MOSCOW/KIEV – It took Russian President Vladimir Putin just three weeks to annex Crimea. Figuring out what to do with eastern Ukraine might take him longer.
Lacking the the groundswell of support and direct military presence Russia marshaled near the base of its Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, the probability of an outright invasion is below 50 percent, according to Eurasia Group and Teneo Intelligence.
With Russia at risk of the full force of Western economic sanctions, Putin will be content to choke Ukraine’s economy and snarl its politics in the run-up to May 25 presidential elections.
“An operation in eastern Ukraine would be very costly from the military point of view and its success is not guaranteed,” Ruslan Pukhov, an adviser to the Defense Ministry in Moscow and head of the Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said by phone Tuesday. “It will be a much more complicated task than the Crimea operation. Crimea is a peninsula and almost an island, which is easy to close and defend. Eastern Ukraine is a vast territory with transparent borders.”
In a test of wills across Russia’s 1,720-km (1,000-mile) land border with Ukraine, Putin’s government hasn’t tipped its hand on whether a military intervention is an option even as pro-Russian protesters stormed administrative buildings in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk and asked Russia to send in troops.
After staring down U.S. and European sanctions to annex Crimea, Putin has so far focused on turning the economic screws on Ukraine, imposing bans on goods from cheese to chocolate and raising the natural gas price by 80 percent. Putin has parliamentary approval to deploy troops in Ukraine to protect the rights of Russian-speakers and those of Russian heritage.
Additional sanctions targeting Russia’s energy, banking and mining industry are “all on the table” if Russia intervenes further in Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington on Tuesday.
“A Ukrainian invasion would leave Russia mired in conflict,” said Nikolay Sungurovsky, director of military programs at the Razumkov Centre for Economic and Political Studies in Kiev. “The optimal case scenario for the Kremlin will be to help destabilize the political situation in the three eastern regions to enable them to deploy troops in Ukraine without any resistance.”
Russia has as many as 40,000 soldiers stationed along the frontier, according to the U.S. and NATO. Putin says the force is conducting military exercises and will withdraw afterward.
Russia’s military “could accomplish its objectives in between three and five days if directed,” NATO’s top military commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, said in an interview with Reuters and the Wall Street Journal last week.
While Russia’s military is stronger, it won’t be able to take eastern Ukraine without a fight, said Svante Cornell, research director at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program in Stockholm.
“I think there will be serious bloodshed should Russia decide to intervene militarily,” he said. ” The situation is very different from Crimea.”
While deprived of direct military presence in the east, Russian troops across the border have “major psychological impact” that encourages separatists and intimidates Ukraine’s government, said Marcin Zaborowski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw and adviser to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
“We won’t see a classical military operation or the appearance of regular units anytime soon, and if things get worse, you might see unmarked units like those in Crimea,” Zaborowski said by phone from Brussels on Tuesday. “There’ll be a lot of pressure on the defense and security establishments in Kiev not to let east Ukraine go. I don’t think there will be inaction the way we saw in Crimea.”
Days after unidentified gunmen occupied Crimea’s regional parliament on Feb. 27, armed troops wearing uniforms without insignia secured control of the Black Sea peninsula. Following a hastily organized referendum on March 16, Putin put his signature to legislation to absorb the region and its port of Sevastopol from Ukraine.
The swiftness of Crimea’s incorporation was helped by its historical ties with Russia. The peninsula has been home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet since being founded in the 18th century and only became part of Ukraine in 1954 — a gift from then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
In the east, 61 percent are definitely or rather opposed to Russia’s decision to send its army to protest Russian speakers in Ukraine, with 67 percent against in the country’s south, according to a poll by the International Republican Institute. The survey of 1,200 permanent residents of Ukraine was conducted March 14-26 and its margin of error doesn’t exceed 2.8 percentage points.
Russian speakers make up about 77 percent of Crimea’s population of more than 2 million people while accounting for 44 percent in the Kharkiv region, data from the 2001 census show.
The east’s “ethnic Russian population is significantly smaller, there is no direct Russian military presence and the local elites are on the side of the Kiev government,” said Otilia Dhand, vice president at Teneo Intelligence. “That is a combination that significantly curbs Russian prospects of an easy takeover.”