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Cyril Widdershoven

Cyril Widdershoven

Dr. Cyril Widdershoven is a long-time observer of the global energy market. Presently, he holds several advisory positions with international think tanks in the Middle…

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Is Russia About To Invade Ukraine?

While the world is focused on OPEC news and Easter preparations, the Ukrainian crisis is heating up and there is a real threat of a military confrontation involving Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. Currently, the Ukrainian military is fighting Moscow-backed separatists in the Donbas region. At the same time, heavy clashes with Russian-backed forces in and around Shymy have been reported. International pressure has been building on Russia to force a direct ceasefire, but no moves have been made. In recent weeks, analysts warned of a possible full-scale military confrontation as they considered the military moves in the region as provocations by Moscow. At the same time, most confrontations were localized, with no real regional impact yet. The military stalemate, however, could well be coming to an end. A growing amount of reports have emerged showing not only largescale Russian military movements towards the Ukrainian border but also Moscow’s only regional supporter Belarus has deployed new troops to the Ukrainian border. As Julian Ropcke, a German Bild reporter, said on Wednesday, large amounts of Belarus’ military hardware, including BTR-80 armored vehicles and military trucks are moved to the border region. Kiev has already reacted to the growing threat perception by calling up reinforcements. Ruslan Khomchak, Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief, stated to the press that Russia is building up armed forces near Ukraine’s borders in a threat to the country’s security. 

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Russian TV channel Russia Today indicated that Moscow is going to support troops of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) “to come home”. The coming days could be a major watershed for the region’s military-geopolitical situation. The West has always assumed that Moscow was more than happy with the current situation, controlling not only the Donbas area but also preventing Ukraine from joining NATO. To expect Putin to be content with this stalemate, however, without having any option for a diplomatic resolution, seems overly optimistic from those powers. Russia’s ultimate dream is to unify Russia and Ukraine., a dream it is willing to achieve either with hard diplomacy or military means. Moscow appears to have become increasingly unhappy about its lack of progress in achieving that dream, partly due to it being handicapped by the Minsk Accords.  The Biden Administration, which is less flexible to Moscow’s strategies than the previous administration, is also a possible reason for Russia’s new military adventures. Biden’s State Department speech on February 4th included a clear message to Russia that ‘the days of rolling over in the face of Russia’s actions… are over’. It is certainly possible that the speech pushed Russia to ramp up its military actions. Meanwhile, in Belarus and Ukraine, the West is perceived to be waging a hybrid war against Moscow. From Putin’s point of view, the only option now is to actively counter-attack. Military analysts are still arguing about what Moscow’s options are in the coming days. A majority expect a so-called localized escalation, dramatic and devastating, leading to the deployment of Russian ‘peacekeepers’. Such a move could be used to justify future military moves by Russia. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken filed a complaint on Wednesday in which he reiterated Washington’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity “in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression”. If Putin believes the West is weak, however, a military move, which would give Russia access to Crimean water supplies, would be a very attractive one.  Ukrainian observers believe the Kremlin may even consider a decisive military push through south-eastern Ukraine to create a land corridor linking Crimea with Donbas and end the peninsula’s chronic water shortage – Ukraine has blocked 85 percent of water supplies to the Crimea since 2014.

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A possible full-scale military operation will not only impact regional security but also put the European oil and gas sector under pressure, while maritime logistics could also be hampered. With Europe’s gas storage currently very low and dependency on Russian supplies still very high, a crisis here could have a major impact. Gas prices will soon be under pressure if the situation escalates. With storage sites at 37% capacity compared to 60% capacity at the same time last year or 74% at the start of this year, inventories are becoming critical. Analysts currently expect levels to fall as low as 16% of total capacity. To count on LNG supplies would be foolish if Asian demand continues to grow. The stranglehold that Russia has over European gas markets may soon become a major geopolitical market factor once again. If a Ukraine crisis erupts, potentially blocking or closing gas and oil pipelines in the region, a new energy crisis would follow closely behind. 

It appears that Putin’s strategists have outmaneuvered Western powers. The weak response from both Brussels and Washington to Russian power moves in recent years appears to have emboldened Putin. Sanctions have been largely ineffective, while military options seem to be out of the question. Russian gas politics could now be a major pivotal factor in stopping any EU-NATO support if a renewed Ukraine conflict were to break out. 

By Cyril Widdershoven for Oilprice.com

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  • Hugh Williams on April 02 2021 said:
    The "drive the Russian dogs out" campaign in the Ukraine resulted in many Russian speaking Ukrainians being murdered. This was ignored by the western media including even burning the
    Russians to death in Odessa. Russia has shown great restraint. My take is Russia does not want the Ukraine to rejoin Russia.
  • George Doolittle on April 02 2021 said:
    First off to specify "Putin's Russia has been at War with Ukraine since US President Obama and Le Internationale signed off on the entire matter" way back in 2014. Second this is an obvious test of whether a "President Biden" is even sentient let alone capable of discharging his duties as Constitutionally required and thus if not in need of removal.

