Think of this as a successful plan … redeployed. After the Euromaidan protests overthrew the Viktor Yanukovich government, Crimea suddenly filled up with military forces without insignias that began seizing buildings, roads, and eventually the entire peninsula. The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake reports that US intel has seen Russian special forces and mercenaries infiltrating eastern Ukraine as well as Crimea, and expect more trouble for Kyiv soon:
Russia’s activities in Crimea have been widely described in the west as an invasion. But while some Russian military forces did cross into Ukrainian territory, the Moscow government still claims that all of its military forces in Crimea are abiding by the terms of its agreement with Ukraine.
This, U.S. officials believe, is because Russia is invading Ukraine with its Spetsnaz — the special operations units and battalions attached to both the military and the country’s intelligence agencies.
U.S. intelligence officials now say Russia’s Spetsnaz are expanding into eastern and southern Ukraine, as well. The intelligence report from February assessed that Russian provocateurs would look to instigate low-level street brawls or “skirmishes” in eastern and southern Ukraine. The report also predicted that Russia’s shadow warriors would seek to pay off Ukrainians to attend pro-Russian rallies and in general fan the flames of separatism. And since then, eyewitnesses say, that’s exactly what’s happened.
One U.S. official said the U.S. military intelligence analysts suspect elements of the 45th Spetsnaz regiment of Russia’s military intelligence service known as the GRU were conducting the provocations in Ukraine.
“This is the use of deniable special operators under GRU control to create provocations and really these are quasi-deniable operations,” added John Schindler, a retired NSA counter-intelligence officer and specialist in Russian affairs who now teaches at the U.S. Naval War College.
The intel community warned in late February of an infiltration strategy being deployed, even if they did send mixed signals on their analysis of Russian intent. That doesn’t mean, though, that Russia will rely only on those forces. Their force build-up on the border is “large, and getting larger,” CBS News reported last night after troop movements within Russia looked as though it would double those forces. Russia claims these are only “exercises,” but gave “no firm timetable” on the exercise’s conclusion (via Freedom’s Lighthouse):
These two developments go hand in hand with each other. The purpose of infiltration and sabotage is to provoke a reaction from the Kyiv government in the heavily ethnic-Russian regions, or failing that, to create as much anarchy and chaos as possible. Russian then would claim the need to restore order and protect the Russian-speaking communities in the east, the same pretext for their intervention and seizure of Crimea. It would not be long before the Donetsk and Kharkiv regions would then declare enough autonomy to hold their own plebescites for independence and absorption into the Russian federation.
In case Ukraine is still thinking it can count on Western military assistance in the case of an invasion, the White House made sure to put those hopes to rest:
Obama administration officials said Thursday that they are not considering arming the Ukrainian military, even as they raised alarms about the deployment of Russian forces along that country’s southern and eastern borders. It amounted to another iteration of a pattern observed in the two-year debate over Syria’s civil war, an emerging “Obama doctrine” in which the only pressure tools contemplated in a crisis are nonlethal aid and economic sanctions.
“Nobody wants the outcome here to be a full-bore military conflict between Ukraine and Russia,” said a senior administration official in a conference call with reporters, although he earlier indicated the president was “deeply concerned by the positioning of Russian forces in southern and eastern Ukraine.”
That may well be the correct policy to follow. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and the US has little interest in securing it against Putin by military force — although that certainly runs counter to the spirit of the Budapest Memorandum, if not the letter of the document. However, it’s at least debatable about whether we should proclaim that policy from the White House while Russia builds up its troops on the border. What are the odds that Putin will take that as a green light? I’d say very high indeed.