Analysis

Says Russia funding ‘fight clubs and biker clubs’ in the Baltic States to exploit domestic instability

US Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) on April 3 warned NATO allies to be “constantly vigilant about the very quiet things that the Russians are doing that could ultimately lead to a traditional military confrontation.”

Pointing to Russian support for “fight clubs and biker clubs” inside the Baltic States, Murphy said they are “just there waiting for some kind of domestic instability to allow for an opportunity to do in a NATO country what the Russians have successfully done inside Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in Ukraine.”

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The outcome of the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election on March 31, in which a TV comedian received almost twice as many votes as the incumbent president, is a reflection of the level of “disenchantment” with the “state of domestic affairs,” according to John E. Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former US ambassador to Ukraine.

It showed that “while the country has united strongly to oppose Kremlin aggression, people hoped that the Revolution of Dignity would lead to major changes domestically and an improved standard of living,” Herbst said, referring to the 2014 revolution that led to the overthrown of Viktor Yanukovych’s government.

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“There is a war going on in the middle of Europe. A very hot war,” according to Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, Ukraine’s vice prime minister for Euro-Atlantic integration, who urged policy makers to confront this “uncomfortable truth” about Russian aggression.

Speaking in a panel discussion hosted by Ukraine House Davos in Davos, Switzerland, on January 22, Klympush-Tsintsadze said: “Ukraine needs to be given a hand, a shoulder, or some engagement to help against Russian aggression, especially in the year of elections.” Ukraine is gearing up for presidential elections on March 31.

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In August of 2008, Russia used separatist proxies in South Ossetia to attack Georgian villages near the city of Tskhinvali. The attack provoked a Georgian military response, which Moscow used as a pretext for a largescale invasion and occupation of Georgian territories.

Russia did not embark on that military adventure simply to occupy Georgian territories. It had a more important strategic goal in mind—to prevent an eastern enlargement of NATO. Russian President Vladimir Putin calculated, correctly as it turned out, that the Russian commitment to keep Georgia out of NATO was much greater than the Western commitment to Georgia’s security.

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It’s Monday, which means that Russia is again antagonizing its neighbors to the west. But instead of little green men, Wagner “private” security forces, or Russian regulars acting under another flag, this time the FSB—Russia’s internal security service—openly fired upon and captured three Ukrainian naval vessels attempting to traverse the Kerch Strait that separates the two countries. This is a significant escalation by Moscow of tensions that have simmered for months as Russia has harassed legitimate and important Ukrainian trade ships that traverse the disputed strait to Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov. The chief dispute, of course, centers on Russia’s illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its continued financing, training, and support to so-called separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region, for which Moscow has been subject to broad sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union, and the other G-7 nations.

Against that backdrop, many in the Russia watcher community have called for significant sanctions to be imposed on Russia to address this latest flagrant violation of international law. While sanctions may be useful to threaten Russia to rectify this situation, any imposition of them needs to be more strategically deployed—ideally with the EU—and lifted only for more strategic gains, vice resolution of this specific incident.

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The seizure by Russian forces of three Ukrainian naval vessels near the Sea of Azov on November 25 highlights Moscow’s strategy of broadening its “creeping annexation” beyond Ukraine’s land borders and into the Black Sea. Russia’s refusal to abide by agreements providing Ukraine rightful passage and access to the Sea of Azov is an attempt to pressure Ukraine and undermine its economy and national security.

Rising tension between Ukraine and Russia in the Black Sea reinforces how dangerous the Ukraine-Russia conflict remains for the region and for the world.

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Russia’s attack on Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait and the blockade of the Sea of Azov threaten a dangerous escalation of the war in Ukraine. As before, Russia’s goal in Ukraine is not so much to hold or conquer territory but to demonstrate that it has the capacity to put further pressure on the Ukrainian government with impunity, thereby questioning both the ability of the Ukrainian government to give an adequate response to Russian actions and the unity of Ukraine’s supporters in the West.

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Escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine in the Sea of Azov bear eerie echoes of Russian provocations that led to the war with Georgia in the summer of 2008.

“For months, Russian forces have been working to make the Azov Sea an internal Russian body of water in order to both cut off Ukraine’s eastern ports and cement Moscow’s hold on Crimea,” said Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council.

“Moscow’s incrementalist approach is like the ‘creeping annexation’ we witnessed in Georgia in 2008—any single move tends not to be dramatic, but in the aggregate Russia makes strategic gains. Today, the Russians escalated with the aim of intimidating Ukraine into backing off its own effort to assert its access to its own territorial waters and its own ports,” he added.

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‘The return of great nation competition is the defining geopolitical fact of our time,’ says US Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell

The United States’ rivals are “expanding their political, military, and commercial influence” in Central and Eastern Europe to the detriment of the Western alliance, A. Wess Mitchell, assistant secretary responsible for the US State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, said at the Atlantic Council in Washington on October 18.

“The return of great nation competition is the defining geopolitical fact of our time,” Mitchell said, adding the warning that “for far too long the West did not take competition seriously” in Central and Eastern Europe. Content with the success of the post-Cold War period, officials in Europe and the United States have allowed growing Russian and Chinese influence in the region to “sneak up on us,” he contended.

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Patriarch Filaret, Patriarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—Kyiv Patriarchate, is eager to get Washington’s support for the peaceful unification of two church factions, warning that Russia will use any hint of conflict as an excuse to expand its aggression in Ukraine.

For Filaret, the church issue is a key factor in the war in eastern Ukraine. In remarks at the Atlantic Council in Washington on September 19, he warned that to stop further aggression by Moscow, “we need to stop [Russian President Vladimir] Putin at Ukraine.”

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