Russian Troops in the Ukraine

Photo courtesy of Reuters

Is Russia Poised to Invade Ukraine?
| published August 13, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Russian President Vladimir Putin is a calculating and savvy opportunist, and in Russia, things rarely develop without a plan. Despite six months of claims that military activity along the border between the Ukraine and Russia is all part of an elaborate military exercise, a Russian invasion may be imminent. And that means that talk of a New Cold War will turn to a hot war, on the ground, in Eastern Europe.

Days ago NATO analysts revealed that they consider a Russian invasion of the Ukraine very likely. The Ukrainian army has been on a sustained offensive for over six weeks, pressing forward into pro-Russian militant strongholds across a wide range of eastern Ukrainian territory, including the area where a Malaysian jetliner was shot down by a Russian-made BuK-11 rocket system.

The Ukrainian forces loyal to Kiev have retaken several cities and towns, and the militants have been in a sort of slow retreat since early July. Bombing and shelling has been intense in some areas, and there have been accusations (and some intelligence evidence, including satellite imagery) that Russian long-range artillery has been used—ordnance fired from ten to 12 miles inside Russia toward Ukrainian positions west of the border. Moscow has denied that any Russian artillery has been fired into eastern Ukraine.

Now, NATO analysts say, an invasion by Russian forces may be inevitable. On Monday, as forces loyal to Kiev began closing in on militants in Donetsk, NATO said there was a “high probability” that Putin would authorize Russian forces to cross the border to come to the direct aid of the separatists, and to repel the Ukrainian army.

As many as 20,000 Russian troops are now massed along the long frontier between Russia and Ukraine. In addition, a massive military build-up has been under way since early spring. Moscow has moved scores of MiGs to airfields within a short distance of the border, and satellite imagery shows hundreds of attack helicopters parked in formations in at least five staging areas near the frontier. In addition, ground troops have been supplemented by tanks, Jeeps, personnel carriers, artillery, rocket-launchers, hundreds of trucks, and even road-grading and engineering equipment, presumably in place to facilitate quick improvements to unpaved roads which might prove unpassable to some vehicles.

Donetsk is the largest Ukrainian city under the control of the pro-Russian militants. If it were to fall back into the hands of Kiev, it would be a major setback for the separatist movement, and may spell the beginning of the end of the militants’ campaign to force a break-away from Kiev.

Days ago, Russian officials said that it was concluding its exercises and war games in the area near Ukraine, but U.S. and British intelligence sources, along with United Nations observers, say that is no evidence that any troops or hardware have been moved away from the border. In fact, according to some analysts, all satellite and digital evidence points to a state of heightened readiness on the part of Russian units on the ground.

Russia has been pressing for convoys of trucks and equipment to enter the Ukraine for “humanitarian” purposes, but Kiev has blocked access to these convoys—stating openly that it fears the vehicles and troops would be merely a pretext for an all-out invasion. Kiev has said it will provide whatever humanitarian assistance is needed once it is able to enter the areas being contested. Satellite images show long convoys of vehicles at the ready, prepared for a mission, but military analysts say that those convoys do not appear to be equipped for medical or food missions.

The crisis in the Ukraine has been escalating slowly for months. Beginning with mostly peaceful mass demonstrations in Kiev’s central areas in December and January, the protests became violent when police and protesters clashed—dramatic events televised around the world even as many people were watching the Olympics taking place in Sochi, Russia, a few hundred miles away. When the clashes in Kiev reached a crescendo of violence, and as police and security forces began to switch sides, then-President Viktor Yanukovich fled the country, boarding a private jet for Russia.

The sudden political vacuum pitted Ukrainian-speaking residents of the west against mostly Russian-speaking people in the east. In Kiev, a new government took over—one with a decidedly pro-European Union tilt, and one which was openly taking of joining both the EU and the NATO alliance. This was unacceptable to Putin, who declared Kiev’s actions illegal. Weeks later, Russian army and naval forces took control of the Crimea, and within days a snap election was called. Ever since, the situation has grown more tense, as Russian troops have massed along the border with the Ukraine and pro-Russian militants, heavily armed and well-trained, began taking over public buildings and government offices in dozens of cities east of the Dnieper River.

The United States and some of its closest allies have used a variety of economic sanctions to pressures Putin to back down, but some of the harshest sanctions were not met with enthusiasm by European countries still struggling with weak markets—still recovering from the Great Recession and reeling from austerity measures. The fear of a sudden shutoff of Russian-supplied oil and gas outweighed the impulse for sanctions in a global marketplace increasingly interconnected. Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal were especially reticent to sign on to some of U.S. President Barack Obama’s more stringent sanctions.

But the downing of a Malaysian airliner with 298 people on board changed much of that thinking, and became a catalyst for harsher economic measures to punish Putin for Russian interference in the Ukraine. The Malaysian jet was shot down by a high-altitude rocket called Gadfly, and was launched from a Russian-made BuK-11 mobile missile system from within the Ukraine. The plane exploded, and its debris crashed across a rural area only 19 miles from Russia. Militants on the ground at first claimed they had shot down an airplane, then, hours later, revised their statements to say that they had not fired upon any aircraft that day. U.S. intelligence agencies and military analysts say that a heat signature matching the BuK-11 was seen seconds before the Malaysian plane disappeared from radar.

Many Europeans were shocked at the shooting down of the plane. But over the next few days, millions were horrified by the way that the crash site was picked over, resistance was offered by armed militants to letting rescue personnel and crash investigators into the area, and the bodies of the victims were picked over by militants and locals.

The United States, Britain, and other countries have increased pressure on Russia and on Putin by implementing harsh sanctions—especially against Russian banks and financial institutions, but also against a dozen or more of Putin’s wealthiest cronies and political allies. Russia has retaliated with sanctions and embargoes of its own against products coming from some European markets and from the U.S.

Related Thursday Review articles:

How Chilly is This New Cold War?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 9, 2014.

Sanctions Talk, But Money Walks; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 31, 2014.

No Conflict is Local, No War is Regional; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 19, 2014.