BMI View: Rising separatist pressures in Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine, are increasing the possibility of Russian intervention. In this article, we answer five crucial questions relating to the conflict.
Latest developments in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, where pro-Russian protestors are demanding a referendum on secession, raise the possibility of Russian military intervention. The interim Ukrainian government has warned that Moscow may be seeking to emulate its takeover of Crimea in Eastern Ukraine. Although we still do not expect to see a Russian invasion of mainland Ukraine, due to the high costs (in military and economic terms) of such an operation, we nevertheless remain vigilant to the possibility. Below, we answer five key questions that are emerging.
What Is Russia Trying To Achieve?
President Vladimir Putin is ultimately seeking to preserve for Russia an unchallenged sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union. The overthrow of Ukraine's former pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych, threatened to tilt Kiev decisively towards the EU and the West, and thus outside Russia's grasp. Russia's subsequent takeover of Crimea in March was designed to ensure that regardless of whether pro-Western or pro-Russian governments rule Kiev in future, the peninsula and Russia's Black Sea Fleet (which is based in Crimea) would henceforth forever be Russian.
Following Russia's annexation of Crimea, Western policymakers have been somewhat confused about Putin's intentions. Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine's eastern border, officially for the purposes of training exercises, and denies that it will move into Eastern Ukraine. However, Western and Ukrainian governments fear that Moscow is indeed planning an invasion to take over the Russified east of the country.
We believe that Russia's more pertinent goal is to pressure the Ukrainian government to adopt a federal structure that would give autonomy to the Eastern regions. That way, Moscow could exert de facto influence on future governments in Kiev through its proxies. This would keep the Ukrainian state weak, and mean that the geopolitical impact of any Westward shift by Kiev would be constrained by sentiment in the East. However, if Putin concludes that Ukraine is likely to be lost to the West after the loss of Crimea, then he could be plotting to maximise Russia's territorial gains in Ukraine, thereby leaving a substantially weaker rump state behind.
What Would A Russian Move Into Eastern Ukraine Look Like?
If Russia were to invade Eastern Ukraine, it would need a public justification for doing so. The most obvious justification would be to protect ethnic Russians in the event that they became caught up in mass violence with ethnic Ukrainians. Donetsk's separatists are demanding a referendum on secession on or before May 11, 2014, and any such vote would be an obvious trigger for fighting between the two groups. In fact, large-scale violence could erupt well before that date. We can thus envisage a scenario in which ethnic Russians call upon Moscow to protect them from Ukrainian government forces or local Ukrainian nationalist gangs.
A Russian move across the border into Donetsk would be an extremely provocative move, regardless of the official reason, and would be regarded as an invasion by the Ukrainian government, and by most major Western governments. The action would be treated as international aggression, and would most probably be compared to the Soviet Union's invasions of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (both invasions were designed to keep these countries in the Soviet camp) by Western media and policymakers. In our view, Turkey's invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974 offers another potential analogy. Turkey took over the northern third of Cyprus to protect the Turkish minority there, and created a mini-state known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which was not annexed by Ankara, and remains unrecognised.
The question would then be how much resistance the Ukrainian government would put up. Although Ukraine's armed forces are more than 100,000-strong, they are in a weak position, meaning that resistance may be limited. Ukraine's then-defence minister stated in early March than only 6,000 out of the country's 40,000 ground troops were combat ready. Therefore, they may be quickly overwhelmed by superior Russian forces. NATO Supreme Commander General Philip Breedlove stated in early April that Russia's military could achieve its presumed objectives in Eastern Ukraine within three to five days.
In the absence of a Russian invasion, the Kremlin has the option of creating and arming a proxy fighting force in Eastern Ukraine, which would have the psychological boost of Russia's armed forces in close proximity. The new force could become a de facto extension of the Russian military.
How Far Would Russia Be Willing To Advance?
