Putin’s Ukraine invasion threat is more than a bluff — but not his preference

August 7, 2014

A Ukrainian serviceman uses a pair of binoculars as he guards a checkpoint near the eastern Ukrainian town of Debaltseve

Ukrainian troops have made huge headway routing the separatists in the east. They are in the process of choking off the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk, to which many of the separatists have retreated. The Ukrainian military appears primed to besiege the cities. As Ukraine has gained, Putin has prepared Russia for invasion: as of Monday, Ukraine says there are 45,000 combat-ready troops are amassed at the border. The chance that Russia invades is certainly going up.

But it’s still Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Plan B. Here’s why that’s the case … and what could change his mind.

At all costs, Vladimir Putin wants to keep Ukraine in Russia’s orbit. That requires two guarantees: 1) that Russian influence over southeast Ukraine will remain intact, and 2) that Russia has a de facto veto over Ukrainian NATO membership. The way he gets these guarantees is through deep federalization, where Ukraine’s eastern regions can set their own foreign economic policy and veto approaches to NATO. Of course, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is completely unwilling and unable to concede this. So Putin can get it the hard way (intervention), or the harder way (invasion).

Sustained intervention is Putin’s current and preferred approach, where he can foment enough instability through the separatists that a unified Ukraine cannot pull away from Russia. The “long game” is more Russian arms provisions and economic pressure until Kiev is forced to accept a deeply Russia-influenced federal system.

Direct invasion would come with a much more staggering price tag. First and foremost, the Russian people are opposed. While the vast majority of Russians agree with Putin’s current Ukraine policy, a recent Levada poll revealed that 51 percent of Russians oppose an invasion and only 29 percent are in favor. Taking and holding the territory would come at tremendous economic cost, and once Slav-on-Slav bloodshed gets broadcast back in Russia, Putin’s popularity would plummet. Also, overt invasion would elicit a move towards much more acute, Iran-like sanctions from the United States, with Europe more willing to get into lockstep with them.

But even though Putin still prefers the intervention route, it makes sense for him to brace for invasion. The mere threat has strategic benefits: it’s primarily a deterrent against Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, demonstrating the consequences for a siege of Donetsk and Luhansk. In addition, it makes the West focus on the question of ‘Will Russia invade or not invade?,’ drawing attention away from the blurrier forms of intervention that Putin is already engaging in.

Make no mistake: Putin’s preparations are not just a bluff to deter and obfuscate—it’s also his backup plan. If Ukraine backs down on a siege of the rebel stronghold cities — or fails — we are still in the long game of intervention. That seems most likely, given the difficulties of the Ukrainian military engaging in street-to-street urban warfare. But if the Ukrainian military does rout the separatists, invasion may be the only card Putin has left.

How would he go about invading? He has already laid the groundwork: it will be under the guise of a peacekeeping mission, responding to the rebels’ calls for humanitarian assistance. There are reports of Russian vehicles retrofitted with peacekeeping insignias already present on the border. Putin did “respect” the Donetsk and Luhansk referenda declaring their independence from Ukraine: he could conceivably invade and still make the incredible claim that it is not truly Ukrainian territory. The peacekeeping pretext would not soften the harsh American response. But perhaps it could keep some European countries dragging their feet—and other BRICS countries firmly on the sidelines.

For now, Putin’s best option is still intervention over invasion. But Ukrainian military gains could shift his calculus. Invasion is more than just a bluff and a bargaining chip — the risk is very real.

PHOTO: A Ukrainian serviceman uses a pair of binoculars as he guards a checkpoint near the eastern Ukrainian town of Debaltseve, Donetsk Region August 6, 2014. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko


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Spot on, in my opinion. The threat of invasion carries a lot of weight without much cost for Russia. Actual invasion is an expensive proposition.

Posted by CanyonLiveOak | Report as abusive

Putin may also follow the example of the Russian-recognized Republic of South Ossetia and recognize the independence of NovoRussia (Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples Republics) together with Abkhazia, Armenian Nagorny Karabakh, Moldovan TranDniester Republic and Russia’s allies in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Most of those entities may send their military to serve as Russian-led peacekeeping force for the south-east Ukraine.

