WASHINGTON – Russia is trying to drive a wedge between Ukraine and its Western allies with false claims of a Ukrainian plot to attack Crimea, Ukraine's top diplomat to the US believes.
Valeriy Chaly, Ukraine's ambassador to the United States, told Executive Editor Jill Aitoro during an interview for Defense News TV that Russia is using a "continuous information war" in order to "blackmail" European nations to turn against his country, potentially with an eye on ending sanctions tied to the Minsk peace process.
"Russia planned to use terror and pay for terror in the Ukrainian territory. That's a problem. [This accusation] is an attempt to make another side responsible. But it's impossible," Chaly said. "And we see and appreciate a very firm and clear response by [the US] State Department, European partners. So [Russia has] failed in this situation."
Earlier this month, Russian president Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine of plotting a terrorist attack in Crimea – the territory that Russia invaded and took over in 2014, and which Ukraine still claims as its own. Ukrainian officials have denied such a plot.
"I would like to turn to our American and European partners," Putin was quoted by the New York Times as saying during an Aug. 10 address. "I think it is clear now that today’s Kiev government is not looking for ways to solve problems by negotiations, but is resorting to terror. This is a very worrying thing."
That phrasing has led to speculation that Putin’s government is trying a bit of gamesmanship. If Ukraine was to make a military move on Crimea, it would represent a violation of the Minsk peace agreements. Russia is the foundation of a series of European sanctions against Putin’s government – sanctions experts believe many nations are growing tired of and may drop if given a reasonable excuse.
To deter Russia’s information war, Chaly said, requires greater cooperation and coordination with partner nations.
"We need stronger coordination with exchange of intelligence for example because it’s very easy to understand this is blackmail, this failed attempt to accuse Ukraine," the ambassador said. "So everybody understands we need this coordination, we need to exchange information, we need to be prepared for any development of the situation."
Chaly also raised concerns over Russia’s ability to move nuclear weapons into Crimea.
"Now, unfortunately we have some information, some messages that Russia planned and did some things to have the possibility to use nuclear weapons in this peninsula," the ambassador said. "I want to remind you, this is very close to European countries. We are concerned. In one day, 24 hours, [they could] bring the nuclear weapon to the territory of Ukraine."
Those concerns are echoes of previous statements from Ukrainian officials, along with reports from the summer of 2014 that that Russia had temporarily stationed nuclear-capable Tu-22s to Crimea as part of a military exercise.
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, pointed out that if Russia considers Crimea its territory, it would not be shocking for them to place nuclear weapons there at some point in the future – and believes it would be more for symbolic than strategic purposes, given the range of its arsenal.
"If Russia did station nuclear weapons on Crimea, it is not really closer to anything," Lewis said. "If Russia does that, it is purely symbolic."
Watch Executive Editor Jill Aitoro's interview with Ukraine Ambassador Valeriy Chaly on Aug. 21 at 11 a.m. on WJLA ABC7.
Photo Credit: Staff
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.