Russia’s reported dispatch of combat troops, artillery and air defense systems into eastern Ukraine could be aimed at consolidating gains by separatists in the east for an eventual land bridge into Crimea, the disputed peninsula now under Russian control but separated by sea from the Russian mainland.
“We have seen columns of Russian equipment, primarily Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defense systems and Russian combat troops entering into Ukraine,” Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander, confirmed to reporters in Bulgaria on Wednesday.
The intent of Russia’s moves, corroborated by recent reports by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, isn’t yet clear, but Breedlove expressed concern it might be part of a larger strategic aim in eastern Ukraine.
The separatist-held areas are “not a very contiguous pocket,” Breedlove said, with interrupted communication lines.
“And so it is our first guess that these forces will go in to make this a more contiguous, more whole and capable pocket of land in order to then hold onto it long-term,” he said.
Moscow denied Breedlove’s claim, according to news reports. When it began its invasion of Crimea in March, Russia first denied sending in materiel and troops, but later acknowledged it.
Questions now center on Moscow’s next move in a crisis that could escalate if separatists aim to build the land route into Crimea.
”It is difficult to supply Crimea by sea during the winter months,” said John Lough, an expert on the crisis in Ukraine with the London-based Chatham House. “There are logistical challenges that could impact the situation on the ground.”
The reported movement of Russian troops into eastern Ukraine and more positioned along the border threaten to obliterate a fragile cease-fire agreed in September that has really been a truce in name only. Shelling and gunfire exchanges have been daily occurrences in the east, where separatists control portions of territory around the urban centers of Luhansk and Donetsk, and recently held a series of elections recognized by Moscow but deemed illegal by the West.
While it is too early to say if Russia’s latest moves are aimed at a link to Crimea, the latest surge in violence once again casts a harsh light on the strategic conundrum that is Ukraine: a land of relatively limited strategic importance to the West, but where the failure to counter Russian ambitions poses a sharp threat to the post-Cold War order in Europe, experts say.
“Absent a major change in course from Moscow, a simmering conflict is about the best we can expect,” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and scholar at the Brookings Institution. “Hopefully, the sides are smart enough to avoid another major outbreak in fighting, which I don’t think helps either side.”
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, the West’s main response has been sanctions, which have done significant damage to the Russian economy. With foreign investment on the decline in Russia and economic forecasts predicting near zero growth, Moscow has been forced to tap into its foreign reserves to prop up a tumbling ruble.
Yet Russia’s grim economic position hasn’t appeared to sway Russian President Vladimir Putin, who experts argue has backed himself into a corner.
“Putin can’t lose face over Ukraine, he can’t afford to back down,” Lough said. “Russia is stuck. They can’t get off this horse.”
In the near term, Russia may be able to ride out the economic pain, but the slow squeeze of sanctions could put the Russian economy into full-fledged crisis mode in a year or two.
“If you look at the cost of this adventure, they are going to have to pay for Crimea, there is heavy military and social spending, and the economic picture is changing,” Lough said. “There is a drip, drip effect. Over a couple years, this could create a very difficult time for them.”
In the coming week, more sanctions could be back on the table when European Union officials convene in Brussels, where Russia is expected to be on the agenda. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said new sanctions are not planned for the time being.
Experts say the key for the West will be maintaining a unified stance on sanctions while continuing with plans to bolster NATO’s presence in eastern Europe to show solidarity and signal Moscow that there is a line it may not cross.
“There is strong hope they can split the U.S. from their European partners, that the Europeans will come to their senses and conclude that these sanctions are simply not sustainable,” Lough said. “There are some calculated gambles being made.”
The desire to stay united with Europe is part of the reason the U.S. has so far resisted sending in arms to the Ukrainian military, focusing instead on nonlethal aid, experts say. Allies such as Germany have opposed arming the Ukrainians amid fears it would only add to the tensions.
Pifer, however, says it may be time to move forward with the movement of arms, which could give Russia pause.
“I would argue it is time for the U.S. government to start providing some lethal assistance like anti-tank weapons,” Pifer said. “Basically, give the Ukrainians the ability to deter the Russians from further military action. I would argue, by arming the Ukrainians, you would actually decrease the chances the Russians would escalate because you would give the Ukrainians the capacity to inflict more cost on the Russians.”
Still, it is a delicate calculus between deterring and inciting Moscow, which Ukraine has accused of arming separatists with advanced weapons including state-of-the-art anti-aircraft systems.
It has been one year since the start of popular protests in Ukraine that resulted in the ouster of a pro-Kremlin Ukrainian president and ushered in a wave of violent unrest that culminated with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of fighting in the east.
The ensuing tensions between Russia and the West have extended beyond Ukraine. On Monday, the London-based European Leadership Network detailed 40 incidents across Europe including Russian fighter jets flying into Baltic airspace, as well as a near-collision between a civilian airliner and a Russian surveillance plane.
Russia’s defense minister said Wednesday that long-range bomber patrols would be extended to the Gulf of Mexico, a clear signal to the U.S. that Russia is not backing down in the confrontation that escalated with Ukraine.
The concern is that such brinkmanship could result in a miscalculation that turns into confrontation.
“People have to ask themselves, ‘what are the rules of the game at the moment?’ ” Lough said. “This gamesmanship can take on a life of its own and inadvertently cause a crisis.”