Keating points out that Putin doesn’t need to invade eastern Ukraine in order to conquer it:
As long as the separatists, almost certainly acting under the backing if not the outright direction of Russian special operaions forces, can continue to withstand the tentative offensives launched against them, Kiev’s loss of control over Donetsk and Luhansk will become an established fact on the ground. As Interpreter editor James Miller points out in a commentary for Vice, the key player in this is not the military but the Russian government’s well-oiled propaganda machine, which has been operating at full force in eastern Ukraine, convincing many pro-Russian locals that “Ukraine is being overrun by ultranationalist Nazis who are building concentration camps for ethnic Russians and regularly lynching Russian sympathizers.”
Tens of thousands of Russian troops are still massed on the Ukrainian border, and there’s little sign that they’re leaving, but at the moment Russia can simply leave them in place as a warning of what would happen in Ukraine launched a full-scale assault to retake the contested areas—a campaign that would almost certainly involve large numbers of civilian casualties.
This map from the WaPo gives a detailed picture of the forces Russia has committed to threatening Ukraine. Berman thinks Friday’s violence in Odessa, in which 31 Russian demonstrators died in a fire, could be the pretext for an old-school invasion Putin was waiting for:
Beyond the human nature of the tragedy, which is obvious, lies the political one that now faces the Ukrainian government. If, as has been assumed by most observers, the Russian troops who have spent the last six weeks massed on Ukraine’s borders have been waiting for an excuse to intervene in order to either “restore order” or “protect Russian citizens” from “fascists” this tragedy would seem to be it.
Not only does it provide the requisite death toll, but the manner of the victims’ passing pushes all sorts of historical buttons, not just in Russia, but also in the West, where dozens of victims being burned alive in a locked building brings flashbacks to earlier pogroms.
Lucian Kim situates the turmoil in Donetsk and other eastern regions within Putin’s general strategy:
The illusion of a conflict is crucial for Putin’s plan to polarize Ukraine and prevent it from achieving the political stability needed to ward off economic collapse. If a few more pro-Russian regions break off as separatist republics, so much the better. Although the violence in the Donetsk region is very localized, images of icon-carrying villagers blocking Ukrainian troops in armored personnel carriers serve the narrative of a beleaguered Russian population under assault. Kremlin-controlled Russian TV presents a parallel reality where the United States is doing its best to split Ukraine; the Kiev government broke the Geneva agreement to defuse the crisis; and foreign mercenaries are backing up Ukrainian forces in Slovyansk.
Never mind that the supposed people’s uprising in Donetsk is a caricature of the Maidan, which was an explosion of citizens’ anger. For a Soviet man and former KGB agent like Putin, the concept of civic activism—ordinary people acting without instructions or payment—is incomprehensible.
The Dish covered recent violence in Ukraine here.
(Photo: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, on May 5, 2014. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said yesterday Putin and OSCE head Didier Burkhalter are expected to discuss establishing a ‘national dialogue’ in Ukraine ahead of elections when they meet in Moscow on May 7. By Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images.)