NATO: “High Probability” Russia Will Invade Ukraine

The rebels in eastern Ukraine continue to suffer setbacks, and Russia is massing troops on the border again.

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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But NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said there was still no sign Russia had withdrawn the troops it had massed at the frontier, which prompted warnings from the West last week that President Vladimir Putin could be planning to invade.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.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Jim R says:

    …shit, meet fan.

  2. C. Clavin says:

    Russia is turning itself into a pariah. And there is almost no impact on the US. Europe should care more than we do. Just keep ratcheting up the sanctions…make it harder on the Russians…especially his cronies. Have a nice day Vlad.
    Republicans want intervention everywhere…Syria, Iraq, Ukraine.
    Just say no.

  3. Ben Wolf says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Russia is turning itself into a pariah


    To Americans, maybe. Not to the rest of the world.

  4. Lounsbury says:

    @Ben Wolf: They are doing a reasonable job of alienating much of EU, a major market for them. Pariah is not quite there, but it is not merely USA (which is a fine highlight to Putin’s diplomatic incompetence).

  5. Ben Wolf says:

    @Lounsbury: The EU would have done nothing if not for relentless arm-twisting by the United States. The sanctions enacted were just enoughh to push an economically weak Germany, entirely dependent on exports for growth, teetering on the edge of recession and the rest of the eurozone with it.

    What it comes down to is that Europe needs Russia more than Russia needs Europe.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    No, the EU does not need Russia more than the reverse. Economically Russia is Italy. Yes, they have natural gas,but we’ve already done the battle between buyer and seller with the OPEC embargo. OPEC did not win that, in fact they set in motion their own relative decline.

    Putin is a buffoon. He’s blown up his own long-term strategy and if you don’t think he’s making everyone on his borders itch for some fresh new American or European arms, you’re mistaken. I know this plays well with the domestic population, but Putin doesn’t work for the Russian people, he works for the oligarchs who are being hurt, who are seeing Russia’s long-term economic and development interests harmed for a ridiculous ego trip by a dull-witted secret policemen.

    I suspect Europeans are placing orders for more natural gas tankers. There’s no shortage of gas, there’s just temporary inconvenience for the EU and long-term damage to Russia. Putin has a dug a hole and doesn’t know how to stop.

  7. Ben Wolf says:

    @michael reynolds: Michael, I think you’re dead wrong on this, which I say with respect because you know I like you and value your opinion. But the western idea of Russia, that it’s a fading backwater, just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

    I do agree that Putin is as you say, a thug. But he’s an intelligent and resourceful thug, and he’s had to be to get to the top in a country that was reduced to mass social dysfunction. No one we would consider “good” could have survived that environment. Putin has created a police state, imprisoned and possibly murdered rivals, oppressed vulnerable minorities and lent support to some of the most vile regimes and individuals in the world today. All of that means squat internationally for one reason: Putin is a man with whom one can deal.

    That’s why six billion people are not out levying sanctions and threatening a “response” over Crimea. As a business associate he can be expected to honor his deals which, in an energy starved world, makes him very attractive.

    Russia is not weakening any longer. Its industrial base, population and military power are finally growing again after the disaster of privatization under Yeltsin and the resurgence of nationalism among its people. Their standard of living has improved significantly. And, somewhat strangely, the cou try has become a destination for mass immigration. Three-hundred thousand net immigrants to Russia last year alone.

    This is not a country we can force into submission and it is not in our interests to attempt isolating it.

  8. michael reynolds says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    I’m trying to think of some way to turn it into a wager.

  9. dazedandconfused says:

    “That he would give up easily is not in character for him.”

    Misses the mark on what he has done. He took the Crimea. The rebels in eastern Ukraine could not generate enough support from the population so there’s no sense in being bloody minded about it.

    Even if he calls it quits right here it would be misleading to say he gave up easily.

  10. stonetools says:

    The problem here is that Putin and Russia can afford to play the long game. Russia wants Ukraine more than the West wants to keep Ukraine independent. Putin knows that the West’s attention is fickle and that it’s attention will soon move on to some foolishness in the Middle East ( as indeed it already has).
    Russia’s attention is going to be focused on Ukraine, because it can credibly argue that historically, it’s part of their patrimony and that there wouldn’t even been a Ukraine if it wasn’t for Russia. It’s sort of like the 1840s when lots of Americans figured that of course we should annex Texas , even at the risk of war with Mexico. (OK, its not a lot like that but the point is that there is some plausibility to their claims, if you are a Russsian nationist-or even if you are just an ordinary Russian).
    So Putin can afford to wait and watch for a better opportunity. Given the Ukrainian government’s capacity to fvck up, his chances for a better opportunity are good.

  11. Ben Wolf says:

    @michael reynolds: If we could figure out what the hell we’re betting on. GDP? Wellness Index? Weapons sales? They’ve already defeated us in numbers of beautiful women.