Putin Is Just Getting Started

by Jonah Shepp

Looking north from Crimea, Jon Lee Anderson points out that the stage is already set for Russia to occupy the rest of eastern Ukraine:

Beyond Crimea, in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donestk and Kharkiv, where there is also a large ethnic Russian population, public calls are being made for Crimea-style “referendums” to accede to Russia. Today, as if on cue, [Crimean prime minister Sergey] Aksionov’s deputy openly suggested that eastern Ukraine would follow Crimea’s example.

If snap referendums are called, will the Russian troops that are now massed on eastern Ukraine’s borders move into those areas in the name of protecting ethnic Russians from Kiev’s “provocateurs,” as in Crimea? Putin has reserved the right to intervene on their behalf. If Ukraine’s borders change yet again, what happens next?

Noting that there is no road linking Russia directly with the Crimean peninsula, Julia Ioffe thinks an invasion is geographically inevitable:

[W]hat happens if, as is quite likely, Kiev cuts newly-Russian Crimea off from gas, electricity, and water, which Crimea has none of on its own? How will Moscow, the new owner, supply its latest acquisition with the necessities? …

If you’re Russia, do you really want to ferry the necessities across the bay, or build an expensive bridge, or lay down expensive new pipelines? Wouldn’t you rather use pre-existing land routes (and pipelines)? Wouldn’t it just be easier to take the land just north and east of Perekop and the Swiss cheese area, now that you’ve already put in the effort to massively destabilize it? And while you’re there, wouldn’t you want to just take the entire Ukrainian east, the parts with the coal and the pipe-making plants and the industry? You know, since you already have permission?

Marc Champion considers how Europe would respond to further escalations:

Should Putin choose to escalate by moving troops into Ukraine beyond Crimea, even Germany has pledged to hit Russia with painful sanctions. This would damage the economy seriously: Former Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin has forecast $50 billion in capital flight per quarter this year, “in a mild scenario.”

And yet, sanctions too can add to the logic of escalation. Serious economic sanctions would, as the most fervent Soviet die-hards and Russian nationalists have been hoping ever since the 1990s, create a full break with the West and return Russia’s economy to a less extreme version of its Soviet-era isolation — or, in their view, self-sufficiency. Sanctions would also force corrupt businessmen either to repatriate their ill-gotten gains or flee the country. The “liberals” who have, according to conservatives, held the country ransom for private gain since the collapse of the Soviet Union and prevented Russia’s return to greatness would be routed.

Andrew Bowen notes that, if Putin wants to risk an all-out invasion, he has the military power to do it:

Since few predicted the Russian occupation of Crimea, it would be premature to rule out the possibility of a full-scale invasion. While it would seem unlikely that Russian troops would march on Kiev, some sort of limited incursion into the Russian leaning east of the country is a very real possibility. The airborne forces and Spetsnaz units that would spearhead such an assault are available and close to the border. But those units would need to be backed up by larger regular Russian military formations after the initial incursion.

Whatever the future holds for the rest of Ukraine, it’s clear that Russia is staying put in Crimea.

Anna Nemtsova takes a closer look at what the Spetsnaz, Russia’s special forces, are already up to in Ukraine:

This week the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) arrested a group of people led by a Ukrainian citizen who were said to be scoping out three of its most crucial military divisions in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson.

In Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, press reports from the ground say that Russian provocateurs have attacked Ukrainians who organized anti-Russian street protests.

The forces behind these operations, according to U.S. officials briefed on the updates in Ukraine, are likely the Spetsnaz, the Russian military’s highly trained saboteurs, spies and special operations forces who may change the face—and the borders—of Ukraine without once showing the Russian flag on their uniforms. Or, for that matter, without wearing any particular uniforms at all.