Ukraine: Assessing Degrees Of Russian Intervention

Speculation continues to mount that Russia may invade Eastern Ukraine. There are already tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on Ukraine's border. Yet, what would constitute an 'invasion' is not so clear cut.

A 'traditional' 'invasion' would involve tens of thousands of Russian troops moving into Eastern Ukraine, backed by tanks, aircraft, and other heavy weaponry, and then seizing and occupying key cities and towns in the area. This would be an extreme option, for it could force the West to take more punitive diplomatic and economic measures than it has done so far. It would also be very risky for Russia, for it could find itself getting bogged down in a costly occupation that could lead to heavy casualties (both Russians and Ukrainians, military and civilian). Western governments might even provide covert support to Ukrainian 'rebels'. All this could undermine President Vladimir Putin's gains in Crimea. Quite simply, he would be at risk of overreaching himself, and could lead Russia into disaster. For these reasons, we do not believe that Russia will invade Eastern Ukraine.

Nonetheless, there are possibilities of Russian military intervention that fall far short of the above. For example, Russia could conduct short, sharp military moves such as sending small numbers of troops into cities with pro-Russian elements to help them resist succumbing to Ukrainian forces. These Russian intervention troops could be covert or official, depending on how bold the Kremlin felt. If they were official, Moscow would portray them as 'peacekeepers'. Rather than occupy Eastern Ukrainian cities, these Russian forces could temporarily reinforce pro-Russian separatists. Given the lack of willingness among Western countries (especially European ones) to escalate sanctions on Russia, the option of limited troop deployments in Ukraine may be far more appealing to the Kremlin. The risk, of course, is that 'limited' deployments may not succeed, requiring the use of more force later. Thus, a 'limited' deployment in Eastern Ukraine may lead to Russia getting slowly sucked into a quagmire.

Russia could of course continue to pursue its current tactics of quietly backing pro-Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine, perhaps for many more weeks or months, for the purposes of disrupting Ukraine's May 25 presidential election, or just making the authorities in Kiev look impotent. By maintaining this course of action, Russia would keep Ukraine and the West off balance, while avoiding triggering any major economic sanctions or expending substantial military resources. The main risk is that the pro-Russian forces may eventually be defeated, forcing Russia to choose between more forceful support for them, or looking weak.