With up to 40,000 Russian troops believed to be positioned in the Crimea and on Ukraine’s eastern frontier, it seems possible the country is preparing to expand its intervention in its former satellite state.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the Russian forces are actively concealing their positions and establishing supply lines that could be used in a prolonged deployment.
Such an incursion could take place without warning because Russia has already deployed the array of military forces needed for such an operation, say officials briefed on the latest American intelligence.
CNN also cites officials who say intelligence agencies believe Russia is now more likely to push deeper into Ukraine after it earlier conquered and annexed the country’s Crimean Peninsula.
Russia claims the troop movements are part of a military exercise but an American defense spokesman said on Thursday, “We’ve seen no specific indications that these, that exercises, are taking place.”
President Barack Obama told CBS News the following day, “These are not what Russia would normally be doing.” He urged it to “move back those troops” and initiate talks with the government in Kiev.
Following a referendum earlier this month in which the majority of the Crimea’s residents voted to join Russia, President Vladimir Putin vowed he would not invade other regions of Ukraine. But he had also denied sending troops into the Crimea in the first place, clearly a lie.
Russia justified its military intervention in Ukraine by saying it had a right to protect Russian speakers and “compatriots” in the former Soviet republic and that its deposed president, Viktor Yanukovich, had asked for help. Both conditions could also apply to the whole east of the country.
Yanukovich — who was ousted in late February after months of protests against his decision to pull out of an association agreement with the European Union and deepen trade relations with Russia instead — called for referenda in each of Ukraine’s regions on Friday. “It’s absolutely logical that the protest that is rising in the southeast of Ukraine is a natural reaction of the densely populated industrial region to an armed coup,” he said from Russia.
The industrial east of the country was Yanukovich’s political base. In the 2010 election, he won 90 percent support in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk which each have a 39 percent ethnic Russian population, according to the 2001 census. In Odessa, where 21 percent of residents is ethnic Russians, 74 percent voted for him.
Anecdotal evidence nevertheless suggests that support for joining Russia is lower in these parts than it was in the Crimea, a former Russian territory.
Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor and senior analyst for the geostrategic consultancy firm Wikistrat, believes that Russia would not try “to conquer the whole country” if it expanded its invasion of Ukraine. Its aim instead would be to quickly “take those areas where there are potentially supportive local political elites and Russophone populations and consequently pretexts (however flimsy) to portray invasion as ‘liberation’.”
The real question is whether they’d seek to push as far as Odessa, taking more risks and extending their supply lines but also essentially depriving Ukraine of a coastline.
As was the case in the Crimea, where Russia established “facts on the ground” before the Ukrainian authorities and other countries could respond, “the greatest risk for its forces “is that they get bogged down long enough for Kiev to concentrate its forces or, potentially, the West to act.”
Western countries have condemned Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and regard the referendum as a violation of both Ukraine’s constitution — which requires a national referendum for territorial changes — and international law.
Galeotti altogether considers a Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine unlikely, given the high risks and potential backlash.
Russia has perhaps twice as many forces in theater and a clear superiority in airpower but not such a great advantage that it can be assured a quick and easy victory. It would also face the risk of guerrilla actions and public resistance behind its lines, as well as economic sanctions at the very least but the possibility also of more direct action by the West.
But if Putin decides to take the risk, it looks unlikely to hurt him politically. The Levada Center, an independent Russian polling firm, reported on Wednesday that two-thirds of Russians believe other parts of Ukraine should either “definitely” or “probably” be admitted into the Russian Federation if they express a desire to do so. 58 percent also said Russia had a right to annex former Soviet territories in order to protect its people. Just 4 percent said it had no such right.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that some 50,000 Russian troops were believed to have been positioned on Ukraine’s border whereas the United States actually estimates them to number up to 40,000. Ukraine’s estimates are far higher. Security chief Andriy Parubiy cited 100,000 troops on Thursday.