Posted by snkuz1955 | Report as abusive

A good article. It is sad that the Ukrainian military and militias are doing all they can to assist Putin, by using heavy weapons on civilian areas and by killing hundreds of civilians and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. The government in forcibly trying unite Ukrainian territory is creating even deeper divisions between the people that will last for many years. A slower more cautious, more political approach to dealing with the rebels would have been more sensible and played far less into Putin’s hands.

Posted by hertsred | Report as abusive

But how can any of this change anything? Poroshenko is still going to continue his operation against the rebels in the east, in any event. If Russia invades and helps to repel Ukrainian government forces, then at least the charade of Russia’s non-involvement will be over for certain. As Bremmer points out, this will open the door wide open for the harshest sanctions yet, which will do further harm to Russia’s economy.

Posted by Calpin | Report as abusive

Has there ever been substantive, back channel discussions between Ukraine and the Russian Federation on “deep federalization” or did the political context render that moot?

Posted by Vauthier | Report as abusive

the logistic of moving 20,000 troops and equipment and position them where they are is too complex to be just an empty threat, Putin will order the invasion very soon, he had done that before. he doesn’t care what his people think of him, he does everything which he thinks is right for his country. the reason why his domestic ratings had risen after each face off with the west also says something about the people, they know they had been bullied for too long.

Posted by merlinsg | Report as abusive

There are reports of organ trafficking in East Ukraine done by the Ukrainian side.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Putin will not give up until he has practical control of Eastern Ukraine for the simple reason that he annexed Crimea. There is no practical way for him to supply goods and services to Crimea without a direct land route. Look at a map. Sending ships down river to the Sea of Azov is not practical. Going by land to Kerch, then ferrying everything across the strait is not practical [Dolgostroj will doom any bridge!]. Sending ships around Western Europe, through the Med, and into the Black Sea is not practical. An airlift within the territory of Russia is possible, but not practical in the long run. If Russia cannot drive trucks through Eastern Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea will fail miserably. Ergo, he has no choice but to do whatever is necessary to gain this land bridge.

Posted by hadmatter | Report as abusive

Ukraine must defeat the separitsts, and get control on the border. Russia can attac Ukraine and winn millitary. But then they can not winn the peace again. No part of Ukraine is Russian! !5 000 Russian led separatist are now holding 2 cities and a huge area. Ukraine can fight an Russian occupation for a long time giving Russia huge costs. Russia can not afford to occupy Ukraine. many greetings Jacob Schonberg

Posted by jacobsch | Report as abusive

Given that Putin’s long term goal is to reconstitute as much of the old Soviet Union as possible, barring capitulation by Ukraine, invasion is the most likely outcome. A successful invasion would also tend to weaken the resolve of other former Soviet states. Putin’s view is that the breakup of the old Soviet Union was an epic disaster. He is doing all he can to correct the “problem”.

Posted by gordo53 | Report as abusive

Its amazing how time distorts the facts, this whole situation is to force Russia into invading Ukraine. Every effort is being made by the US and NATO to bring this about. Putin is aware of this that is why he has backed off so far. The US requires Russia to be economically weak as this would remove them as a possible future threat and leave the US in control of Europe, allowing them to concentrate in Asia. This of course as the article states will result only in one thing war in Europe. This will destroy the fragile EU economies but leave the US strong and un touched.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

[…] koniec spraw ukraińskich krótki komentarz znanego politologa Iana Bremmera, który uważa, że zgromadzenie przez Rosję na granicy 20 […]

Posted by Ukraina zbliża się do gospodarczego załamania | Report as abusive

Putin’s strategy is aimed at keeping western attention on eastern Ukrainian cities, and off the Crimea. If he can maintain the tensions in eastern Ukraine for an extended period, every passing day improves Russian odds of gaining Crimea without a fight or sanctions.

The west’s best chance to finally stop Russian expansion is to concede none of Ukraine, including not a millimeter of the Crimea.

Posted by LOTOGO | Report as abusive

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