How Dangerous is the Ukraine Crisis?

Russian airplanes seen from sky

image courtesy of NBC News/Digital Globe

How Dangerous is the Ukraine Crisis?
| Published April 14, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

The old expression, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” can also be retooled for other purposes and to make other points. This weekend, as one Thursday Review military contact in Pensacola said (he asked not to be identified for the purposes of this article): “a photo is worth a thousand tanks!”

Commercial and military satellite imagery show what are the unmistakable signs of preparation for war along the long, curvilinear frontier between Russia and the Ukraine. In those photographs, there are hundreds of personnel carriers, neatly parked near enormous bivouac areas. There are more tanks parked in forward-looking lines than have been seen since the weeks and days before the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan decades ago. And there are those high resolution aerial photos of Russian jet fighters, hundreds of them parked wingtip to wingtip along airfields less than 30 miles from the border.

The satellite photos also show what military analysts say could be tens of thousands of Russian troops, armed to the hilt—with all the accompanying logistical and supply support already in place, including food and medical corps, trucks filled with road-grade gravel, and bulldozers and construction crews for spreading it easily along muddy stretches of rural road.

For those old enough to recall the Cuban Missile Crisis, these overhead photos send a chill through the skin and a shudder down the spine.

If Russian troops are engaged in an elaborate military exercise, as Vladimir Putin has insisted for weeks, then this is the biggest such practice drill since the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

But it’s not all those Russian regulars in their traditional army khakis and camouflage that has the U.S., NATO and the European Union most deeply worried. It’s those Russian-speaking irregulars now at work systematically seizing the government buildings in a dozen cities in eastern Ukraine.

Taking over police stations, city and town offices and the headquarters’ of local military operations, the pro-Russian separatists have been spreading unrest and instability—constructing barricades out of tires and sandbags, and forcing local police and law enforcement to succumb to their authority. Among those dozen or so cities, scores of government buildings have now fallen under control of the separatists, and analysts in the U.S. and Europe fear that this is just the start.

Ukraine’s government in Kiev, recognized by the U.N. and the majority of its member states, has issued demands that the separatists relinquish control of the government locations they have seized at gunpoint or by violence, but beyond those harsh words, officials in Kiev seem powerless to stop the escalating crisis. In Kiev, there is a general fear that any Ukrainian military action will be seen as so provocative to Russia that Putin will use the confrontation as an excuse to invade.

The U.S. and Russia have been at loggerheads over the crisis for many weeks. Simultaneous to the Olympic Games, which were being held in Sochi, pro-European unrest in Kiev escalated while the world watched. The protests reached the tipping point days later, and at the very moment when the crisis in Kiev was becoming overtly violent, Ukrainian strongman Viktor Yanukovych and his entourage fled the country, carrying some of his cash and art with him. For a few days the world watched as the Ukraine seemed to bask in its newfound autonomy from the odorous Yanukovych (he had been elected in what was widely regarded as a rigged election).

But the outcome of that mini-revolution was unacceptable to Putin, who has made no secret that he prefers Ukraine to be comfortably within his sphere of influence. Putin was unhappy with the prospect of a Kiev aligned to Europe, and of a Ukraine joining the EU. Swiftly, Putin sent troops into Crimea—home to the crucial naval port at Sevastopol—and within a week Crimea held a referendum declaring itself independent of the Ukraine.

European and U.S. analysts say that Putin’s next move will be against eastern Ukraine, possibly everything east of the Dnieper River, where the majority of residents speak Russian as their first language.

For east-west relations, the military dangers are real. Putin needs little more than official or organized counter-attacks against the separatists to have his justification for a full-scale invasion. Any direct action by NATO could have the same effect. Over the weekend, the tensions spilled over into direct provocation against U.S. assets when two Russian SU-24 jets, possibly unarmed, repeatedly flew very closely to the American guided missile destroyer the USS Donald Cook, which was patrolling in the waters of the Black Sea near Romania.

The pair of SU-24s apparently had no visible missiles or other ordnance attached to the underside of the wings, and the Donald Cook is equipped with a highly advanced Aegis air-defense system, meaning that it was not in any serious danger during the close fly-bys. U.S. military officials describe the maneuvers as an act of bullying and intimidation rather than a genuine attack.

But the incident highlights to some analysts the looming danger in the escalating crisis. Mistakes or miscalculations by commanders in the field could result in further escalations and even violence.

Within the Ukraine there is a widespread belief—on both sides of the pro-Russian, pro-Kiev divide—that social and political unrest could continue to escalate. Many Russian-speakers seem to welcome Russian military intervention; Ukrainian-speakers fear that the unrest is a pretext for the Kremlin to send in troops.

Obama administration officials have repeatedly stated that the actions of the separatist groups are to be highly organized and well-coordinated, and have every indication of having been orchestrated by Russian intelligence services. Reporters in the Ukraine for both CBS and NBC have pointed out the efficiency and logistical coordination which has accompanied each incident of a separatist takeover.

President Obama said weeks ago that direct U.S. military intervention was not being considered. NATO has made stronger statements, but many analysts have said that NATO is in no immediate position to challenge Putin if he decides to send Russian troops across the border into eastern Ukraine.

That leaves economic sanctions. After a month of strong economic pressure on Russia, the European Union is considering raising the stakes even more. But it becomes a complex and thorny problem; stiffening the sanctions could begin to strain the EU economy, still struggling with recession in many areas, still reeling from a variety of austerity programs in some countries, and somewhat dependent on Russian oil and gas which flows through Ukraine. EU nations receive as much as 15% of their energy from Russia, and most of that oil and gas flows through Ukraine.

For Putin, direct military action may be unnecessary. The separatist movements may be enough to bring about a slow-motion realignment in all areas east of the Dnieper River, especially since so far the official government in Kiev has been unable to make good on its own threats and ultimatums. If enough areas east of the Dnieper decide to follow the same path as Crimea, a similar referendum or set of elections may—in Putin’s eyes—validate a divided Ukraine.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Dangerous Chess Match; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; March 25, 2014.

Rebirth of the Cold War?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; March 23, 2014.