GeoPolitical Forecasts

Forecasts of international political events

Will Russia invade Ukraine?

Yes.

I’ve been delaying making a forecast because there’s so much information, and so few reliable guidelines for interpreting it. Putin has been deliberately sending mixed signals: on one hand, he says he won’t invade east Ukraine, on the other, he emphasizes his legal grounds for invasion and he’s massing troops on the border. He seems to be trying to signal his intentions without having to pay the price of signaling his intentions. For example, if he announces that he’s going to invade Ukraine, the ruble will fall, Russian stocks will drop, and he’ll get endless phone calls from Western political leaders. If he states that he’s not going to invade Ukraine, he doesn’t have to deal with all that until the invasion actually happens, but Western governments will be aware of the troop movements and his statements about the illegitimacy of the current Ukrainian government, Yanukovych’s request for an invasion, and his claims of concern about the safety of Ukrainians who are ethnically Russian.

Putin wants Ukraine returned to the Russian sphere of influence. He’s willing to use military force to accomplish it, but he would rather negotiate. Since Yanukovych was forced out of power, he’s been very clear that he wants Yanukovych restored, but the US and EU have essentially ignored his statements and made offers that don’t restore Yanukovych or bring Ukraine back under Russian sway some other way. If he announces that he’s willing to use military force to get what he wants, he would have to deal with economic and political turmoil while the negotiations proceeded. I believe his current course of action is an effort to get the negotiations without the turmoil. I don’t believe he will get the response he wants, which means that he will invade.

In 2007, Putin made a speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy[1] that could have been titled “Why I Fear and Distrust the West”. Nothing that has happened since has made him more trusting. In Ukraine, a Western-sponsored agreement that would have eased Yanukovych out of power was discarded within hours. Yanukovych fled and was stripped of the presidency in a way that clearly violated the Ukrainian consitution. From Russia’s point of view, it was a Western-backed coup.[2] Subsequent discussions between Russia and the West haven’t done anything to restore Russian trust.[3] Restoring Yanukovych would restore Russian influence in Ukraine without requiring Russia to rely on assurances from the West, and unlike other ways of doing this, Yanukovych has some claim to legitimacy.

On the Western side, there’s been no effort to address Russia’s concerns. None of the proposals that John Kerry has made that have been reported in the news media have done have made any concession to Putin’s objections to the current government in Ukraine. There have been no proposals for an alternative government that excluded Yanukovych but addressed Putin’s concerns. The current government wants to join NATO and prefers the European Union to Putin’s Eurasian Union. This is unacceptable to Russia.

For political reasons, I don’t believe Western negotiators can make proposals that address Putin’s concerns. While Yanukovych has some supporters in Ukraine, the opposition to him is sufficiently widespread and intense that I don’t think he could return to the presidency unless preceded by Russian tanks. The current government depends on Yanukovych’s opponents for support and can’t negotiate his return. The US and EU have very little choice but to support the current government in Ukraine. Domestic politics here in the US make it impossible for Obama to accept Yanukovych’s return and extremely difficult to make proposals that would be seen by Congress as rewarding Russian aggression. The EU and NATO represent a mix of countries with different domestic political situations, but in aggregate their hands are also somewhat tied in terms of the proposals they can make or support.

Being naive in military matters, I thought at one point that Putin’s biggest concern was the naval bases in Crimea and that he would be satisfied with control of Crimea. But military analysts say that the naval bases aren’t all that important.[4] So Putin is seemingly willing to use military force in Ukraine for political reasons, without being driven by concerns about military strategy.

Currently, Moscow is claiming that Kiev is unable to maintain civil order in Ukraine and talking about it’s “duty” to protect Russian citizens in neighboring countries. The West is not doing anything to meet Russia’s concerns about the government in Kiev. Putin doesn’t trust the West, blames it for the current crisis, and wants Ukraine back in its sphere of influence. And Russia is willing to use its military forces. So I think the odds are better than 50/50 that there will be Russian forces in eastern Ukraine in the next couple of weeks.

*****************

After writing the first draft of this, I checked for recent news of Ukraine, and discovered that The Daily Beast is reporting that Russia has special ops forces in Ukraine.[5]

1. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/12/AR2007021200555.html
2. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/02/crimea-crisis-russia-ukraine-cold-war
3. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/03/12/why-washington-and-moscow-keep-talking-past-each-other/?wprss=rss_politics
4. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/russias-prize-in-crimea-resonates-in-history-but-has-little-strategic-benefit-for-navy/2014 /03/13/39bcc6a2-a9df-11e3-b61e-8051b8b52d06_story.html?tid=hpModule_949fa2b e-8691-11e2-9d71-f0feafdd1394
5. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/03/15/russian-commandos-invade-ukraine.html

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