Yesterday’s talks between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov kept hope alive that Ukraine’s fields this spring might be visited by harvesters scything the winter wheat, instead of by Russian tanks and bomb craters. But while Lavrov agreed in Paris that a diplomatic solution to the crisis is needed, the Kremlin is delivering more clearly the opposite message with increased Russian forces along the border reported by the US and Ukrainian governments.
US officials have raised the estimates they are offering (unnamed) to US reporters, from 20,000 about two weeks ago to 40,000 or more over this past weekend. (Ukrainian officials, including national security chief Andriy Parubiy in an Atlantic Council webcast, have given much higher figures – of 80,000 to nearly 100,000 – and may be including Russian forces placed further back from the border than those counted by US intelligence.) And it is an invasion-shaped force, dominated by motorized infantry, paratroopers and special operations forces, according to news stories citing a US intelligence report. The report said Russian field hospitals have been set up near Ukraine’s frontier, a step that would not be taken if Russia’s deployment were the military exercise described by the government of President Vladimir Putin. (The preparations described by US officials weren’t visible to reporters – from NBC and the New York Times, for example – who drove along the border last week.)
Why Russia might invade within days or weeks
Of course, we should hope that Russian diplomacy exercised by Lavrov is a genuine search for a non-violent exit from the impasse created by Moscow’s invasion of Crimea. Still, politics, Russian military procedures and weather suggest that prime time for a Russian invasion is the next 55 days. Here is why:
- A key Russian goal is to de-legitimize Ukraine’s new government, which it can do by scuttling or impairing Ukraine’s May 25 election for a president who is sure to sustain Kyiv’s new policy choice of seeking a closer alignment with Europe than with Moscow.
- Lending weight to an early start for any invasion is the beginning tomorrow, April 1, of Russia’s spring conscript season, as noted last week by Russian military and political analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, writing for Foreign Policy. In coming weeks “some 130,000 troops drafted a year earlier will have to be mustered out as replacements arrive,” a rotation that will weaken the Russian army’s battle readiness for several months while the new conscripts are trained.
- The advancing spring is quickly melting snow cover and drying Ukraine’s vast fields, and soon will let armored vehicles drive through them without bogging down in mud.
Why the West should offer measured military support to Ukraine
So while Kerry engages Lavrov, only days or weeks may remain for the transatlantic community also to deter any final order by Putin to launch the assault of which his forces are capable. Long-time
Ukraine analyst Taras Kuzio argues in an essay for the Atlantic Council that the transatlantic community must visibly boost its support by supplying defensive weapons and intelligence information on Russian movements. His argument joins that of Council Senior Fellow Ian Brzezinski, who specifies that anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons should be supplied.
The Obama administration so far has signaled a red line against any US military activity inside Ukraine’s borders, Brzezinski wrote last Tuesday in the Washington Post. This “can only reassure Vladimir Putin and his military planners, whose use of unmarked military personnel — and the plausible deniability they provided — in Crimea reflected at least initial concern about potential responses from the West.” Both Kuzio and Brzezinski call for NATO to quickly schedule military training exercises with Ukrainian forces in their country. By waiting until the next scheduled exercise this summer, Brzezinski says, NATO could inadvertently encourage a Russian invasion before then to abort it.
NATO also must quickly and clearly warn Putin that, while Ukraine is not a NATO member, a Russian invasion of it damages NATO’s strategic interest, and that NATO will respond “politically, economically and through military cooperation,” write Edgar Buckley (the former NATO assistant secretary general) and Ioan Pascu (the former Romanian defense minister). And NATO must be “precise, indeed emphatic, about our response to any move by Russia against a NATO member state,” they argue in an essay for the Council. That is, a direct military response, “which would not necessarily be confined to the area of the attack. President Putin may know this in theory, but there is a risk today that he might not fully believe it.”
What happens if we do too little
If Russia invades Ukraine, here are the news headlines we should plan on reading as we celebrate the next Fourth of July: Ukraine’s weak army, along with ethnic Ukrainian and Tatar guerrillas resist desperately across a swath of southern Ukraine 200 to 400 miles long. Combat spreads to Crimea and to Ukraine’s neighbor, Moldova (which already has been partly occupied by Russian troops). “Ethnic cleansing,” reminiscent of the 1990s Balkan wars, has begun as bodies of Ukrainian, Russian and Tatar civilians are found in fields or ditches following execution-style killings. Russian heavy artillery destroys swaths of cities such as Kharkiv (1.5 million people), Donetsk (1 million), and Odessa (1 million), as it did in recent years to Grozny and other towns in Chechnya. Turkey, Romania and other Eastern European countries scramble to build camps for thousands of desperate refugees from the fighting. NATO sends US and other troops and aircraft to forward bases in Eastern Europe to guard against a further spillover of the war.
And perhaps the saddest news of all will be that the US government expresses astonishment that President Putin went ahead with such a war against repeated verbal US warnings – and despite that civil dialogue back in March between Kerry and Lavrov in Paris.
James Rupert is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.