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.”