NATO is now concerned that Russian President Vladimir Putin could use “the pretext of a humanitarian or peace-keeping mission as an excuse” to invade eastern Ukraine with the 20,000 combat-ready Russian troops amassed near the border.
That’s certainly one option for Vladimir Putin, although it would come at a steep cost.
“Direct invasion still isn’t Putin’s preferred policy,” geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group told Business Insider in an email. “It will be costly/bloody, will drive the Europeans closer to the U.S. on sanctions, the southeast Ukrainian population will be hardened in opposition to Moscow (where right now they’re split and more sympathetic), and the Russian population as a whole — very supportive of Putin’s Ukraine policy — opposes it.”
Nevertheless, “it’s clearly Plan B, and Putin recognises he needs the option,” Bremmer continued. “Adding troops to the border, stepping up military exercises, and calling for humanitarian support is first and foremost an effort to back [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko away from an all out assault on Donetsk and Luhansk.”
Ukraine’s army has been making steady gains in the weeks after Russian-backed separatists shot down a civilian airliner on July 18. Ukrainian troops now appear to be readying a siege on the rebel-held stronghold of Donetsk, and Luhansk is nearly surrounded by Ukrainian soldiers.
Bremmer says Putin’s primary preference is to play the long game, which involves training and arming separatists to “keep up the military pressure on Ukraine, add to that an economy that’s ever closer to collapse, and force a deep federalist outcome that formalises Russian influence over the country.”
However, continued success by Ukraine’s army in rebel-held areas would change Putin’s calculations.
“I could easily see the separatists calling for international peacekeepers to protect them from a ‘humanitarian crisis’ — and Putin, having himself called for cease-fires and humanitarian missions to protect the ethnic Russians on the ground (who he’s been providing weapons to), then responding to their request,” Bremmer said. “Keep in mind, Putin formally ‘respected’ the outcome of their referenda, just as he ‘respected’ the outcome of the Ukrainian elections.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry has already offered to take an “active role” to address the humanitarian crisis in Donbas, which includes the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine (as well as parts of southwest Russia). Russian vehicles with “peacekeeping” insignia are already near the border, The Interpreter reports.
And the fact that Moscow respected the referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk means that Putin could say that Russian troops were not actually entering Ukrainian territory.
Consequently, Russian troops may be able to invade without a unified response from the rest of world.
“Then what? The U.S. would consider that an invasion. But would the Europeans? There are a great many that would like to equivocate,” Bremmer said. “And of course, the rest of the BRICS [Brazil, India, China, and South Africa] won’t touch any of it.”
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