After a brief glimmer of hope over the weekend that we might be seeing the beginning of a de-escalation of the Ukrainian crisis thanks to four party talks in Geneva, the situation on the ground has deteriorated significantly. In a blog post last week, I put the odds that the Ukrainian government would restore order in eastern Ukraine in time to conduct presidential elections there on May 25 at 20 percent. I put the odds of a civil war at 25 percent and the odds of a Russian invasion at 55 percent. Each weekend after the annexation of Crimea (weekends because Saturdays and Sundays are when most of the violence occurs), the odds had gone up, slowly but surely. They went down for the first this time past weekend, back to 40 percent, thanks to the Geneva joint declaration, which is worth quoting: “All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.”
Nevertheless, like most observers, I was very skeptical that Moscow would – or indeed could, even if it wanted to, which I doubted – take concrete steps to get the militant separatists in the east to disarm and go home. The genie had been let out of the bottle and it was going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get it back in without considerable violence. I did, however, think the Geneva agreement made a Russian invasion rather less likely, so I dropped the probability of an invasion to 40 percent. But lest I seem naively optimistic, I did not assume that that meant the odds of Kyiv being able to restore its writ in the east had gone up. Rather, I believed it meant an increase in the risk of civil war in some, or perhaps all, of the east and south.
Unfortunately, the past two days have witnessed a major escalation of the crisis and another ratcheting up of the odds of an invasion. There have been more deaths; more disappearances; and no indications that the militants intend to put down, let along turn in, their weapons. Kyiv has announced it is re-launching its “anti-terrorist operation” in the east, and just today the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, made as explicit a warning as there has been to date that Russia will send in the troops if the violence escalates: “If our interests, our legitimate interests, the interests of Russians have been attacked directly, like they were in South Ossetia for example, I do not see any other way but to respond in full accordance with international law. Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the Russian Federation.” Moreover, the Russian propaganda campaign on Ukraine has shifted over the past two days – it is now less about extreme nationalists and neo-fascists in Kyiv intent on ethnically cleansing Russians from the east, and more about the involvement of American officials, the CIA, NATO, and so on, with the new government in Kyiv being portrayed simply as a puppet of Washington.
So I think the odds of an invasion are back up to at least 55 percent, and I am perhaps being overly sanguine. The basic logic is as follows: It strikes me as very likely that violence in the east is going to get worse and may well spread to other parts of the east and south; if so, Moscow is very likely to invade because Putin in particular, but Lavrov and others as well, have stated that it would. It is of course possible that they are bluffing in an effort to pressure Kyiv and the West, but I doubt it.