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The warnings of escalation in the Russia-Ukraine standoff

A Ukranian serviceman stands on the deck of the command ship Donbass docked in the Azov Sea port of Mariupol Photo: Gleb Garanich/AFP/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin declared Thursday that the crisis in relations with Ukraine will continue "as long as Russophobes remain in the corridors of power in Kiev.” Meanwhile, in Kiev, a brawl broke out in parliament over a poster accusing a Ukrainian politician of serving as “Putin's agent.”

The big picture: Tensions between Russia and Ukraine are still simmering 25 days after Russia intercepted, fired on and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels off of Crimea, taking 24 sailors prisoner in the process. Both sides continue to accuse the other of provocations that could lead to war.

Putin insisted that Russia will hold the sailors until they face trial. In Ukraine, a top national security official said Kiev has “no choice” but to send warships into the Sea of Azov — a move that could spark another confrontation.

  • “Just because it’s been quiet for a couple weeks doesn’t mean we won’t have a Christmas surprise,” Alexander Vershbow, a former NATO Deputy Secretary General and U.S. ambassador to Russia now at the Atlantic Council, tells me. “The propaganda coming out of the Russians is at least preparing the ground for something new.”
  • Vershbow says there are similarities between what’s happening in Ukraine today and the “creeping annexation” by Moscow that preceded the 2008 war in Georgia. He says the lack of concrete actions from the U.S. and Europe after last month’s flare-up only make further aggression more likely.
  • “They’ve essentially annexed the Kerch Strait,” Vershbow says of the waters separating Crimea and Russia, where the confrontation took place, “and the West swallowed it.”

Where things stand...

  • Kurt Volker, the U.S. special envoy for Ukraine, says the push for more U.S. sanctions on Moscow is "gaining some traction.” The EU extended existing sanctions, but there’s no consensus on further steps.
  • Putin claims to respect Ukraine’s right to joint access of the Sea of Azov, but is in effect attempting to dictate access to the sea through the Kerch Strait. Russia is also suffocating trade through Mariupol, the Ukrainian port city in the Sea of Azov.
  • Martial law remains in effect in parts of Ukraine. It is set to expire next week, but could be extended.

What’s next…

  • Ukraine has presidential elections in March, and President Petro Poroshenko is polling at approximately 10% in a crowded field. He’s hoping a rally-around-the-flag effect from the conflict with Russia and the dramatic Moscow-Kiev split in the Eastern Orthodox Church propel him into the second round.
  • Kremlin influence over much of the Ukrainian media, and the pro-Russia candidates on the ballot, could allow Russia to influence what Iryna Bekeshkina of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation describes as a divided and “quite depressed and pessimistic” Ukrainian electorate.

What to watch: Stephen Nix of the International Republic Institute says there’s concern Russia may use Ukraine’s election to “try out certain techniques” they can use in the U.S. in 2020.