Russia’s Vladimir Putin is at a fateful crossroads. He can go all-in on Ukraine, upping the ante by increasing military supplies to the retreating rebel separatists in Ukraine’s southeast, providing open military backing to their cause, and as a last resort ordering an invasion by Russian troops. Or, on the other hand, he can relinquish his would-be stranglehold over Ukraine and accept Ukraine as a unitary state, probably oriented toward Western Europe and the European Union, while establishing normal relations with Ukraine on the lines of, well, Poland. Whatever legitimacy and moral authority that Putin had left, shredded as it was by the annexation of Crimea and the massive covert operation that Russia has set into motion in Ukraine’s southeast, disappeared entirely with the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 by half-drunk, incompetent rebel forces.
In recent weeks, the separatists have suffered defeat after defeat in the face of an offensive by Ukraine’s army, at significant cost in destruction and lives lost, but without far more overt Russian aid it’s not likely that they can hold out much longer. As The New York Times reports today:
Although fierce fighting continues, particularly near the Russian border, the Ukrainian military has made major advances in recent days, and Mr. Poroshenko’s aides have told allies that they believe the military operation can be completed in up to three weeks, provided there is no invasion by Russia or a large new influx of weapons and fighters across the border.
Not that Putin has to worry about either US or European military action. Even if Russia were to invade Ukraine, the chances that the United States or NATO would engage Russian forces is close to zero. The United States has little or no strategic interest in Ukraine, and despite its penchant for bluster and tough talk NATO has no significant military capacity to speak of without the United States. According to a poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Americans have no interest whatsoever in the United States’ getting involved militarily in Ukraine, although the percentage of Americans holding a “favorable” view of Russia has fallen to an all-time, post–Cold War low of just 36 percent. Even if Russia invades Ukraine, the poll reveals that Americans oppose sending troops, by a hefty margin of 68 to 30 percent. According to the Chicago CFR, that’s “because Americans do not see Russian ambitions as a threat to US vital interests.”
Nor, barring a major escalation, does Putin have to worry much about economic sanctions, in part because Russia’s economy is far too integrated into the world economy—unlike, say, Iran’s or North Korea’s—and in part because Western Europe’s trade and financial ties to Russia are so interwoven that, short of an outright invasion of Ukraine, Putin probably doesn’t have to be concerned with stiff EU sanctions. As an analysis in today’s New York Times makes clear, President Obama’s pro-forma pressure on the EU isn’t likely to have much of an effect, as Britain, France and Germany all insist on maintaining the primary of their financial, arms trade, and energy ties, respectively, what one analyst calls the “triple lockout.” (A story in The Washington Post goes so far as to point out that Holland’s trade in flowers with Russia could be a factor in that country’s response to the shootdown of Flight 17, although the overwhelming tie between Holland and Russia is natural gas, not flowers.) As The Moscow Times notes, “For all the tough talk, Europe is not likely to punish Russia over last week’s downing of an airliner over Ukraine.”
Despite his sometimes-soothing rhetoric about diplomacy and negotiations, however, there’s little sign yet that Putin is concerned about either a NATO military response, economic sanctions by the United States or the EU, or Russia’s drastic fall in world public opinion. According to US officials, some of the artillery directed at advancing Ukrainian forces is coming from within Russia itself. As Michael McFaul, the just-retired former American ambassador to Russia, told The Wall Street Journal:
If true, this represents a serious escalation on Putin’s part. … Instead of using last week’s tragedy as a pretext for ending this war, he seems to be doing the opposite, doubling down.
By many accounts, Russia hasn’t halted the supply of heavy weapons to the beleaguered separatist fighters, including tanks, artillery and anti-aircraft weapons systems. But, according to General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Russia’s military is a reluctant and cautious participant in the Ukraine war, a view that contradicts the oft-stated belief that Putin is under pressure from “hawks” within Russia, including its military. Dempsey, who said he’s been in touch with senior Russian military officers during the crisis, doesn’t believe that the military is driving the issue—which means it’s Putin, not the generals, behind it. According to Reuters:
Russia’s military is likely a reluctant participant in Ukraine’s conflict, the top US military officer said on Thursday, adding that although he had not spoken to his Moscow counterpart in about two months he was keeping an open line of communication. “I think the Russian military and its leaders that I know are probably somewhat reluctant participants in this form of warfare,” General Martin Dempsey said, noting Russia’s use of both conventional forces along the border and of proxies inside the country.… Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, voiced concerns about the implications of Russia’s actions on its ties with the United States and with Europe. “My real concern is that having lit this fire in an isolated part of eastern Europe, it may not stay in eastern Europe. And I think that’s a real risk,” Dempsey said. “I’m keeping an open line of communication with my counterpart and he’s doing the same with me.”