Atlantic Council’s John Herbst: US, European Response Will Be Critical

By sending three T-72 tanks into Donetsk accompanied by an armored vehicle flying the Russian flag, Mr Putin is trying to secure full control of this key Ukrainian city and to test the resolve of Western powers.  As Ukraine ramped up its counter-insurgency campaign in the past week, the Russian-supported insurgents suffered major casualties, with the remains of over thirty Russian fighters returned to their homeland for burial. Sending in the tanks is Moscow’s way of saying that it can increase its military presence in the region to offset any Ukrainian gain.

This move comes despite the position taken June 5 by the Group of Seven industrialized nations that it would levy sanctions against whole sectors of the Russian economy if the Kremlin’s efforts to destabilize Eastern Ukraine did not cease within thirty days.  Mr. Putin understands that he now has twenty-three days to stop supporting/expanding the insurgency in eastern Ukraine, therefore he will watch carefully watch the Western reaction.  He recalls that in early May, President Obama, Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande had all promised sectoral sanctions if Russia disrupted the Ukrainian presidential elections May 25.  While Russian surrogates prevented 75 percent of the residents of Luhansk and Donetsk from voting, the Western powers were satisfied by the Kremlin’s lukewarm statements about the elections and levied no penalty on Moscow.

If Mr. Obama and his European counterparts do not react strongly and quickly to the presence of Russian tanks and additional fighters in Donetsk, those forces will remain and receive reinforcements.  They may even try a minor offensive action or two, again to gauge the Western reaction.  Mr. Putin knows that a lobster is cooked gradually.  If, however, there is a sharp Western reaction, he knows that he has until July 5 to reduce his latest escalation and to thereby avoid sectoral sanctions.  He can do a great deal of damage in that time.  This is a cynical, but effective tactic enabled by European faint-heartedness. 

Related Experts: John E. Herbst