Russia’s swift occupation and annexation of Crimea has come as a huge shock to the international community—and the United States and NATO are scrambling for an adequate response. Russia’s next move in Ukraine, however, may quickly come to overshadow Crimea’s annexation.
Despite public statements to the contrary, movement on the ground indicates that this could only be the beginning of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military campaign. At the time of this writing, some of Russia’s elite troops, such as the 2nd Guards Tamanskaya Motor Rifle Division and the 4th Guards Kantimirovskaya Tank Division, have concentrated along the Russian border near the major Ukrainian cities of Chernigov and Kharkov. While the Russian government has attributed the troop buildup to military exercises, U.S. government sources say there is little evidence that any training maneuvers have actually been taking place.
So far Putin’s efforts to retain Russian influence in Ukraine through increasingly bold, risky, and at times counterintuitive tactics have caught his opponents off guard. There is little reason to believe that the former KGB colonel has any intention to let up. In fact, it appears he has only begun to play his cards. What are his options?
Maintaining the Status Quo
Though it’s unlikely that Russia has been deterred by the West’s response thus far—the EU could not bring itself to enact sanctions at the level the U.S. was proposing, and President Obama explicitly ruled out any form of military assistance in Ukraine—it’s still possible that Putin has determined that the status quo is good enough for now.
Sending agents provocateurs into the eastern Ukrainian cities, as he did over the weekend, may be the prelude for a broader military incursion. But it also might just be a means for keeping Kiev and its Western friends off balance. If the situation continues to look like it’s about to spin out of control, he may be counting on skittish Western patrons forcing Kiev to accept his proposal for Ukraine’s federalization. In a federal Ukraine, Russian influence in the Southeast would be preserved and central government authority permanently attenuated.
The beauty of the status quo is that Putin can pursue a “wait and see” approach, assessing his political and diplomatic options while maintaining the ability to intervene militarily at a moment’s notice. If the Kremlin’s covert, political, and diplomatic maneuvering do not produce the desired result, then the West may wake up to a very unpalatable reality: a deeper Russian push into Ukraine.
Capturing Eastern Ukraine
In a repeat of the Crimean operation, Russian troops could enter the Lugansk, Donetsk, and Kharkov regions under the guise of defending the local Russian population. Anne Applebaum has already noted that tanks along the Ukrainian border have been painted with peacekeeping slogans, and that pro-Russian activists storming the government buildings have called for ‘peacekeepers’ to come to their aid.
The occupation of the strategically significant Donbas region and Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkov, would provide Russia with new leverage, as it could either annex the territory or give it back in a negotiated settlement that would transform Ukraine into a federal state. Such an operation would be in clear breach of international law and could create a strong backlash even among Russia’s diminishing list of allies. But some of this fallout could be minimized by using local paramilitary groups in tandem with Russian special forces, creating a confusion on the ground—as was done in Crimea.
Russia could also be contemplating capturing all of southeastern Ukraine for several reasons. It would be a very Putinesque display of pique to deny rump Ukraine any access to the Black Sea. Furthermore, such a strategy would solve the infrastructural hurdles Russia is facing after Crimea’s annexation. Finally, Russian officials have already implied that the status of the tiny breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova could be a sufficient pretext for Russia to do something. Transnistrian activists, for their part, have pulled out of further negotiations with Moldova and, citing Crimea as precedent, have rekindled agitation for integration into the Russian state.
But this kind of move would come with a high price. Few believe that the Ukrainian military could resist a proper Russian invasion for long, but most of southeastern Ukraine is not as likely to welcome Russian forces as Crimea was. Annexation would not be a popular move in Odessa, for example, where pro-Russian demonstrations have attracted low turnout and where polls show the majority of the population opposing Russian military involvement in Ukraine. Brushing off international opprobrium is easy. Occupying a hostile territory is less so.
Blitz into Kiev
Russia’s current force on the Ukrainian border—which estimates peg at 30,000 to 100,000 men— is too small for an outright sustained invasion of Ukraine. To put it in perspective, the invasion of Iraq required approximately 300,000 coalition troops who had greater military capability than those currently at Russia’s disposal—and Ukraine is both quite a bit larger and more populous than Iraq.
But that’s where the comparison ends, and therefore should give little comfort. Russia does not need to occupy the entire country to achieve its apparent strategic goals. Indeed, the concentration of troops near Chernigov suggests that Russia may opt to attain tactical and strategic surprise and, rather than move into pro-Russian territory in the southeast as most would expect, march along the most direct available route to Kiev. U.S. estimates indicate that Russia could achieve its military objectives in a handful of days with little prior warning.
The goal probably wouldn’t be outright regime change. Putin has to be aware that owning the political establishment in Kiev no longer guarantees stability in Ukraine. In light of how successful the Euromaidan protesters were in quickly toppling the Yanukovych administration, any overtly pro-Russian authority would not last long. And prolonged occupation of the capital could trigger a fierce guerilla resistance—something a shocked and perhaps more unified West could not ignore.
A lightning-quick strike at Kiev would rather be more of a destabilizing move—showing Ukraine’s people that their government is powerless before Russian might and demonstrating once and for all that NATO will not be coming to their rescue. Ukraine’s political elites, well-versed at flip-flopping and ‘working with’ the Russians, could be compelled to accept the federalization proposal at gunpoint, and the Euromaidan movement could lose its mainstream, middle-class supporters who conclude that their fight is for naught.
If in May Ukrainians elect a President that Moscow does not trust or feels that it can’t work with, Putin may calculate that driving for Kiev, risky as it is, may be worth it.
The above scenarios, weeks ago considered farfetched, are probably more likely than most Western analysts are willing to admit to themselves. This is a mistake. Putin has given every indication that he is playing hardball and is not interested in the kinds of positive-sum solutions that European and American diplomats have come to expect as the norm. He has intimated that he does not consider Ukraine a legitimate country, is clearly leaving the door open to more territorial revision, and is unlikely to settle for much less than his already articulated preference for a weak confederation of regional governments on his border.
If this is true, what is the West’s response? The only thing more chilling than the recent Russian troop activity on Ukraine’s border is the fact that it’s hard to imagine the current crop of Western leaders coming up with a coherent answer to this question.