Russia advances into Ukraine, West wonders what to do now

Instead of pulling back from the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russia appears to be escalating its involvement. More sanctions seem unlikely to bend Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama talks about the economy, Iraq, and Ukraine, Thursday in the White House press briefing room.

The toughened economic sanctions the United States and the European Union imposed on Russia a month ago over its actions in Ukraine appear to have had little of the desired impact.

Instead of pulling back from the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russia appears to be escalating its involvement. On Thursday, Western officials asserted that more than 1,000 Russian soldiers have crossed the border into southeastern Ukraine to bolster beleaguered pro-Russia separatists.

That action quickly raised questions concerning what more and what kind of action the West is likely to take in response. And the quick answer appears to be: not much.

“There’ll be lots more tough talk, but the question remains what that does for Ukraine in the short term,” says Olga Oliker, a Russia expert at the RAND Corp. in Washington.

At the White House, President Obama declared Russia “responsible for the violence in eastern Ukraine,” but he stopped short of seconding Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s assertion that Russia’s action constitutes an “invasion” of his country.

Instead, Mr. Obama described Russia’s latest moves as a “continuation of what been happening for months now.” He called Thursday’s move “a little more overt, but … not really a shift.”

Obama suggested tougher sanctions from the US and European Union on Russia will be in the pipeline, but he reaffirmed that direct military intervention by the West is off the table.

Even the idea of providing Ukraine with more sophisticated weaponry to defend its borders elicits mixed reactions from Western powers, since it would put the West and Western Europe in particular on a slippery path to conflict with Russia.

Earlier this month the Obama administration informed Congress of its intention to equip, train, and provide small arms to the Ukraine National Guard. Even that step resulted in Russian accusations of US “complicity in genocide.” Canada has committed to providing helmets and vests to the Ukraine military.

But more arms may not be what Ukraine needs, anyway. “Ukraine’s problem is not a lack of guns, it’s a lack of military capabilities,” Ms. Oliker says, adding that such abilities are not something that can be provided in a quick-fix military assistance package. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph used an incorrect honorific with the last name Oliker.]

That leaves more sanctions – even that seems unlikely to bend Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“What we’re going to see is more sanctions, and more reassurances to the neighbors and NATO allies that are concerned about Russian behavior,” Oliker says. “But the reality is that if Russia wants to keep making a mess in Ukraine, and wants to make that mess worse, it’s going to keep doing it.”

American and European officials joined Ukraine’s leaders Thursday in asserting that more than 1,000 Russian troops had crossed the border, including in an area along the southern Ukraine-Russian border away from the heaviest concentration of fighting in eastern Ukraine. Going further, some rebel leaders claimed that between 3,000 and 4,000 Russian soldiers were now fighting on their side.

Russia’s objective in opening a southern front may be to draw Ukrainian forces and focus away from besieged eastern cities, including Donetsk and Luhansk, where Ukrainian forces have steadily gained ground and momentum against the separatists, some military analysts say. More broadly, the aim may be to keep Ukraine destabilized and unable to move forward and implement the cooperation agreement it recently signed with the European Union.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was “alarmed” at reports of Russia’s incursion into southern Ukraine, which he said if proven would constitute a “dangerous escalation of the crisis in Ukraine.”

The UN Security Council met Thursday afternoon on the Ukraine crisis at the request of Lithuania – one of the Baltic countries worried about Russia’s growing regional assertiveness.

In her comments to the council, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said that given the threat that Russia’s actions pose not just to Ukraine but to “international order,” simply speaking and not taking “action” against Russia would be “intolerable.”

But she did not suggest what action should be taken.

Ambassador Power said Russia’s increasingly blatant actions meant that “the mask is coming off” its “deliberate effort to support, and now fight alongside, illegal separatists in another sovereign country.”

In response to Power, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, advised the US to “restrain your geopolitical ambitions. Countries around the world would breathe a sigh of relief.”

In addition, he blamed the conflict in Ukraine on the government in Kiev, accusing it of “conducting a war against its own people.”

Exactly what Russia is up to remains unclear, but openly sending soldiers and sophisticated equipment into Ukraine would indeed represent a new level of escalation in the conflict, analysts say.

“If Russia did send in these forces, it’s overkill,” says RAND’s Oliker. “If the only thing [the Russians] wanted to do was destabilize Ukraine, they could do it at a much lower cost.”

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