Will the Russian Military Move Beyond Crimea?

Steven Pifer

Former US Ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer

The former US Ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, considers Putin’s next moves:

Over the past five days, Russian military forces have seized control of Crimea, fanning out around the peninsula to occupy major airports and establish checkpoints. After former president Victor Yanukovych fled Ukraine on February 21, analysts assumed that Moscow would take steps to destabilize the new government in Kyiv. But most expected the Russians to apply economic pressure, such as raising the price of natural gas or cutting off Ukrainian imports. Instead, Vladimir Putin resorted to military force, employing Black Sea Fleet units that were already in Crimea and pouring in thousands of additional troops. Thus far, Ukrainian forces in Crimea have exercised great restraint. They have remained on their bases, have not used their weapons, and have given the Russian military no cause to use force. A tense standoff continues outside several Ukrainian installations on the peninsula.

Will Moscow limit its military action to Crimea? Russia’s propaganda machine appears to be creating a pretext for a broader intervention in eastern Ukraine. For example, Russian authorities claim that, over the past two months, 675,000 Ukrainians have fled to Russia. That would be 1.5 percent of Ukraine’s population, but no one has seen any sign of such a mass movement. Moreover, the Russian military has been conducting a major exercise north of Ukraine, fueling worries about Moscow’s intentions. There are good reasons, however, to think that this is bluster and that the Russian army will not enter eastern Ukraine. Some Ukrainian units would fight. Such a large operation would pose a much tougher military challenge than Georgia, which the Russians defeated in 2008. Among other things, while the Ukrainian army is under-resourced, it is many times the size of the Georgian army. Ukrainian nationalists, moreover, would likely flock to the east to attack the invading troops. It could become very messy—and that should discourage Mr. Putin from such an escalation… assuming that he will not surprise us as he did in Crimea.

Steven Pifer is a former ambassador to Ukraine whose career as a foreign service officer centered on Europe, the former Soviet Union and arms control. He is director of the Brookings Institution Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative and a senior fellow with the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings Institute.  He most recently wrote for 2paragraphs about the geopolitical battle in Ukraine.