The Ukrainian conflict may have just gotten more complicated. Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) announced Wednesday that it had prevented terrorist attacks in Crimea plotted by Ukraine's intelligence services. According to the FSB, a group of saboteurs with plans to target important infrastructure and facilities was discovered near the Crimean town of Armyanskon the night of Aug. 6. The would-be attackers had improvised explosive devices, ammunition and other weaponry. Officials from the FSB, the successor to the KGB, alleged that the suspects then killed an FSB employee and a Russian soldier during subsequent counterterrorism operations. Ukrainian officials deny the allegations. No matter who is correct, the incident could trigger an escalation of the conflict.
The FSB's announcement coincides with reports of a Russian military buildup in Crimea over the past week. The movement of military hardware has been observed near Russian positions on the northern part of the peninsula and across the Kerch Strait. Ukrainian security officials also noted helicopters and drones flying near and over the border between Crimea and Ukraine, which Kiev interpreted as a possible precursor to Russian military operations in the country. At this point, however, the reason for Russia's increased military activity in Crimea is unclear. The story emerging from Russia about the foiled attack seems to explain much of the activity observed on and around the border and throughout Crimea. On the other hand, many of the reported military movements could have been part of the preparations for September's Kavkaz-2016 military exercise.
Incursions of the type that the FSB reported Wednesday have occurred frequently on both sides of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and claims of similar activity in Crimea have been made before. But until now, no incursion on the peninsula had resulted in such a comprehensive security operation in response. The FSB's claims are not unrealistic — after all, covert operations are an expected part of a conflict such as the one in Ukraine — but there is no way to accurately and independently verify them. In staging such an operation, however, Ukraine would risk igniting a military conflict with Moscow, something it wants to avoid. At the same time, though, Kiev did little to stop non-state actors from destroying infrastructure carrying electricity into Crimea in late 2015.
There are concerns in Ukraine that Russia could use the alleged plot in Crimea to justify more military incursions into the country. Fighting in eastern Ukraine has already ramped up in recent months. And since the European Union voted to extend sanctions against Russia until January 2017, Moscow has no immediate incentive to clamp down on the violence. Russia could in fact benefit if the fighting were to escalate, thereby weakening Ukraine and getting the West's attention.
But a major military push into Ukraine would be risky for Russia. For one thing, it would likely galvanize Western support for Ukraine. For another, it would strengthen the European Union's resolve to maintain sanctions against Russia despite the uncertainty within the bloc following the Brexit vote. At the same time, Moscow could benefit from intensified but limited activity — for instance, buildups to support operations against Ukrainian militants in Crimea — particularly as September parliamentary elections approach. Support for the ruling party, United Russia, has waned, and the Kremlin could use the news of security flare-ups in Ukraine to stir nationalism. This is likely why reports that the FSB had thwarted a terrorist attack in Crimea — and Russian President Vladimir Putin's quick statement condemning the plot — were flashed across all major Russian media today.
These events also come at a pivotal point in the negotiation process between Russia and the West. U.S. President Barack Obama has hinted that he would like to strike a deal with Russia over the Ukrainian conflict before the end of his term, which leaves only a few months. In addition, Putin would like one last sit-down with the American leader, who has not granted him the same legitimacy on the global stage that previous U.S. presidents have. In the past few months, the pace of diplomatic efforts over the Ukraine conflict, as well as negotiations over Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, has increased, yet differences remain over the nature and timing of the political and security concessions that each side must make to find a lasting resolution. Now, the latest events in Crimea could serve as grounds for an escalation, a turn of events that would have significant consequences not only for Russia's relationship with Ukraine, but also for its negotiations with the West.