Where Will Putin Stop?

Pavel Felgenhauer claims that Putin must move fast if he’s going to grab Eastern and Southern Ukraine:

If Putin decides to send in his troops, he has a narrow window in which to act. The winter of 2014 in Russia and Ukraine was relatively mild with little snow, while the spring is early and warm. The soil is drying rapidly, meaning that it will soon be possible to move heavy vehicles off of highways and into fields in southern areas of Ukraine close to the Black and Azov Seas. A key date is April 1, which marks the beginning of the Russia’s spring conscript call-up, when some 130,000 troops drafted a year earlier will have to be mustered out as replacements arrive. This would leave the Russian airborne troops, marines, and army brigades with many conscripts that have served half a year or not at all, drastically reducing battle readiness. The better-trained one-year conscripts can be kept in the ranks for a couple of months but no longer. Otherwise they’ll start demanding to be sent home, and morale will slip. As a result, Russia’s conventional military will regain reasonable battle-readiness only around August or September 2014, giving the Ukrainians ample time to get their act together.

But Masha Gessen, who sees the annexation of Crimea as payback for the West’s intervention in Kosovo, believes that Putin is playing a very long game:

Once Putin held power in Russia, he never planned to cede it, so he had all the time in the world. Two of Putin’s key character traits are vengefulness and opportunism. He relishes his grudges and finds motivation in them: He has enjoyed holding the bombing of Yugoslavia against the United States all these years—and knowing he would strike back some day. He is anything but a strategic planner, so this knowledge was abstract until it wasn’t, when the opportunity to grab Crimea presented itself. Revenge has been sweet, but when other opportunities present themselves—and this will happen more often now, at least from Putin’s point of view—he will deploy Russian military force or the threat of Russian military force in other neighboring countries. He will take his revenge not only cold but plentifully.

Kim R. Holmes argues that one of “the most important lessons of the Cold War is that drawing lines in the sand actually works”:

We often think of how the containment strategy held the Soviet Union in check, but the real tests of strength actually occurred before that strategy was fully in place. Truman “lost” Poland (mainly because he never had it in the first place), but he drew the line with Turkey and Greece. Both countries ended up as NATO allies, not members of the Warsaw Pact. We should be drawing similarly clear lines in the sand today, particularly with respect to the Baltic members of NATO, making it absolutely clear that the United States will honor its NATO Article Five commitment to defend those countries.

The challenge for U.S. policy is not to let Russia’s fait accompli in Crimea signal a complete abandonment of Ukraine. It’s one thing to say we will not go to war to defend Ukraine’s independence, and another one altogether to consign Ukraine forever to Russia’s sphere of influence. Not everything in foreign policy comes down to threatening war. Most Ukrainians want to be part of the West, as the Poles did some 70 years ago, and this matters more in the long run than the strength of Russia’s armored brigades.