NATO: “High Probability” Russia Will Invade Ukraine
As I noted on Saturday, Ukraine’s military has been scoring significant victories against the pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country, and seems to be in the process of forcing a decisive battle for control of the separatists stronghold in Donetsk. Yesterday, Ukrainian forces reportedly demanded that the rebel forces surrender to avoid further attacks, while the separatists are calling for a cease fire to avoid what they referred to as “catastrophe.” Russia, meanwhile, seems to be sending some signals that the apparently imminent defeat of its proxies in eastern Ukraine may cause it to act. Today, the Kremlin said that Russia would be sending a “humanitarian convoy” into eastern Ukraine in response to the situation in Donetsk. That announcement comes at that same time that Ukraine says that Russia has massed some 45,000 troops on the border, while NATO said there was a “high probability” that Russia could send military forces into the region:
(Reuters) – NATO said on Monday there was a “high probability” that Russia could launch an invasion of Ukraine, where the government said its troops have been closing in on Donetsk, the main city held by pro-Russian rebels.
Kiev said it was in the “final stages” of recapturing Donetsk, by far the biggest city under the control of the pro-Russian rebels. The battle for the city could be a decisive turning point in a conflict which has caused the biggest confrontation betweenRussia and the West since the Cold War.
An industrial metropolis with a pre-war population of nearly 1 million, the main rebel-held redoubt rocked to the crash of shells and gunfire over the weekend and heavy guns boomed through the night into Monday from the outskirts of the city.
Ukraine appears to be pressing ahead with its offensive, undeterred by the presence of what NATO says are some 20,000 Russian troops massed on the nearby border for a potential ground invasion.
Kiev has said in recent days that it succeeded in using diplomacy to prevent Russia from launching a ground invasion to protect the rebels under the guise of a humanitarian mission. Moscow announced on Friday it was ending war games in the area.
But NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said there was still no sign Russia had withdrawn the troops it had massed at the frontier, which prompted warnings from the West last week that President Vladimir Putin could be planning to invade.
Asked in a Reuters interview how high he rated the chances of Russian military intervention, Rasmussen said: “There is a high probability.”
“We see the Russians developing the narrative and the pretext for such an operation under the guise of a humanitarian operation and we see a military buildup that could be used to conduct such illegal military operations in Ukraine,” he said.
NATO believes any Russian humanitarian mission would be used as a pretext to save the rebels, who are fighting for control of two provinces under the banner of “New Russia”, a term Putin has used for southern and eastern Ukraine where Russian is spoken.
The humanitarian convoy announced by the Russians will supposedly be conducted under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross, but it seems rather obvious that it could also be used as a means by which the Russians can surreptitiously bring military equipment or personnel across the border. That wouldn’t amount to a full-scale invasion, of course, but it would certainly be yet further intervention into the crisis in eastern Ukraine on Russia’s part.
The rather obvious question is where Russia goes from there, though. If the current reports are accurate, then the separatists are about to suffer a significant defeat in Donetsk. Losing control there would mean they have lost control of the last major city in eastern Ukraine that they had been able to take control of in the aftermath of the Russian annexation of Crimea and the uprising in the east. While they could possibly survive as some kind of guerilla force after suffering such a loss, they would certainly lose much of their previous effectiveness as well as a large part of their claim to credibility among the civilian population. That, perhaps, is the reason why it pays to be worried about more direct Russian military intervention. Vladimir Putin has invested quite a lot in the events in eastern Ukraine, and has cost his county’s economy thanks to the sanctions imposed by the West in the process. The idea that he would give up easily certainly seems out of character for him, and inconsistent with how he’s acted during this crisis.
The question, of course, is how West responds to further Russian provocation in Ukraine. This is a question of what the West can do, what it should do, and what it will do. On the first question, realistic options certainly appear to be limited. Ukraine is not a member of NATO (or should it be, but that’s another issue) so there’s no question of a treaty obligating anyone to act. Additionally, a massive American or European movement into Ukraine would seem to be impractical both because of the issue of where the resources would come from and the risks of escalation that such a move would involve. At most I suspect that military aid to Kiev would be the most practical thing that could be done, but that also involves risks of escalating an internal conflict into something far more serious. As for what the West should do, it strikes me that something like a Russian invasion of Ukraine is something that simply can’t be allowed to go unanswered. Ideally, Russia should be even more isolated from the rest of the world, sanctions should become even stronger, and the Russian economy disconnected from the rest of the world as much as possible. We should probably also consider the possibility of placing NATO forces in the east, where they haven’t really been present even as the former Warsaw Pact nations were brought into the alliance. Not acting at all simply wouldn’t be an option because it would risk the possibility of Putin becoming ambitious in parts of Eastern Europe other than Ukraine. The problem that creates is that it will set up a series of back and forth responses that would cause the entire situation to escalate out of control. We’re now a century away from a war where that same thing happened, one would hope we’d all be intelligent enough to avoid that same mistake this time around.