Ukraine’s War Worries

by Jonah Shepp

Tom Balmforth and Daisy Sindelar check in from Kiev, where talk of a full-on conflict is afoot:

For some Maidan demonstrators, the possibility of war with Russia has provided a new sense of purpose. Outside a cafe on the city’s main Khreshchatyk street, men line up at a desk to register for the National Guard. But on the square, any sense of common purpose has given way to a cacophony of moods and political views. A large portrait of nationalist icon Stepan Bandera hangs next to the stage. A portrait of Jesus Christ hangs nearby, amid a muddle of anarchist art and spray-painted anti-authority slogans like “ACAB”—shorthand for “All cops are bastards.”

Dozens of missing-people notices flap in the wind. Militia members, armed with bats and wearing a variety of insignia, patrol the streets unchallenged. Police are rarely seen anywhere near the square. At night, a ballad booms from the Maidan stage, praising the historical friendship between Ukrainian Cossacks and Moscow, but warning of bad endings for the Moskali if they attack.

Eastern Ukraine is also preparing for a Russian invasion:

Yesterday, the new pro-Kiev governor of Donetsk region, billionaire businessman Serhiy Taruta, told reporters about a trench and earthworks being dug along the Donetsk region’s roughly 100 mile frontier with Russia, to prevent tanks and trucks from rolling across at will. At the formal border crossings there are tank traps in place, shaped like giant cement jumping jacks, and border guards check passports in an effort to filter out young toughs. Ukrainian tanks and other equipment have reportedly been moving toward the eastern border to demonstrate a willingness to fight. According to Russia’s RT TV channel, pro-Russian volunteers have been setting up roadblocks in an effort to prevent the deployments.

Neither the tanks nor the ditch would do much to delay an assault by Russia’s massively superior forces, but they send a signal that an army couldn’t just stroll into eastern Ukraine as the Bolsheviks did and that Putin would take a significant political risk if he ordered such a move. If the Russian leader’s assurances are to be believed, Ukraine’s dilapidated military won’t be tested.

Keating doubts Putin would be so rash as to invade:

For what it’s worth, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says his country has “no plans” to send troops into eastern Ukraine. The defense ministries of Ukraine and Russia have also agreed on a truce until March 21.

If I had to guess, a full Russian military invasion of eastern Ukraine still seems unlikely. Vladimir Putin seems to made a correct assumption that he could seize Crimea and get away with it. But the factors that made the Crimea operation so quick and bloodless aren’t present in the rest of the country, which is larger, less geographically isolated, more ethnically heterogeneous, and doesn’t have the same historical links to Russia. Russia’s economy took a hit over Crimea, but the financial markets, at least, now seem to have accepted the current state of affairs.

Putin got away with one, but going further would almost surely lead to war and raise the risks for his government significantly.