COMMENTARY | First, Russia got Crimea. Now, violence in eastern Ukraine is playing right into Russian president Vladimir Putin’s hands, with Ukraine’s shaky new government stuck in a Catch-22. Thus far, Ukraine has avoided using force to control masses of armed, pro-Russia protesters who have seized government buildings across eastern regions, instead offering amnesty for those who leave the facilities peacefully. As a result, the new government in Kiev appears weak and hesitant. Now, according to the Washington Post, Kiev is finally sending in its military to wrest control by force. Though the move makes the new government look decidedly tougher, it is fraught with peril.
Russia has tens of thousands of troops massed on the Ukrainian border and may use the deaths of civilian protesters as an excuse to invade. Like with Crimea, it will claim to be protecting ethnic Russians in the region from Ukraine’s “illegal” new government, which was hastily established after Ukraine’s previous pro-Russia president fled the capital in February. Needless to say, it’s been a tough 2014 so far in Ukraine. The year began with growing protests against Ukraine’s pro-Russia administration and now is on the brink of foreign invasion.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that Russia wants violence in eastern Ukraine so it has a pretext to invade. Furthermore, it stands to reason that some of the protesters have incentives, provided by Russia, to provide such violence, which means any actions by Ukraine’s military will result in shooting. And are current “economic sanctions” keeping Putin at bay? Of course not.
The chess board seems set for a Putin coup. Ukraine is set to use force, which will result in shots fired between protesters and Ukrainian forces. If protesters are wounded or killed Putin will instantly make the argument that Ukraine’s military is firing on innocent civilians and will unleash his thousands of better-equipped troops on the ill-equipped Ukrainians. Once the Russian military is in motion there likely won’t be any stopping it.
So what can we do?
Send international peacekeepers. Now. Obviously, Russia would veto any UN peacekeepers, so use someone else. Anyone else. NATO, perhaps.
Why? Because Putin won’t shoot at Westerners. He wants Ukraine because it is an easy target and he has pretexts for action. The possibility of firing on Western peacekeepers, there at the request of the Ukrainian government, is unthinkable even for a wily fox like Putin. He will find an excuse to de-escalate and pull his troops back from the Ukrainian border, knowing he is in an unwinnable situation.
Putin is an opportunist and, when faced with stakes too high, he will fold.