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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Russia’s Next Move in Ukraine -- By Yevgen Sautin, The American Interest

Carefully thinking through Russia’s different tactical options for invading Ukraine would have seemed unnecessarily alarmist as little as a few weeks ago. Today, it seems downright prudent.

Russia’s swift occupation and annexation of Crimea has come as a huge shock to the international community—and the United States and NATO are scrambling for an adequate response. Russia’s next move in Ukraine, however, may quickly come to overshadow Crimea’s annexation.

Despite public statements to the contrary, movement on the ground indicates that this could only be the beginning of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military campaign. At the time of this writing, some of Russia’s elite troops, such as the 2nd Guards Tamanskaya Motor Rifle Division and the 4th Guards Kantimirovskaya Tank Division, have concentrated along the Russian border near the major Ukrainian cities of Chernigov and Kharkov. While the Russian government has attributed the troop buildup to military exercises, U.S. government sources say there is little evidence that any training maneuvers have actually been taking place.

So far Putin’s efforts to retain Russian influence in Ukraine through increasingly bold, risky, and at times counterintuitive tactics have caught his opponents off guard. There is little reason to believe that the former KGB colonel has any intention to let up.  In fact, it appears he has only begun to play his cards. What are his options?

Maintaining the Status Quo 

Though it’s unlikely that Russia has been deterred by the West’s response thus far—the EU could not bring itself to enact sanctions at the level the U.S. was proposing, and President Obama explicitly ruled out any form of military assistance in Ukraine—it’s still possible that Putin has determined that the status quo is good enough for now.

Sending agents provocateurs into the eastern Ukrainian cities, as he did over the weekend, may be the prelude for a broader military incursion. But it also might just be a means for keeping Kiev and its Western friends off balance. If the situation continues to look like it’s about to spin out of control, he may be counting on skittish Western patrons forcing Kiev to accept his proposal for Ukraine’s federalization. In a federal Ukraine, Russian influence in the Southeast would be preserved and central government authority permanently attenuated.

The beauty of the status quo is that Putin can pursue a “wait and see” approach, assessing his political and diplomatic options while maintaining the ability to intervene militarily at a moment’s notice. If the Kremlin’s covert, political, and diplomatic maneuvering do not produce the desired result, then the West may wake up to a very unpalatable reality: a deeper Russian push into Ukraine.
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