20 Mar 2014

Will Russia invade eastern Ukraine?

Russia is planning a “full-blown military intervention” into mainland Ukraine, warns Ukraine’s UN representative. Is that really what Putin wants? It is out of his control, says one expert.

“Russia is on its way to unleash a full-blown military intervention in Ukraine’s east and south,” Ukraine’s UN representative Yurii Klymenko told a briefing meeting in Geneva today.

Annexing Crimea was only the start of the Ukraine crisis, Mr Klymenko said.

He warned that Russia’s invasion of Crimea was only the “initial stage of the world-scale military play orchestrated by Moscow.”

Putin already has plans on the territory of mainland Ukraine, Mr Klymenko said.

And riots and protests by pro-Russian separatist groups in cities in southern Ukraine were evidence of it. Rallies in Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk in recent days were “initiated by extremists from Russia”, he said – led by officers of the Russian Intelligence Service, and financed from abroad.

Putin ‘has a lot to lose’

But it is not a masterplan, says Professor Margot Light of the London School of Economics. Putin may have played the hard military leader over Crimea – but despite what the Ukraine government fears – he doesn’t want to go further, she said.

“I don’t think he’s going to launch a full-scale invasion. I do think the situation in southern and eastern Ukraine is extremely volatile and extremely dangerous.

“I don’t think is fully under Putin’s control but I don’t think it’s what he wants to do.”

He wouldn’t mind a weak Ukraine, but he doesn’t want a civil war Professor Margot Light, LSE

Professor Light cites a statement from Russia’s Foreign Ministry today agreeing to a contact group on Ukraine as an example of a more conciliatory tone from Russia.

On Thursday the Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told his US counterpart in a telephone call that Russian troops would not enter eastern Ukraine.

And President Putin himself has claimed that Russia has no pretensions to eastern Ukraine, says Professor Light.

“That’s what he said in his emotional speech – he said he didn’t want to go any further. I think Putin thinks Crimea is a done deal, and he hopes that the West’s reaction to it will die down as it did over Georgia and South Ossetia.”

Is the Russian government behind the violent unrest that has already taken some lives in eastern Ukraine? Perhaps originally, says Professor Light, but it’s something that isn’t necessarily choreographed from Moscow.

“He may have instigated it, in the first instance.

“But the danger of sparking off a civil war would be extremely great, and he couldn’t take a civil war on his border. He has a lot to lose.

“He wouldn’t mind a weak Ukraine, but he doesn’t want a civil war.

“The Russian military didn’t do terribly well in Georgia. And the danger of provoking some sort of western response is really not something that he wants.

“Russia is quite dependent on its trade with Europe, especially its energy exports. They are trying to develop alternatives particularly with China. But that hasn’t taken off yet, and Russia is weak economically.”

Russian police invade a Ukrainian sweet factory

A kind of “low intensity conflict” was what Dr Neophytes Loizides of the University of Kent predicts will happen in eastern Ukraine.

He too thinks that an invasion of mainland Ukraine seems unlikely: “Russia doesn’t have the same historical that it has with Crimea. What we are most likely to see in that area are unpleasant incidents – both sides unwilling to compromise: a low-intensity conflict rather than a Russian invasion.”

And that seems to be what Ukrainians have experienced in the past few days. Russians have upped their own economic pressures on Ukraine – forcing more burdensome customs checks on all goods coming in from Ukraine to Crimea.

And the Russians have also moved to act on Ukrainian businesses operating inside Russia – soldiers were sent into a Ukrainian-owned sweet factory in the Russian city of Lipetsk on Thursday.