In what Western analysts and officials are calling an overt invasion, Ukrainian officials reported on Thursday that two columns of tanks and other military vehicles had rolled across the border from Russia into southeastern Ukraine. The development fed speculation that Russia was helping the country’s pro-Russian separatists open a new front in their uprising against Ukraine’s pro-Western government and heightened Kiev’s fears that the crisis could morph from a resilient but defeatable insurgency into an all-out war with its powerful neighbor.
As Ukrainian leaders were keen to emphasize, Thursday’s developments marked a sharp escalation in the months-long conflict. But analysts had been saying for weeks that Russia might stage something along these lines, recognizing that a more formalized invasion was the only way to keep the foundering separatist movement alive.
Ukrainian forces have beaten down on the rebels in August, gradually rolling them back in their remaining two strongholds, the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has seen his domestic popularity soar over the separatist crisis in Ukraine, which erupted after a pro-European uprising toppled Ukraine’s Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych. Russian patriotic fervor would be deflated if Putin emerged from the confrontation with nothing to show for it. Allowing the rebellion to fall by the wayside is not a palatable option, analysts said.
Western military officials framed Thursday’s apparent invasion along those lines and sought to paint Moscow as stubbornly digging in its heels. “What we’re seeing now is Russia trying to save face, trying to bail out those separatist fighters and trying to do so under the radar,” said Lt. Col. Jay Janzen, a spokesman for NATO, which has been fiercely critical of Russia's actions in Ukraine.
According to Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group consultancy, Russia “called Ukraine’s bluff," shifting momentum in the months-long conflict in a jarring fashion.
Strategically, the opening of a third front in the border town of Novoazovsk, which the separatists claimed this week after several days of fighting, seems to be aimed at carving a land bridge west to Russia’s newly annexed Crimean Peninsula. In the short term, another front will pull some Ukrainian forces away from Donetsk and Luhansk, where Kiev’s so-called counterterrorism operation has been succeeding.
Analysts say this strategy is aimed at improving Moscow’s short-term bargaining power as it prepares to negotiate with Kiev and its Western backers. A prevailing view is that Russia will pull out of Ukraine only after Kiev makes painful concessions that will hamstring the country’s westward momentum.
Underlying Russia’s calculus, said Joerg Forbrig, an Eastern Europe expert with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, is the assumption that a balder intervention in Ukraine is unlikely to draw a military response from the West. The United States and its allies have threatened further sanctions against Moscow, but they have never seriously weighed military confrontation with a nuclear power like Russia over a country of limited geopolitical import.
“The bottom line is Ukraine can’t win a war with Russia, and at the same time, a military campaign is the only way Russia can win this conflict,” Forbrig said. “In all other ways the West can help [Ukraine], but in the military way it can’t.”
Still, few believe that even Putin is interested in a drawn-out confrontation with the Ukrainian military.
“The continuation of the war takes a toll on all those involved," wrote Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, in The National Interest. Russia is feeling the weight of Western sanctions, which U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed in a telephone call Thursday could increase. As news of the reported invasion reached Russian investors on Thursday, the country's stock markets plummeted on bets that another round of biting sanctions were be imminent.
Ukraine, for its part, “wants a clear victory and complete rollback of Russian aggression,” Trenin said, which might “point to the prolongation of the fighting and potentially to the dangerous expansion of the conflict." But its economy is in ruins, and its people will need assurances they can get a fair gas price from Russia with the bitter Ukrainian winter not far around the corner. Poroshenko, meanwhile, may take some heat at home if he is seen to have provoked Russia with his aggressive crackdown in the east.
Jack Matlock, a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, wrote on Thursday that Moscow is still looking for constitutional reforms that ensure Ukraine’s pro-Western Ukrainian-speaking western half cannot dominate the largely Russian-speaking east, the designation of Russian as an official language and a “credible assurance that Ukraine will not become a member of a military alliance hostile to Russia” — code for NATO.
There's hope, however, that this week’s escalation could still bring to bear external pressure on the two sides to broker an immediate cease-fire in the southeast, which might facilitate negotiations for a lasting resolution. Kiev has until now been reluctant to embrace that effort, fearful that a cease-fire would buy Russia time to sneak further reinforcements and equipment across the border to its rebel proxies. But that is already happening.
At the same time, Russia may find itself facing an increasingly disconcerted Berlin, which could reconsider its tepid response to the emergent situation in Ukraine’s separatist southeast. Germany, a close trading partner of Moscow that relies on Russian natural gas, has held Europe and NATO’s leash even as evidence surfaced that Putin was sending arms shipments across the border and stoking sectarian tensions.
“In the last couple days we’ve witnessed an undisguised deployment of Russian troops — an open invasion,” said Forbrig. “The more Russia shows its aggressiveness, the harder it will be for those NATO members like Germany who are reluctant” to take stronger action.