Last week, Ukraine’s military claimed that Russian tanks, artillery, and soldiers were pouring across the border between the two countries yet again. Today, NATO and the OSCE confirmed that they had seen the same thing:
Speaking in Sofia on November 12, the alliance’s top commander, U.S. General Philip Breedlove, said the columns included Russian tanks, artillery, air-defense systems, and combat troops. “We do not have a good picture at this time of how many. We agree that there are multiple columns that we have seen,” Breedlove said. Breedlove made the comments after a report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said its monitors had seen a convoy of unmarked military trucks — some towing howitzer artillery pieces and multilaunch rocket systems — travelling into the rebel stronghold of Donetsk on November 11.
Shane Harris passes along an assessment from another analyst, who believes “there are as many as 7,000 Russian troops inside Ukraine now, and between 40,000 and 50,000 amassing on the country’s eastern border”:
Phillip Karber, a former Pentagon strategy adviser who has worked closely with the Ukrainian government, said in an interview that he had just returned from Ukraine, where he spoke with commanders at the front. Karber said that in addition to the thousands of ground troops, as many as 100 tanks are inside Ukraine now, more than 400 armored vehicles, and more than 150 self-propelled artillery and multiple rocket launchers. Another 350 to 400 tanks are poised along the border, along with more than 1,000 armored vehicles and 800 self-propelled artillery, Karber said. …
“Clearly something is up. The question is what,” Karber said. He speculated that Russia could be envisioning a number of scenarios, including pushing further into Eastern Ukraine; attempting to create a land bridge to the Crimea peninsula in order to resupply force there; or making a large land grab further into the country.
Anna Nemtsova suspects that the Russians are there to back up eastern Ukrainian separatists in a push to regain territory from which Kiev had driven them out. Accordingly, she fears that Ukraine is on the verge of all-out war again,
“I admit that without Russian multi-layered support, Donbass [the eastern Ukraine region] would have never handled aggression by the Ukrainian army,” says Sergei Markov at a pro-Kremlin think tank close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Markov tells The Daily Beast he expects the situation in eastern Ukraine to explode in the coming two days. He blames Ukrainian officials for violating the ceasefire agreement and shelling the outskirts of Donetsk city.
“Novorossia soldiers would not initiate the battle,” says Markov, “but I believe their plan is to gradually take control over Piski, Avdiivka, and Schastye, a town with a central heating station.” Markov also added that rebels might make an attempt to take back control of their former strongholds in Sloviansk and Kramotorsk, “symbolically and strategically important towns for them.”
If this is indeed a Russian invasion – and it sure looks like one – James B. Barnes isn’t surprised at the timing. After all, winter is coming:
Winter has long been Russia’s ally, the siege of Leningrad for just one example, but using the modern economics of Winter as an offensive strategy strikes me as both new and absolutely old school. … Doing this now is also very calculated and smart on the part of Russia. Since Europe depends on Russian gas there’s literally nothing the Europeans can do to dissuade the Russian leadership from driving every tank they want straight into Donetsk for later deployment and the U.S. knows that action on their part could lead to action by Russia against Europe. It’s Machiavellian, and while I don’t approve of it (free nations should be free) I’m absolutely impressed by it.
News of these machinations in eastern Ukraine comes at the same time as Russian planes have been making threatening maneuvers in Northern Europe and the Arctic, including simulated attack runs on American and European targets. Now, Russia plans to step up patrol missions by its long-range strategic bombers:
Russian nuclear-capable strategic bombers were making regular patrols across the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans during Cold War times, but the post-Soviet money crunch forced the military to cut back. The bomber patrol flights have resumed under President Vladimir Putin’s rule and have become increasingly frequent in recent years. Earlier this year, Shoigu said Russia plans to expand its worldwide military presence by seeking permission for navy ships to use ports in Latin America, Asia and elsewhere for replenishing supplies and doing maintenance. He said the military was conducting talks with Algeria, Cyprus, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, Seychelles, Vietnam and Singapore.
Developments such as these, coupled with increasingly bellicose rhetoric from the Kremlin, have led to chatter about a new Cold War. Brian Whitmore downplays that comparison, but adds a huge, frightening caveat:
No, this isn’t a Cold War. But guess what? It’s even scarier and more dangerous. During the Cold War the Kremlin had a stake in — and was interested in maintaining — the existing international system. Despite its ideology and rhetoric, the Soviet Union after Stalin wasn’t revolutionary at all. It was a classic status-quo power. But in the past 25 years, a new international order has taken shape to replace the bipolar superpower rivalry — and Moscow doesn’t like it. It wants the old 20th-century bipolar world back, or a 19th-century concert of great powers, each free to act in their own spheres of influence. And if it doesn’t get it, it is going to do its best to disrupt the existing order.
Bershidsky psychoanalyzes Putin and wonders if the Russian president might actually be sincere when he says he wants things to get back to normal:
Amid all the anti-American, anti-Western rhetoric, Putin always leaves the door open to a resumption of dialogue. … It’s even possible that Putin’s behavior is a mixture of intimidating swagger and a craving for the restoration of normal, pre-Crimea relations with his Western “friends and partners,” as he likes to call them. It’s only prudent to react to Putin’s threats by shoring up defenses, but it might be smart for the West to exploit his apparent desire to be given a place at the table again. He is only a human being, but Russia and its neighbors are disproportionately dependent on his psychological condition. Perhaps Western leaders ought to consult with psychologists and try to figure out how to handle him rather than continuing to demonstrate their angry rejection, as Obama does.
Regardless of these provocations, new sanctions on Russia don’t seem to be in the offing, at least not from the EU, which could really make them sting:
Speaking in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel ruled out imposing new economic sanctions, the European Union’s main source of leverage over Moscow now that gas supplies are in place for the winter. On Thursday, Russia signed a deal with Ukraine and Europe to resume gas shipments to Ukraine, which — if fully implemented — would remove the possibility that Moscow could cut off gas supplies mid-winter.
However, Merkel floated the possibility of issuing travel restrictions on pro-Russian politicians recently elected in the Crimean peninsula, which Russia has annexed. The West has refused to recognize the polls, and Merkel said that the EU could prevent Crimean politicians from attending a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels next week.
(Photo:A column of tanks drive from a rebel-territory to Donetsk near the town of Shakhtarsk, eastern Ukraine on November 10, 2014. By Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)