Rosbalt media's senior correspondent Alexander Zhelenin interviewed the military expert Pavel Felgengauer and heard from him a shocking prediction. Russia intends to invade Ukraine and occupy the entire south of that country. It is not a question of if but when. While most observers see Donbass as the flashpoint for renewed war, Felgengauer sees control of the Sea of Azov as the casus belli. Going to war will be a momentous decision for Putin, because as opposed to Russia's successful surprise attack in the 2008 war with Georgia, Russian movements are being closely monitored, and the West, even if it does not intervene directly, can be expected to supply Kiev with arms that will make such an invasion costly.
The full Rosbalt article appears below:
The situation surrounding the Sea of Azov's status continues to be one of the most jittery topics in current Russian-Ukrainian relations and international relations in general. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba has already voiced concern that "Russia may conduct a creeping annexation of the Sea of Azov." According to him, the Russian Federation "is constantly strengthening its military presence there and disrupting trade routes."
There is an obvious contradiction in defining the Sea of Azov's status. In Moscow, it is clearly considered Russian internal waters. In Kiev, they point to a number of bilateral treaties, according to which it is an internal [water] for both states. Meanwhile, the Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine's Armed Forces, Colonel-General Ruslan Khomchak said on Wednesday that "in the Sea of Azov, they (the Russians) generally want to show that this is their internal sea ...," He simultaneously declared: “I say with full responsibility that we are ready for any action by the enemy in relation to our state."
Sea of Azov and Black Sea (Source: Dreamtimes.com)
How far these and other Russian-Ukrainian contradictions can go and how high is the likelihood of their escalation into a full-scale war, Rosbalt's observer talked with military expert Pavel Felgenhauer.
- Can Russia in one way or another really try to make the Sea of Azov, as well as the Kerch Strait, an internal Russian water area? Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba has already announced that Russia can carry out their "creeping" annexation ...
- I would not say "creeping", but most resolute. However, militarily, the meaning of this for Russia is only that the warships of the Caspian Flotilla could cross the Volga-Don Canal to the Azov and Black Seas and then return back. But today we quite officially consider Azov as our internal sea.
But there are also two Ukrainian ports - Berdyansk and Mariupol?
- Well, yes, but we, as I understand it, treat this as a temporary phenomenon ... We believe that Ukraine still has a part of the coast there, these two ports and a 12-mile coastal zone.
In principle, before all the events of 2014-2015 [the annexation of Crimea], a series of agreements were concluded with Ukraine, spelling out the status of Azov as a joint internal sea. Accordingly, foreign (as opposed to Russian and Ukrainian) warships could enter there only by agreement with Kiev and Moscow. At the moment, international merchant ships are allowed to enter Russian and Ukrainian ports. In theory, some kind of delimitation (border) between Ukraine and Russia is needed in the Sea of Azov, but it seems that no one intends to reach an agreement.
In general, things are heading for war. We are not going to settle anything with the Ukrainians through diplomatic channels. I believe that the decision in principle to occupy south Ukraine in its entirety has already been made.
- Why do you think so?
- For different reasons. In particular, the Speaker of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin, who, by the way, is a permanent member of the Russian Federation Security Council, recently announced that it was time to stop any export of capital from Russia, since anyway it would soon be frozen. Apparently, he knows what he is talking about - Volodin is a very pragmatic person.
I repeat, a fundamental decision, from my point of view, has already been taken, the question is only when will it happen - at the end of May, in June, or will it be postponed until autumn. So, what "creeping occupation" do we really have? It will more likely be a single "leap".
At the same time, the other day the US Coast Guard frigate Hamilton participated in Ukrainian Navy maneuvers, and then entered the port of Odessa. Can American warships try to pass through the Kerch Strait to Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov, for example, to the same Berdyansk or Mariupol?
US Coast Guard frigate Hamilton in the port of Odessa (Source: Ukrinform.net)
- I don’t think so.
“It doesn't make sense. It is unlikely that Washington would start something like that now.
- But do they enter the Black Sea?
- They get there through the Turkish straits, through the Bosporus. Turkey is a US ally, a NATO member. All the Black Sea countries, besides Russia, are friendly to America. The same Hamilton visited not only Odessa, but also Georgia, in whose waters it conducted training with Georgian coast guard ships.
But there is no military reason for American ships to enter the shallow Azov [Sea]. Their aviation, and reconnaissance aircraft, and strategic combat drones, anyway fly along the Azov coast and the border with the Crimea, over Donbass. Last fall, a US strategic B-52 bomber, escorted by Ukrainian fighters, travelled along the coast of the Azov Sea. But it was more of a demonstration, because there is no basic military logic such flights. If they are going to launch a missile strike, it would be more likely [for them to do so] from the Lvov region in Western Ukraine, if not Krakow or Dresden ...
- If you try to imagine that Russian troops will actually try to occupy the south of Ukraine, what will be the American and NATO response in such a case?
- Now it is difficult to say with precision. For example, during the  war with Georgia, a very powerful group of NATO warships entered the Black Sea. We were very worried, because then the Russian Black Sea Fleet could not do anything serious to oppose this.
In the current conditions, some kind of skirmishes at sea and in the air may begin. An even larger-scale supply of the Ukrainian army with everything necessary, especially those that may be needed quickly - anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, will begin by land across the Polish border and by air. American or other NATO anti-aircraft missile systems can be deployed on Ukrainian territory. US Air Force planes may also appear there to cover them.
It is not at all necessary for American destroyers or submarines to enter the Black Sea in order to destroy all Russian air defense systems and air bases in Crimea. They can also do this from the Aegean Sea or other areas of the Mediterranean.
So, different scenarios are possible, but, in principle, today the situation is much more serious than in 2008, when no one in the Pentagon (and in the West in general) believed that Russia would launch a campaign against Georgia. Now the situation is being monitored there very closely by satellites, reconnaissance drones and aircraft. Therefore, no surprise will succeed this time.
- It seems to me that a war in the current conditions would become a wild gamble on the part of the Kremlin ...
- Yes, the chief executive is nervous because he understands that this would be a very serious decision. The issue has been debated, but it is ultimately for him to decide. The first indication that everything has begun will be a sharp escalation in the Donbass - "protecting the Russians from genocide" and so on. This will be a pretext for war and a sign that the operation is a go.
Pavel Felgengauer (Source: Rtvi.com)
 Rosbalt.ru, May 13, 2021.