If Russia were to invade Eastern Ukraine, the chances are that it would not merely stop at Donetsk. NATO planners assume that other cities such as Kharkiv and Luhansk are also potential objectives. Russia is widely believed to covet the whole of Eastern Ukraine at the very least. The river Dnieper, which runs through Kiev and snakes its way to the Black Sea port of Odessa in the south, is the main physical barrier separating Eastern and Western Ukraine. While a full takeover of Ukraine is probably beyond Russia's capabilities, we believe that Russian military forces could seek to move across Southern Ukraine, all the way to the Russian-backed breakaway territory of Transnistria in Moldova. Transnistria President Yegveny Shevchuk reiterated on April 7 that he wants his republic to join Russia. A Russian sweep across Southern Ukraine would create a land corridor towards Romania and largely cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea. This in turn would greatly reduce Ukrainian territory, leaving behind a weakened entity that would be more easily pressured by Moscow.
There has also been speculation, most notably from US House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, that Russia may soon invade Georgia, with the intention of creating a direct land corridor to Armenia (a Russian ally), and by extension, Iran. Nonetheless, we believe this is unlikely, as the Kremlin may be hard pressed to fight two simultaneous wars.
What Would The West Do To Defend Ukraine?
Even if Russia invaded Eastern Ukraine, we would not expect a military response from the West. That is to say, we would not expect NATO states to attack Russian troops. However, we would expect the US and its main NATO allies to increase their military forces in Poland and the Baltic states, and possibly Romania, perhaps substantially, for the purposes of reinforcing NATO's eastern frontiers and reassuring Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians that the alliance's security guarantee is sincere. We may also hear hawkish politicians in the US calling for the deployment of American military assets into Western Ukraine to deter future Russian advances, although these voices are likely to be in a minority.
If Russia moves to take over Eastern Ukraine, we would expect to see the US and its allies become much more open to providing weapons and training to the Ukrainian armed forces. It is also very possible that the West could provide covert military assistance to Ukrainian resistance fighters in Russian-occupied Eastern Ukraine, for the purposes of getting Russian forces bogged down in a costly quagmire.
We would also expect Western states to impose much tougher sanctions on Russia than the ones introduced to punish Moscow for its seizure of Crimea. There would be enormous pressure on Western leaders (mainly self-generated) to take a robust stance towards Russian aggression, on the basis that such a brazen display of power politics cannot be accepted in 21 st century Europe.
What Would Be The Risks For Russia?
An invasion of Eastern Ukraine would be very risky for Russia.
Firstly, while Russian armed forces may quickly overwhelm their Ukrainian counterparts, they could get bogged down in violent urban combat, similar to the fighting in Grozny, the Chechen capital, in the mid-1990s. This could exact a high cost in terms of Russian troop lives.
Secondly, we believe that Western countries would have little choice but to dramatically increase sanctions on Russia, because the US, UK, Germany, France, and Italy could not be seen to be tolerating international aggression. Crimea is a slightly different case from Eastern Ukraine, because the Russian takeover of the peninsula was peaceful, and the territory had belonged to Russia until 1954. Tighter sanctions would exacerbate Russia's economic woes, thereby prompting a further downgrade of our real GDP growth forecasts. These currently stand at 1.0% in 2014 and 1.5% in 2015, having been lowered from 1.9% and 2.1%, respectively after the onset of the Crimean crisis.
Thirdly, Russia's financial markets would incur heavy losses, with the rouble and equities selling off sharply. The rouble would likely tumble well below its record low of RUB37.00/USD seen recently, and there would be even greater capital flight. The plunge in financial markets would hurt Russia's businesses, including those of close allies of President Putin.
Fourthly, Russia's international image would suffer further, at least in Western countries, and this could trigger a quasi-Cold War-like cooling in relations. This would differ from the earlier Cold War in that it would not be based on ideological competition, and it would not be global in scope, but Russia would certainly be portrayed as a dangerous aggressor, necessitating a more robust geopolitical posture by NATO states. NATO as an organisation would be given a new lease on life, after many years of searching for a new role. The media war would be substantial, and television pictures of Ukrainian cities under bombardment (the Sarajevo effect) or Ukrainian refugees fleeing across their country would increase the stigma for companies doing business with Russia.
Fifthly, if the Russian military were to get bogged down in a costly occupation, then the war could eventually become very unpopular in Russia, potentially leading to a groundswell in public protests. This would augment pre-existing dissatisfaction with President Putin.
Overall, if Putin decides to order an invasion of Eastern Ukraine, Russia's armed forces may well score a quick victory. However, there would be a risk of a militarily costly occupation, and there would be heavy costs to Russia's economy and international image.