It's Not the Ukrainian Army That's Keeping Putin Out

With authorization from his parliament and 40,000 troops on the border, Russia is not giving up on pulling Ukraine back into its sphere of influence.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A column of combat vehicles with a Russian flag on the front one makes its way to the town of Kramatorsk on Wednesday, April 16, 2014.
A column of combat vehicles with a Russian flag on the front one makes its way to the town of Kramatorsk on Wednesday, April 16, 2014.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The shameful footage from the city of Slaviansk showing columns of Ukrainian armored personnel carriers blocked by pro-Russian protestors and forced to surrender their vehicles and weapons should not surprise anyone. The military forces sent to the east of the country by the government in Kiev suffer from all of Ukraine's characteristic problems since it gained independence in 1991: a lack of national cohesiveness, penetration by Russian elements at all levels, endemic corruption, low pay, ageing infrastructure and hostility and suspicion toward the government, any government, in Kiev.

There was no reason to expect the Ukrainian military to function any better than the failing country it serves, especially when taking into account that it grew out of the Red Army and many of its officers continue to see the comrades from across the border as brothers in arms. On Tuesday, Ukrainian special forces succeeded in retaking an airbase near Kramatorsk, but every attempt to move out and retake government buildings in the area was doomed to failure. Every movement of a military convoy is monitored in advance, most likely thanks to informants among the soldiers and intercepted by protestors flying the Russian flag and armed separatists. The soldiers and junior officers on the APCs have only two choices, to surrender, or proceed by force risking mass bloodshed. It's unclear how many of the soldiers surrendered willfully or out of lack of alternatives; whatever the cause the result was the same. The Ukrainian military had little to do but carry out flyovers the heads of separatists. The jets didn't fire either. Meanwhile the Kremlin is watching with satisfaction.

Reports of Russian special forces operatives embedded in the ranks of the separatists are unverified but their level of coordination in the overtaking of government buildings, blocking Ukrainian convoys, and the amount of weapons and military equipment they are using leaves no doubt that they are being directed and aided by Russia. Forty thousand Russian troops along with tanks and ground-attack aircraft are on alert on the border not far away, but the invasion has not yet taken place.

It's hard to believe that these forces would have been deployed on the border for a month and a half now if Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has already been granted the authority by the Russian parliament, had not intended on ordering them into Ukraine. Western intelligence analysts expected the Russians to invade already two weeks ago, but Putin has yet to give the order.

There could be a number of reasons for his hesitation. The warning from the West, which was caught unprepared by the Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea two months ago, are slowly becoming more serious. The economic sanctions announced so far by the United States and the European Union are relatively minor but their existence holds the threat for more serious ones if an invasion does comes. The Ukrainian crisis has already affected Russia's fragile economy. Last month the main Russian shares index in Moscow plummeted by 10 percent and the Ruble has lost nine percent of its value in the first quarter of 2014. Investors have pulled around $70 billion out of Russia during this period. Putin needs to maintain economic stability to ensure his regime.

And there are other signs that invading eastern Ukraine will be a lot harder than annexing Crimea. The Ukrainian Army, for all its failings, is now deployed along the border and in recent days is receiving American intelligence regarding the whereabouts and intentions of the Russian forces. After long weeks of prevarication from the Obama administration over intelligence-sharing, for among other reasons, the fear that whatever is passed on to Kiev will swiftly find its way to Moscow, the visit of CIA Director John Brennan this weekend has established new channels for the transferring of information to be passed on to Ukraine. If Russia invades, it will be faced this time with much more efficient opposition.

But the swift and well-coordinated operation by the separatists in eastern Ukraine is proof that even though Putin has suspended his invasion plans for now, he is not giving up on his overarching objective, to destabilize the neighboring government and pull Ukraine as soon as possible back into the Kremlin's sphere of influence.

Ukrainian soldiers stand blocked inside their base by Russian troops in Perevalnoye, on March 6, 2014.Credit: AFP

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