Russia might use the COVID-19 pandemic to launch another offensive in Ukraine
Six years since Russia occupied Crimea and started its military intervention in eastern Ukraine, the Putin regime still adamantly calls it Crimean “self-determination” and civil war in Ukraine. Despite the Kremlin’s failing attempts to destabilize Ukraine, it remains the main focus of Russia’s revisionist energies. The war between Russia and Ukraine has no end in sight: The military front lines in eastern Ukraine have remained largely unchanged since the height of the fighting in 2014-2015, but sporadic shelling and standoffs continue.
Even though Putin keeps stressing at every possible moment that Crimea is Russian, he secretly wishes Ukraine will take care of its problems. Lately, the Kremlin reported tirelessly about a humanitarian crisis on the peninsula: amid novel coronavirus pandemic the lack of freshwater in Crimea has become a serious problem for Moscow. Water from the Dnipro River (before the occupation) was used mainly to meet the needs of industry and Crimean agriculture. Drinking water came from local sources, which were enough for the Crimean population. The lack of water in Crimea is caused by the Kremlin’s settlement of Russian citizens and the increase in the military presence.
During the six years of occupation, Russia has concentrated in Crimea such forces that do not exist in many European countries. There are more than 30,000 soldiers on the peninsula. The Black Sea Fleet is reinforced with combat helicopters and strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The arsenal of Russian forces on the peninsula in recent years has been supplemented by the Bastion coastal defense systems, Iskander missiles, and air defense systems. It makes no sense to keep such a large force for defense. They have a clear goal: These forces can conduct a self-sufficient attack in a certain strategic direction. And this direction is Ukraine. Russia has been constantly looking for an excuse for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. If the Kremlin dares to attack, it will carry out powerful cyberattacks against the country on the eve of the intervention to destroy communications and leave the Ukrainian government in chaos.
Crimea is not the only option for the start of the operation. As Russia scheduled over 4,000 drills of various scope throughout the year, the commanders of the army will make sure the Russian Navy is working on a potential blockade of the southern part of Ukraine. Russia’s goal is to fully control the entire Black Sea coast, cutting it off from Ukraine. The idea is that Russian Armed Forces will try to block the Ukrainian fleet in the port see of Odesa, thus creating a blockade of Azov Sea. Experts argue we might see numerous public protests organized by Russian special services in various social groups in the Ukrainian regions bordering Russia. Kyiv also shouldn’t rule out Moscow’s plan to break through the corridor which will connect the occupied part of Donbas with Crimea along the Azov Sea.
To achieve this, the Kremlin would also try to persuade Kharkiv and the biggest southern cities as Odesa, Kherson, Mykolayiv, Zaporizhia to join the company of the so-called “Russian world.” For these purposes, different reconnaissance groups are being formed and communication with pro-Kremlin agents infiltrated in those areas is being restored.
European leaders have stressed that there is an imminent threat that Russian aggression may expand. Russia consistently does not comply with the Minsk agreements, in particular, by committing systemic violations of the ceasefire, further supplying heavy weapons to the occupied part of the Donbas, and pushing the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission out of the region. Russian success in Ukraine would lead directly to the destabilization of the continent and encourage them to deploy similar tactics elsewhere in Europe.