Direct that the information was not true. Nevertheless, this does not eliminate the possibility that the escalation is advantageous — what is more, advantageous to both sides.

Putin vs. Poroshenko

Russian President Vladimir Putin has personally and very harshly reacted to the situation.

“There have been fatalities on the Russian side — two servicemen were killed,” he pointed out. “Of course, we will not ignore such things. I would like to address our American and European partners. I think it is clear to everyone that the existing Kiev authorities are not looking for a solution to the problems at the talks, but are turning to terror. This is very disturbing.”

Meanwhile, his Ukrainian colleague Petro Poroshenko has claimed that, “The Russian side’s accusations that Ukraine has been involved in terrorism in the occupied Crimea sound as meaningless and cynical as the Russian authorities’ claims that there are no Russian troops in the Donbas.”

“Those fantasies are just another excuse for further military threats to Ukraine,” he added. “It is precisely Russia that has long been financing and actively supporting terrorism in the territory of Ukraine, thus making terrorism its state policy. Russia’s provocative statements will never discredit Ukraine in the eyes of the international community; neither will Russia achieve the lifting of the well-deserved sanctions imposed by our partners.”

Poroshenko added that he expected Russia to ensure the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, in particular, via the Normandy Format talks, which includes France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine.

Sergey Markedonov, an associate professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, points out that “neither Russia nor Ukraine is capable of implementing the Minsk Agreements because those contain some contradictory conditions.”

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He argues that the “Crimean incident” could have been advantageous to both sides as an excuse to break the deadlock and gain some leverage for the talks.

“Thus, Ukraine wishes to connect the problems of Crimea and Donbas, because for the West, those are different things. Nominally, Crimea belongs to Russia, although allegations of annexation are being made,” explains Markedonov. “In turn, Russia needs to show the West that Ukraine is not a sound negotiation partner: if there are forces that are out of Kiev’s control, what can you possibly negotiate with such a power?”

Diplomatic scandal

Shortly before the so-called sabotage operations, a new round in the tense recent history of Russian-Ukrainian relations occurred: Ukraine refused to accept Mikhail Babich as the new Russian Ambassador to Ukraine. No official comments followed but the mass media’s verdict was unequivocal: the appointment of a person, who allegedly has strong ties with “siloviki” is a humiliation of Ukraine [The “siloviki” are members of Russia’s military and law enforcement agencies  Editor’s note].

However, experts believe that sabotage would be too loud a response to that. As far as the situation with the ambassador is concerned, there is no proof of its direct relation to the “Crimean incident,” says Markedonov.

“Whoever were appointed to this post, delays would be inevitable. Really, if diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level are established, there is no ‘aggressor country,’ is there?” asks the expert.

Any events taking place during the electoral campaign can hardly avoid being associated with the elections. After all, on Sept. 18, Russian voters will go to the polls to elect members of the State Duma, the lower chamber of the parliament. According to sociological survey data, voter enthusiasm about Crimea has long faded, so an escalation of the Ukrainian conflict may stir the pro-Putin electorate just in time for the election.

Putin has already said that he does not see the point of holding another Normandy Format meeting. The Western countries will not lift the sanctions and insist on complying with the agreement. In turn, Russia will not lift its counter-sanctions.

However, both Russia and the West have to join forces in the struggle against a more urgent problem, the threat of radical Islamic terrorism. Whatever is behind the latest flare-up in tensions, it has the potential of hampering all the previous agreements and delay even further the prospects for peace.