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Facts and Polls
Will Putin Take More of Ukraine?

Will he or won’t he? Signs across the Ukrainian-Russian border point to the fact that Vladimir Putin is keeping his options wide open when it comes to annexing more Ukrainian territory. The Wall Street Journal:

Russian troops massing near Ukraine are actively concealing their positions and establishing supply lines that could be used in a prolonged deployment, ratcheting up concerns that Moscow is preparing for another major incursion and not conducting exercises as it claims, U.S. officials said.

On the one hand Putin has to know that, even if there is no threat of Western military pushback or serious resistance from Ukraine’s comparatively weak armed forces, actually ruling over areas like Kharkiv would be nowhere near as easy as ruling over Crimea, where people who identify as Russians form a sizable majority.

On the other hand, invasion may prove to be a winner for Putin domestically. As the (still supposedly independent) Levada Center reported this week, polls show that Russians in general approve of what happened in Crimea and would support further incursions and annexation of areas of Ukraine. Some data points:

If another region of Ukraine was to vote in a referendum to exit the Ukraine and join the Russian Federation, should Russia bring this region into into its union or not?

Definitely bring it into the union – 38%
Probably bring it into the union – 29%
Probably refrain from doing so – 15%
Definitely refrain from doing so – 4%
Hard to say – 15%

Which of the following opinions about Russian adoption of territories of the former USSR would you agree with:

Russia has the right to do so in order to protect its own people – 58%
Russia doesn’t have the right to do so, but in the case of Crimea, Russia behaved decently and lawfully, and in accordance with international law – 28%
Russia has no right to do so, and Russia’s actions can only be considered by the international community as annexation of foreign territory and intervention against a sovereign state – 4%
Difficult to answer – 10%

If these survey results are trustworthy, Western policymakers shouldn’t get too excited about Putin’s overreaching hurting him at home. These numbers certainly put earlier homegrown protests against the Crimea adventure in perspective. It’s hard to say how Russian people “really” see things, given the level of control Putin’s regime has over the country’s media. But it certainly seems that the West doesn’t just have a Putin problem on its hands; it has a much bigger Russia problem.

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  • Pete

    You ask, “Will Putin take more of the Ukraine?”

    I think so but not for a good while.

    Putin might wait for the U.S. to get distracted with Iran or some antics of the Chinese before acting. But who knows?

    • Andrew Allison

      I’m inclined to think that it’s simply a warning to Ukraine and the West not to do anything silly about Crimea. I also think that while the West is distracted with useless fulminating about Crimea, Russia is likely increasing its support for Assad.

  • S.C. Schwarz

    Sure he will. Why? Because he can. Why quit while you are winning? After he takes eastern Ukraine the “deal” will be that he stops there, and does not take all of Ukraine, in return for western acquiescence to what he has taken so far. Of course “stops” is a flexible term and means he will just wait for the next good opportunity.

    All this will be applauded as a diplomatic triumph in the west as it will enable us to get back to important stuff: unilateral disarmament, global warming and Governor Christie’s causing a traffic jam on the GW bridge.

  • Thirdsyphon

    A Russian invasion of the remaining Ukraine or any portion thereof might be popular in Russia initially, but the public’s enthusiasm would wane very quickly if the occupation were to become bogged down in prolonged asymmetric warfare against insurgents.

    I think the poll numbers cited here reflect the Russian public’s assumption that their forces will be “greeted as liberators” by the rest of Ukraine just as they were (more or less) in Crimea. To act on this assumption would be a disastrous mistake.

    The Russian public might see Ukraine as a spiritual province of Russia, but the Ukrainians clearly have a different view. If they didn’t, Ukraine would have formally become a part of Russia long ago.

    My sense of the crisis is that the Ukrainians can and will mount a determined and effective resistance against any attempt to further occupy their country; and that the Russian desire for conquest will evaporate very quickly as their government’s coffers hemorrhage money, their economy crashes in the face of withering sanctions, and their soldiers start coming home in body bags.

