Yesterday Ukraine declared, with video to back it up, that they’d captured 10 Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory — not Russian paramilitaries, not Ukrainian militias who had been trained and/or equipped by Russia, but genuine, regular Russian soldiers. Today, it seems clear that a full-on Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine has begun in earnest. The “rebels” are suddenly making serious headway on a brand new front, south of the Donetsk-Luhansk region on the coast of the Azov Sea, and frankly the very fact that the rebels are suddenly on the offensive indicates that something major has changed on the ground. The “rebels” are now using weapons systems that they’re not trained on and that they probably could not have seized from the Ukrainian army, so clearly something is up. The southern front serves two purposes: it will force Kiev to divert forces from Donetsk and Luhansk, and if the “rebels” are able to consolidate their gains in the area (which, given this is now a Russian invasion more than a rebellion, they likely will) it will give the “rebels” some control over the Azov Sea for whatever statelet they’re trying to carve out.
Russia’s timing in launching this invasion is interesting, given that it’s happening simultaneously with the opening of peace talks in Minsk between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Likely Putin thinks this is the best time to amp up his involvement in Ukraine without incurring additional sanctions, since the US and EU may be reluctant to bring new sanctions that could derail the talks. He’s also presumably thinking about leverage in the talks, which cuts both ways: with winter approaching, Ukraine’s need for Russian natural gas is going to become more urgent, but it’s also the case that Putin will be in a better negotiating position in Minsk if the rebels aren’t on their last legs in Ukraine. Kiev’s dominant position with respect to the separatists had actually become an impediment to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, but now that the situation has changed militarily, suddenly Poroshenko is all about finding a way out of the crisis that doesn’t involve maximizing the body count.
Clearly Russia has chosen to escalate this conflict by directly, militarily intervening in another sovereign nation’s affairs, and barring a quick resolution in Minsk they ought to take plenty of heat for it. However, it’s also possible that Russia’s move here will force a resolution quicker than it would otherwise have happened. Max Fisher at Vox is mostly right in terms of what this move says about Russia’s “stealth invasion” strategy in terms of minimizing the hostile response from the West, but I think he gets it wrong when he suggests that Russia has been the only impediment to a deal. Ever since Kiev gained the military upper hand over the separatists it has shown no inclination to stop fighting until they were utterly beaten, which may have been its prerogative but now has backfired, by extending the conflict long enough that Russia could affect this latest move. Also, this:
Russia’s meddling in eastern Ukraine became a stealth invasion, which has become an overt invasion. But it was all done just gradually enough, and with just enough uncertainty around each incremental escalation, that Russia has managed to invade a sovereign European country, in the year 2014, without sparking any larger war or the credible threat of any substantial response beyond sanctions.
is kind of rich coming from a US media outlet. I’m not sure what purpose the “European” qualifier serves here, except to artificially distinguish Russia’s actions in Ukraine from the Iraq War, when the US managed to invade another sovereign country, in the year 2003, without sparking any larger war (well, actually we did do this, but the war we sparked wasn’t in direct response to US actions) or the credible threat of any substantial response whatsoever, including sanctions. But I digress.