Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine just got more likely. Here's why.

Pro-Russian protesters wave Russian flags from the main government building in Donetsk, Ukraine. Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images

Ever since Russian troops annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in mid-March, people have been worried that Russia could try to push into eastern Ukraine as well. Like Crimea, parts of eastern Ukraine are majority Russian-speaking and having historical ties to Russia, so it stood to reason they could be next. That didn't immediately happen, but since Sunday it has very rapidly started to look more likely. Here's why.

1) The chain of events looks a lot like what happened in Crimea

On Sunday, pro-Russian protests gathered in the regional capitals of Ukraine's three easternmost regions. The protests are calling for independence from Ukraine and include bands of masked men, some of whom have seized government buildings. In at least one of those three regional capitals, the pro-Russia protesters began waving Russian flags. Some of the men are now carrying assault rifles.

That's roughly how Russia's Crimea annexation started: pro-Russia protests appeared, then bands of masked men appeared and seized government buildings, then the bands of men had guns, then the bands grew until it was obvious they were actually Russian military, then the Russian military formally rolled in and occupied Crimea.

This may be a coincidence. Or the protests may be organic and just trying to copy what happened in Crimea, this time without any encouragement from Moscow. But it's hard to ignore the parallels.

2) The pro-Russia protests are in regions that conveniently border Russia

If pro-Russia protests broke out in a region that did not border Russia, then Russian troops would have no way to get there. And it would be much harder for Russia to annex Ukrainian territory that doesn't border its own. Here's a map:


To be clear, the regions that border Russia also tend to have some of the largest Russian-speaking populations, so it may just be a coincidence. But, again, there an awful lots of coincidences happening right now.

3) There are a bunch of Russian troops along the eastern Ukrainian border

In mid-March, Russia's military deployed a number of troops, fighter jets, transport planes, and infantry vehicles to a few different spots along the border between Russia and eastern Ukraine. In fact, the troops just happen to be right near the regions with pro-Russia protesters — in some cases, mere miles from the border. The troops are still there.

4) Ukrainian leaders are convinced Russia is about to invade

"An anti-Ukrainian plan is being put into operation," Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said in public remarks, "under which foreign troops will cross the border and seize the territory of the country."

Yatseniuk's comments were released as part of a cabinet meeting, which means they represent the Ukrainian government's position. Having already been invaded by Russia once, they probably have some idea of what they're talking about.

5) The protesters are calling for a Russian intervention

In one of the three regional capitals, Donetsk, the protesters declared that Donetsk was now an independent republic. But, according to an official "proclamation" issued by the protesters, "In the event of aggressive action from the illegitimate Kiev authorities, we will appeal to the Russian Federation to bring in a peacekeeping contingent." Kind of like in Crimea.

Pro-Russia protesters in another one of the seized capitals are calling for a referendum like the one that Crimea held to declare independence from Ukraine and join Russia. (Crimea was under Russian military occupation at the time.)

6) Russia is making very difficult demands to Ukraine

Russia's foreign ministry released a statement referencing the pro-Russia protests and saying that Ukraine needed to institute a federal system, which would give the Russian-speaking eastern regions more autonomy and special privileges for the Russian language. If Ukraine didn't do this, the statement warned, "it is hard to expect long-term stabilization of the Ukrainian state."

Like with everything else on this list, there is a straightforward reading of this that says Russia is just plain worried about Ukraine and thinks federalism is the right solution. Then there's the more skeptical reading that wonders if Russia is issuing potentially unworkable demands to Ukraine and warning of the state's instability as a pretense to "solving" the problem themselves by intervening.

In all, any one of these six items would not be too alarming. But, taken in total, it's hard to see all of them as purely innocent.

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