What’s driving Russia’s “humanitarian intervention” in eastern Ukraine

The Interpreter magazine’s “Ukraine Liveblog” site has posted compelling evidence that what amounts to a Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine is underway. Many video clips are available on the Internet showing what appear to be unmarked Russian tanks, military fighting vehicles (BTRs), multiple rocket launchers (MRLS), artillery, and transport trucks moving deep into eastern Ukraine.

Other videos show similarly unmarked armor and transport vehicles in Russian towns near the border, as well as regular marked Russian armor and heavy equipment being moved back toward the border on trains. Moscow is also taking steps to justify an intervention on humanitarian grounds, the argument being that the crisis in the east is now so acute that it is compelled to establish a “humanitarian corridor” allowing civilians to flee the fighting– presumably to Russia — and to separate the opposing forces. And Moscow claimed today that the Ukrainian military has shelled a Russian border post and wounded a customs official.

If a Russian “humanitarian intervention” is indeed under way, it is important to consider not only how it will play out in eastern Ukraine but, more importantly, what the Kremlin’s broader goals are and what it plans to do next. Let me offer the following possibilities.

1. The most benign possibility is that Moscow intends to use the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Kyiv. If so, it is important to remember that issues like Russian support for Ukrainian federalization and even gas pricing are symptoms of the problem for Moscow, not the problem itself, which is NATO membership and Ukraine’s external orientation. What is not clear is whether the Kremlin is determined to solve that problem through some kind of bilateral agreement with Ukraine, one that would of course be helped along by maximum military, political, and economic pressure on Kyiv, or whether it would be willing to enter into negotiations with the United States, or perhaps the United States and the European Union, over some kind of treaty that institutionalizes Ukrainian (and Georgian and Moldovan) military neutrality. My guess is that the Kremlin fully intends to take the first path, in part because it does not believe that the West is interested in, or politically able to, enter into negotiations on major geopolitical questions with Moscow, at least for the time being.

2. A less benign possibility is that Moscow intends to establish a breakaway republic – in effect, a vassal state – in Ukraine. If so, I doubt that it will stop by securing the general area currently under separatist control. Seizing that area only, or even all of Donetsk and Luhansk, would saddle Moscow with responsibility for getting the region’s economy going and for subsidizing its uncompetitive industries, not a good outcome for the Kremlin given the costs it will incur, and the risks it is taking, by sending troops across the border. Instead, it is likely to continue efforts to destabilize surrounding areas and to keep extending the breakaway region while keeping Ukrainian forces, and the Ukraine government, preoccupied with trying to control a long, volatile, and contested border.

3. An even less benign possibility is that Russia is trying to provoke a full-blown war with Ukraine and then do its best to destroy Ukrainian military forces not just in the vicinity of its “humanitarian corridor” but deep into the Ukrainian mainland as well.

If Russia is indeed going to openly send troops across the border to avert a “humanitarian crisis,” it is will be doing so having fully considered the likely response from the West, both militarily and economically. That is, it will expect NATO to respond by moving forces to the east, and the West to respond with sectoral sanctions, although the breadth and harshness of those sanctions are unclear. Accordingly, I do not think its end game will be in Ukraine. At a minimum, I believe Russia’s bigger game is the establishment of a buffer zone between it and NATO. That would be best accomplished by solidifying control of Belarus and by bringing Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and other Soviet successor states into a “Eurasian” military alliance and political union. But it might also be accomplished through institutionalized (e.g., constitutionally embedded) neutrality for Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.

Given these broader goals, if I were an advisor to the Belorussian president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, I would suggest that he be extremely careful not to displease the Kremlin in the coming months lest he find himself deposed. And if I were an official in the Baltic republics, Georgia, and Moldova, I would be extremely worried about a ratcheting up of pressure from Moscow in the lead up to the NATO summit in September.