By Elizabeth Pond
There is a reason for President Barack Obama's plea to Russian President Vladimir Putin today to pull back the massed Russian troops on Ukraine's border. The period of maximum danger for Ukraine is between now and the May 25 presidential election.
The caretaker government in Kiev is shaky, especially after the sudden loss of the Crimea peninsula to annexation by Russia. And if Russia is going to follow up that blitzkrieg operation by invading mainland Ukraine—as President Vladimir Putin claims a right to do to protect Russian speakers there—the attack must begin before mid-May, according to at least one respected independent Russian military analyst.
Politically, these eight weeks would be the best time to mount any attack, before the new leadership in Kiev can consolidate its authority. The fledgling government is weak. It was appointed by parliament in the turmoil as Ukrainian President and Putin-ally Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia a month ago. It or its permanent successor needs the legitimacy that only free and fair elections could confer on it.
Yet in the meantime the interim government faces Herculean tasks. It must gain control over the old security services that shot and killed more than 70 demonstrators in Kiev last month. It must avert the national bankruptcy that Yanukovych bequeathed Ukraine. It must devise instant training for the military reserves it has just established to supplement the small, ill-equipped, and underfunded Ukrainian army. It must improvise defenses against any further Russian military encroachments in eastern Ukraine—without the help of Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh, who was just forced out because he sanely did not order Ukrainian troops to martyr themselves by fighting the vastly better-armed Russian forces in Crimea.
Moreover, the caretaker government must accomplish this mission impossible at a time when Russia is doing its best to destabilize Ukraine by massing troops on Ukraine's borders. In addition, the Russian secret services are deploying busloads of "tourist" provocateurs to eastern Ukraine to mix with the local Russian-speaking population, foment brawls, and agitate for regional referendums ("as in Crimea") on a kind of autonomy that borders on separatism from the Ukrainian state.
Militarily, Putin is keeping up unrelenting pressure on Ukraine without yet revealing his hand. Michael McFaul, who has just finished his tour as US ambassador to Russia, told journalists last week that he thinks Putin will now pause to consolidate his gains rather than trying to seize more Ukrainian territory. By contrast, Andriy Parubiy, acting chairman of Ukraine's National Security Council, expressed serious concern yesterday about the 100,000 Russian soldiers he said are massed around Ukraine's borders.
Without endorsing that specific number, an anonymous senior US administration official told the Daily Beast that “At this point, they are amassed and they could go at a moment’s notice if Putin gave the go ahead.” In the same vein, CNN on May 26 cited an anonymous US official as saying that a new classified assessment “has shifted our thinking that the likelihood of a further Russian incursion is more probable than it was previously thought to be.” Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee who read the report expressed “deep apprehension that Moscow may invade eastern and southern Ukraine, pressing west to Transdniestria and also seek land grabs in the Baltics.”
The US and its NATO allies have made clear that they will not defend non-NATO member Ukraine militarily. The main deterrent to any further Russian incursion into Ukrainian territory may therefore be uncertainty by Russian generals about how badly their army might get bloodied in real combat, even by a far inferior army and a drawn-out guerrilla war in Ukraine.
Johan Norberg, a senior analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, outlines some of the worries that might lead Russia's top military command to urge caution. These go beyond the simple observation that Russian forces faced no Ukrainian opposition in their Crimea takeover, and that operation is therefore no model for line infantry and tank units that would have to take and hold territory against resistance. "Pushing into Ukraine may seem doable, achieving a sustainable outcome less so....Russia could easily get bogged down, much like the Soviet Union did in Afghanistan in the 1980s," he comments in his study for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. One barrier to sustainability is the Russian army's current shift of logistics away from the old Soviet bulk delivery of supplies to the front to a more modern just-in-time supply system. Unexpected snarls in the system could easily hinder "prolonged high-pace operations."
Independent military expert Pavel Felgenhauer in Moscow concludes that "in the course of the next several weeks a very serious escalatioin of force is possible...but that if it doesn't occur now, it won't happen ever." He pegs the opening of the window of opportunity at early April, when the damp winter earth will harden sufficiently to support heavy weapons off-road. He expects the window to close in mid-May because of the mustering out of 130,000 recruits with a year's service by then and their replacement by raw recruits. Moreover, he argues that by then the Ukrainian army will have been able to increase its battle preparedness, in part by utilizing the weapons produced in eastern Ukraine for the Russian army.
Other considerations are that after 23 years of living in independent post-Soviet Ukraine, a new Ukrainian identity has been forged. Large parts of the generation that was born after the breakup of the Soviet Union now identify themselves as Ukrainians (and as Europeans) rather than as the perennially younger East Slav brothers of the Russians. The Russians would probably do well not to believe their own propaganda about how loyal the ethnic Russians in the east are to Moscow.
These considerations may not be enough, however, to stanch Putin's fury at young Ukrainians for spoiling his Eurasian dream by choosing Europe over East Slav fraternity. By the May 25 Ukrainian election we should know whether anger or a more sober cost-benefit reckoning will prevail in the Russian president's calculations.
A version of this article was also published by The Globalist.