Russia’s claim that it had blocked attempts by Ukraine-backed saboteurs to carry out terror attacks in Crimea is the new flashpoint between the two countries. Ever since the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Moscow has had a heavy military presence in the peninsula. Russian President Vladimir Putin has now issued a stern warning to Ukraine against “supporting terrorists”, while Kiev has put its army on combat alert. It is not clear who is actually behind the latest flare-up. There are two theories afloat. One is that Mr. Putin is talking up the attack in Crimea to up the ante against Ukraine. The episode allows him to portray Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, an ally of the West, as a supporter of “terrorists”. The other theory, the official Russian version, is that militants and Ukrainian special forces were indeed involved in the sabotage attempt, and two Russian soldiers were killed in exchange of fire. For now, there are independent reports confirming that there was a firefight on the Crimea-Ukraine border on Saturday night. Militants had targeted Crimea earlier as well. Last November, anti-Russian saboteurs had blown up electrical pylons, plunging Crimea into darkness. The real question is whether such militant groups have the direct support of the Ukrainian government. If so, Ukraine may be committing a major mistake. Retaking Crimea from Russia using force is simply not practical. What it could possibly do is to destabilise Crimea by violent means. But even this won’t serve Ukraine’s interests as violence in Crimea by external forces is likely to prompt Moscow to step up proxy wars in Eastern Ukraine, destabilising the country further.
Russia sees Ukraine as a front of the West in a larger geopolitical game, and is unlikely to make major compromises unless there is a deal between itself and Western countries over Ukraine. Kiev is but a small player caught in a great power game. It should make its choices carefully as ties with Russia could be pivotal for its survival as a stable, peaceful nation in the long term. The West has to realise that its belligerent response towards Moscow over the annexation of Crimea, including sanctions, has only complicated the crisis further. It should rethink its policies and enter into meaningful talks with Moscow to dial down tensions over Ukraine. Restoring trust between Russia and the West is crucial in tackling several other global challenges as well, including the Syrian civil war and the fight against the Islamic State. For its part, Russia has to get its priorities right. What is it gaining from destabilising a tiny neighbouring country and damaging its own position as a global power when its economy is bleeding? There is room for all actors to make compromises in their mutual interest.