August 7, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Russia in Eastern Ukraine: Action and Reaction

• Evidence that Russia has increased the size and capabilities of troops massed near the border with eastern Ukraine adds yet more tension to an already strained situation

• If Russia acts to protect its proxy, the pro-Russian separatists, the US, UK, and EU will have to decide how to react, with potentially enormous geopolitical and economic consequences

• Russian President Putin has built his popular support upon a volatile base of legend, grievance, and nationalism, making it difficult for him to not openly intervene if the rebels continue to lose ground against a newly assertive Ukrainian military

• Assessments that suggest Putin is looking for a face-saving measure to de-escalate the situation while still placating the mob mentality he incited might not fully account for Putin’s commitment to a resurgent Russia.

With 20,000 troops, well-equipped with armor and surface-to-air missile batteries, it is clear Russia has the capability for a no-warning move into eastern Ukraine, though it is much less clear if it has the intention. Officials from NATO, the Polish Prime Minister, and the US Secretary of Defense have all warned of a possible Russian incursion into Ukraine to support the increasingly beleaguered separatist rebels, Moscow’s cross-border proxy. Were Russian troops to move into Ukraine, likely under Putin’s prepared guise of humanitarian support or protection for ethnic Russians, it will immediately present the US, UK, and EU with one of their most serious crises in decades.

To intervene militarily would risk a much broader war with Russia; to do nothing would rip the foundation of the promises that have kept peace and stability on the continent (with some notable exceptions in the Balkans) for almost 70 years. That leaves the third option of crushing economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure that can easily spiral out of control, leading to energy and financial crises. It boils down to a cold calculation: Does Russian President Putin want Ukraine (at least its industrial eastern region) more than the West (such as it can be defined on this issue) doesn’t want him to have it? The answer will have enormous geopolitical and economic consequences.

Having built his popular support on a volatile base of nationalist fervor and grievances, Putin might act more aggressively than many think—especially those who think he is merely posturing and can’t possibly mean what he says when he says Ukraine will always be part of Russia. Assessments that Putin is looking for a face-saving way out of the crisis focus on the logical fact that Putin has a great deal to lose if or when the Russian economy craters under the weight of prolonged sanctions and isolation. Yet Putin has created a vision of Russia that has less to do with international logic and more to do with deep-seated passions. A look at recent events strongly suggests Putin believes in a grand restoration of Russian power at a high price.

At every chance to significantly tamp down both the rhetoric on the airwaves and actions on the ground, Putin has done the opposite and taken the crisis to a new level:

• When Ukrainians overthrew former President Yanukovych, Putin seized and then annexed Crimea.

• When the Ukrainian military began to reverse rebel gains, Putin armed the rebels with advanced anti-aircraft weapons systems, leading to the downing of MH17 and the deaths of 298 civilians.

• When international reaction turned into condemnation and meaningful sanctions, Putin increased the supply of arms to the rebels and threatened counter-sanctions.

• When the Ukrainian military began to truly threaten rebel strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk, Putin readied 20,000 troops on the border.

Of course, these events don’t mean Russian will definitely move uniformed forces into the Ukraine, but they do show a pattern of not seeking the allegedly easy or face-saving way out. The shooting down of MH17 brought serious pressure and sanctions upon Russia, yet Putin’s response wasn't to scale back support for the rebels who brought him such unwanted attention but rather to double down on his bet. Russian state media has presented events in Ukraine in such an over-the-top manner that even masters of propaganda in the Kremlin will find it difficult to walk it back. Putin might simply press ahead, which, while very unfortunate, would be consistent with nearly all of his recent actions as they relate to international norms.

Even if Putin is indeed posturing, the current situation is untenable since the tactic of persistent threat of armed invasion to affect the politics of a neighbor hasn’t been seen on the continent since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.


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