So Russia didn’t invade Ukraine last week, but there seems to be a growing consensus that they will. From a tactical standpoint I’m still not sure what Putin is waiting for; if he’s decided to invade then waiting just means the rebels’ position will have deteriorated that much further by the time the invasion does come. But strategically, there is a case to be made that waiting, and allowing Kiev to pound the rebels (who are in this sense probably worth more to Putin dead or suffering than alive or at peace) a little more, would let Putin justify a limited invasion under the guise of a humanitarian intervention or a peacekeeping mission. Which would seem to suggest that it’s time for Kiev to stop its military action in Donbas and engage in some diplomacy.
It’s hard to envision a scenario where a Russian invasion of Ukraine results in a “win” for Putin. He’s reportedly amassed around 20,000 troops on the border, which is enough to invade but not enough for a protracted fight and certainly not enough to conquer any part of Ukraine that doesn’t want to be conquered. I’m no expert on the Russian military, but it seems pretty clear that if Putin had enough ready military units to be able to mount a full scale invasion of Ukraine, he’d have a damn sight more than 20,000 of them ready to go at this point. But since I am no expert, let’s give Putin the benefit of the doubt and assume that he could throw in all 40,000 troops that NATO estimated were in the border area as recently as May. That’s still not enough to conquer Ukraine, but it’s probably enough to hold the eastern part of the country, particularly given the Russian military’s general superiority to its Ukrainian counterpart.
So let’s say Russia invades all-out and takes eastern Ukraine. What happens then? Undoubtedly a full-on shooting war with Ukraine, presumably some exponentially more painful sanctions from the EU and the US, and now Putin has his hands on this piece of territory that he’s got to be able to control completely lest his soldiers find themselves fending off local insurrection and the Ukrainian army at the same time. This was conceivable in Crimea, where an absolute majority of the population (rigged referendum aside) was Russian and supported annexation by Russia. But while eastern Ukraine has a sizable Russian minority, it’s still mostly Ukrainian, and that Pew poll from May (admittedly before the Ukrainian army started really pounding Donetsk and Luhansk) found that a majority even in eastern Ukraine was opposed to secession. It’s hard to imagine that a Russian invasion force wouldn’t meet at least some resistance from the locals. Meanwhile you can forget about ever seeing another Russophilic president in Kiev.
Even as a matter of domestic politics, where Putin has really benefited from this whole affair and which I’m convinced is one of the biggest things driving his behavior, it’s one thing for Putin to talk tough about Novorossiya and about banning food imports from the US and EU, and quite another thing to actually invade and have to answer for soldiers getting killed. Not to mention the fact that the sanctions are really starting to ratchet up, and additional sanctions could really be a tough pill to swallow.
So a limited incursion with the express intent of saving the beleaguered people in Donbas and bringing and end to the fighting might be Putin’s best bet. He doesn’t lose face, or domestic support, that way, and he might even make Kiev look like the bad guys if they choose to engage his forces. More sanctions might be inevitable, but then again the EU especially might not want to provoke more economic trouble if it really seems like Russia’s ultimate intentions aren’t annexation. Russia’s real intentions would be to buy time to rebuild the resistance, maybe arm and train them a little, and to hang around long enough to make autonomy, though not secession (at least not yet) for Donetsk and Luhansk a fait accompli so that Kiev wouldn’t be able to do anything about it even after the Russian forces leave.
Kiev presumably would like to avoid any of this. They’d really like to avoid an invasion altogether, since despite Russia’s potential long-term challenges in Ukraine, their army would likely overwhelm the Ukrainian army in the early stages of a war. So why not take the “humanitarian” excuse away, stop pounding the rebels, and start negotiating an end to this conflict? Right now, even if the whole world knows that it’s a bullshit excuse for an invasion, Putin still has a point if he couches things in humanitarian terms. The Ukrainian army is winning on the ground, and it has surrounded and besieged Donetsk and Luhansk, but rather than chance a ground assault they’ve elected to sit back and pound the cities with artillery. That’s swell from the standpoint of minimizing your own casualties, but as we’ve recently seen it’s really kind of a war crime in terms of causing civilian casualties. Purely based on the facts of the situation, a Russian humanitarian intervention in Donbas right now wouldn’t be any less justifiable than, say, France’s intervention in Mali, or the NATO/Arab leave intervention in Libya. But if Kiev stops fighting, then Russia’s case for intervention is greatly diminished.
Why wouldn’t Petro Poroshenko do this? He might argue that the rebels could keep firing on his soldiers and/or making trouble for the country, but the rebels seem to be on their last legs at this point. He could still keep troops stationed around Donetsk and Luhansk while ordering them only to defend themselves and while allowing desperately needed humanitarian assistance into both cities. He’s already offered much of what the rebels would likely want out of a peace deal, chiefly regional autonomy and protections for the Russian language. Most importantly, ending the fighting short-circuits Putin’s chance to play peacemaker and may lessen the chances of a real war. Poroshenko seems to be insisting on absolutely defeating the rebels militarily before seriously engaging them in talks, maybe for his own domestic political reasons. In the long run, though, it will be better for everybody — Ukraine, Russia, and especially the rebels — if he takes a longer view of things and puts an end to the fighting now.