    • f1b0nacc1

      You know comparatively little about Russia and the Ukraine, and it shows..
      1) Most Russians (not all, by any means, but most) consider the Ukrainians just one step up from farm animals, and not particularly bright farm animals at that. The notion that the bulk of the Russian population cares at all about whether the Ukrainians welcome them or not is simply silly…
      2) The Ukrainian military (such as it is) would likely lose a stand-up fight with a girl’s school for the blind. Roughly 70% of it is ‘no-show’ non-combatants who rarely even wear their uniforms, and the rest are very poorly led, weakly armed, and generally unenthused with the notion of dying for a cause, including their own. Yes, you will have some good units that will be ready to fight (and to be fair, most of the Russian army is little better), but you can be sure that the Russians will be using most of the good forces to leaven the losers, while the Ukrainians don’t have much to work with in the first place.
      3) While I rather doubt that the Russians will be welcomed with open arms (aside from a few Great Russian enclaves in the far east Ukraine, and possibly not even there), they (the Ukrainians) aren’t likely to put up much of a fight, particularly given the high likelihood of a very unpleasant (i.e. violent) response to resistance from the Russian military. Will there be casualties? Certainly, but we aren’t talking about the Caucuses here, and these are not Islamic fanatics that are going to be fought.
      Putin knows his own population quite well, and while I don’t like the creep, I don’t think of him as particularly stupid either.

      • Thirdsyphon

        As you rightly point out, I’m no expert on modern Russia or Ukraine. In fact, I’ve never set foot in either country. But I’ve done my fair share of reading in Russian history and literature, as well as the troubled history of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the 20th Century.

        What stands out to me is that, while the Ukrainians might not be religious fanatics, their nationalist fervor has driven them to wage asymmetrical partisan warfare, with considerable effect, against enemies as powerful and vicious as Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Third Reich. If the recent scenes from the Maidan were any indication, at least some of that resolve is still in their national character.

        With no international support, Ukranian partisans waged a guerrilla war against the Soviet Union that lasted until 1949[!], imposing a mortality rate on the Red Army units fighting them that not even the Afghan jihadis were able to match.

        In a straight-up military conflict, the Ukranian Army is almost definitely screwed; but as we’ve hopefully learned from recent decades, defeating a country’s uniformed soldiers is just the first (and possibly easiest) step in establishing a stable occupation.

        Today’s Ukrainians might or might not be as determined as the generation of Ukrainians who spawned the ruthless partisans of the 1940s; but then the worst that Putin’s Russian Federation can dish out, atrocities and all, is less than the ghost of the shadow of the ashes of the Soviet Union.

        Frankly, I don’t like their chances.

  • qet

    Fareed Zakaria gives a ringing defense of Obama’s “21st Century” leadership on Ukraine. All I could think of while reading it were these words of Shakespeare’s Henry VI: “frowns, words, and threats/Shall be the war that Henry means to use.” We all know what happened to Henry VI.

    • Diws

      It was a highly amusing article. ‘Fareed’s fig leaf for Obama’s foreign policy fecklessness’

    • Jim__L

      Reading up on Henry VI, it sounds like some people had the same impression of him they had of Nicholas (II) Romanov — pious, pacifist, and unsuited to the throne.

      Bad news for America if Obama follows in their footsteps.

  • Corlyss

    To quote Dan, Yes! Next question . . .

  • Jim__L

    The Germans are up, the Americans are out… is it any surprise the Russians are in?

    So much for NATO.

  • Jim__L

    Some more speculation on my part…

    – If the West does nothing, or relies on soft “power” wrist-slaps, Putin will take Eastern Ukraine.
    – After that, he will put an agricultural embargo on the agrarian Western Ukraine. Unless the EU is willing to stand up to their own farm lobbies (and abandon any strategies of being anywhere close to self-sufficient in food production), Putin may be able to strong-arm the Western Ukraine into his Eurasian Union as well.

    I would be surprised if this stops where it is today.

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