    Meanwhile in North Korea both China and Russia are..
  • Anatoly Karlin on April 02 2021 said:
    There’s been reports of a Ukrainian military buildup in the Donbass for several weeks now. The Saker, amongst others, has also reported on them, quoting a Telegram blogger who is claimed to have good sources in Kiev:

    “A while ago, an order came from the office of the old senile Biden to prepare the VSU for an offensive in the Donbass, but wait for the final go-ahead from the White House. At the same time, this source also said that similar military operations will be conducted in other countries where there are Russian interests, in order to deflect the public attention from the Donbass and weaken any support for the Donbass”.

    My main reason for skepticism that the Ukrainians have serious aggressive intentions is that the Ukraine is still in no position to carry out an “Operation Storm” on the LDNR should Russia intervene.

    But then again, as a recent report from Strana suggests, that might be the entire point.

    They make the point that violations of the ceasefire are now routine. Old positions have been reoccupied, with the demarcation zone on the front line shrinking from a safe 2-3 km to just 400-700 meters. There is a high level of preparedness, permissions to go on leave are short, there are many videos of tanks and armored vehicles being transported in. The source notes that there has been studies of the recent Karabakh War, especially the usage of drones. (Ukraine acquired 12 Bayraktar drones from Turkey last year and is slated to acquire five more this year).

    There has also been an intensification of patriotic rhetoric and a shutdown of pro-Opposition Bloc (more Russia leaning) opposition outlets with the approval of the US State Department. This campaign has led to a sharp fall in Ukrainian sentiment towards Russia back down to Poroshenko-era levels.

    The NAF, to be clear, doesn’t stand any chance in a full scale Ukrainian assault. Even in 2014, when the Ukrainian Army was much less organized, Russian artillery and EW intervention proved critical. The Ukrainian military has since had more than half a decade of getting 5% of Ukraine’s GDP lavished on it. While Ukraine’s GDP is unimpressive, this is still a high numerator and Russian involvement would have to be more overt than in 2014 if the Donbass is to be saved.

    Considering that 100,000’s of Donbass residents are now also Russian citizens, not doing so would discredit Putin domestically.

    This, then, might be the game plan. By provoking a Russian intervention, it could finally provide the US with the arguments to finally pressure Germany into shutting down Nord Stream 2, just a few months before its projected completion. (Contra popular conceptions, Germany is more invested into NS2 than is Russia, and stands to lose relatively more from a last minute torpedoing of the project). NS2 threatens to deprive Ukraine of $2-3 billion dollars in annual transit fees. These are not insignificant sums for a country with a GDP of $150 billion and are well worth the lives of a few hundred Ukrainian soldiers, who – as Strana‘s sources report – plan to stop the offensive and probably retreat should Russian troops go in.

    There is also another possible incentive that I have been made aware of thanks to Christelle Néantt at the Donbass Insider. She notes that the same publication has also reported that Christo Grozev, an employee with Bellingcat, an investigative media outlet that is widely reputed to be a sieve for British intelligence, reported to Alesya Batsman – the wife of Dmitry Gordon, a leading Ukrainian journalist – that he is filming an investigation on the Wagner Affair. This event, which nearly led to a breakdown in relations between Russia and Belarus in the middle of an attempted color revolution against Lukashenko, was a sting operation jointly organized by the Ukrainian SBU and American intelligence to lure Russian Wagner mercenaries to Ukraine. During the planned flight from Minsk to Istanbul, from where they were to go on to Venezuela, a passenger played by an SBU agent would pretend to fall ill, forcing the plane to land in Kiev. The Wagnerites would then be arrested. But somebody in the Ukrainian Presidential Administration – many sources speculate that it was Andrey Ermak, the head of the Presidential Administration – leaked the plans to the Belarusian KGB, possibly to avert an international incident with Belarus. But it then trickled over quickly to Russian intelligence and the Wagnerites were freed soon afterwards.

    The film was originally scheduled for publication on March 15, but has since been postponed. Pyotr Poroshenko, who has been rising again in the polls, has been energetically pumping this story. One may then speculate that the US and Britain are blackmailing Zelensky into war by withholding the film. In this context, Zelensky’s increased bellicosity may thus not be so much intentional as an attempt to fob them off while stopping short of launching a war that he is sure to lose (the Bayraktars will not be much for a match
  • Lee James on April 03 2021 said:
    After Russia's success in enabling barrel-bombs-for-bases in Syria, they are ready to move on to new a new venue.

    A lot of Russia's stance has to do with calling out the U.S. on our extensive foreign adventurism. And a lot of what the U.S. has done is over oil access. I'd like to suggest that in addition to reducing fossil fuel dependency and harmful fuel burning, that the West also move away from fossil of fuels for the sake of world peace and security.

    Maybe Russia will step off its high horse and go back to producing great cultural achievements like ballet instead of devoting such a high percentage if its national output to weapons.

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