Michael R. Gorden, Eric Schmidt — New York Times August 4, 2014
Russia has roughly doubled the number of its battalions near the Ukrainian border, Western officials said Monday, and could respond to the Kiev government’s gains there by launching a cross-border incursion with little or no warning.
Over the past several weeks, Russia has built up 17 battalions — totaling 19,000 to 21,000 troops, according to one Western estimate — into a battle-ready force of infantry, armor, artillery and air defense within a few miles of the border. In addition, it has vastly expanded its firepower, increasing the number of advanced surface-to-air missile units to 14 from eight, and deploying more than 30 artillery batteries, according to the officials.
The Kremlin’s intentions in increasing its military abilities remain unclear. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia could be seeking to pressure Ukraine and the United States to agree to a political settlement that would grant the eastern provinces of Ukraine maximum autonomy. But Mr. Putin, Western officials fear, may also be developing the option to intervene more directly if it appears that the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine are on the verge of defeat.
American intelligence experts say that the advance by Ukrainian government forces on Donetsk and other steps that the Ukrainian government is taking to regain territory in the east from the separatists might prompt Mr. Putin to send his forces across the border under the guise of a “peacekeeping operation.”
“That’s a very real option,” a senior Defense Department official said on Monday. “And should Putin decide, he could do that with little or no notice. We just don’t know what he’s thinking.”
Another senior American official added, “The more success Ukrainian forces have, the more pressure there is on Moscow to escalate.”
Adding to the concern, the buildup coincides with a newly announced Russian air force and air defense exercise. When it intervened in Crimea this year, Russia used a military exercise to mask its preparations.
The Russian moves suggest that the Kremlin and the West are each responding to the standoff over Ukraine by turning to the tools they know best.
For President Obama and European leaders, the tool is calibrated economic sanctions, targeted to affect banks close to the Kremlin or narrow subsectors of the Russian economy, like Russia’s long-term ability to develop new Arctic, deep sea and shale oil reserves.
But for Mr. Putin, the tool is the Kremlin’s ability to marshal raw military power and, increasingly, its willingness to use it.
Less than a week after the Obama administration and European nations announced new sanctions, the Kremlin has expanded its military ability to provide cover fire for the separatists by firing artillery and rockets across the border into Ukraine. And it holds out the possibility of intervening directly.
Wesley K. Clark, the retired general and former NATO commander, said that Mr. Putin had put the pieces in place for a major military intervention by massing Russia forces near the border, arming separatist groups, infiltrating operatives, conducting exercises to practice the military’s ability to coordinate fire and supporting the self-proclaimed mayor of Luhansk, who has called for the Russian military to come to the separatists’ aid.
But the risks to Mr. Putin of intervening, General Clark noted, include tougher Western economic sanctions, resistance by the Ukrainian forces and Western military support for the Kiev government.
“He has set the military and political conditions for what he believes could be a successful intervention,” General Clark said. “But he still doesn’t seem to have made the political decision to do this, perhaps because he recognizes that the risks after an intervention are incalculable.”
If Mr. Putin did decide to intervene, one plausible outcome highlighted by General Clark and Phillip A. Karber, a former adviser to Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, is the possibility of a “peacekeeping” intervention at the request of the Ukrainian separatists whom Moscow has been arming and supporting politically.