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Ukraine Makes Good on Threats to Pounce on Russian Protesters

Over the past three days, officials in Kiev have fumed as pro-Russian activists seized government buildings in several eastern Ukrainian cities. They vowed to strike back, issued ultimatums for the activists to depart the buildings, and then let those deadlines lapse. On Tuesday, Kiev finally delivered on its threats.

Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov announced that his armed forces had launched an “anti-terrorist” operation against activists and gunmen who have seized government buildings and an airport. On cue, Ukrainian forces rolled east. And as has been the case throughout the Ukrainian protest -- from the revolts on the Maidan to the chaos in Crimea -- the whole thing played out on YouTube.

In one of the more dramatic scenes of the day, video emerged of a group of men attempting to stop a Ukrainian tank outside Sloviansk. It’s exactly as crazy as it sounds:

Near Donetsk, a similar scene played out when a Ukrainian military convoy tried to make progress on a road crowded with onlookers.

Here, near Sloviansk, Ukrainian troops received a warmer welcome:

Elsewhere, Ukrainian forces happily talked to the media while posing in front of their armored personnel carriers. Here, a soldier talks to RT near Izium, where Ukrainian forces appear to have staged before launching an assault on the airport near Kramatorsk, which had been seized by pro-Russian forces.

A fighter jet, by all appearances an Su-30, could also be seen in the area:

While conflicting reports emerged from Kramatorsk, Ukrainian forces appeared to have gained control of the airbase. Ukrainian forces said they clashed with some 30 gunmen at the small base, but reports of casualties were conflicting. The Ukrainian government claimed there were none, while Russian media claimed that between four and 11 had been killed in the operation. By evening a large, angry separatist crowd had gathered outside the base. Many of them are reportedly quite drunk and are swearing at the Ukrainian soldiers who now control the base.

With Ukrainian forces having mobilized, Tuesday's events represented an escalation of the crisis in eastern Ukraine. According to Yulia Tymoshenko, the country's former prime minister and candidate for president, the country is already at war with Russia. "We have to tell the Ukrainians the truth: the Russian Federation is waging a real war against Ukraine in the east, in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in particular," she said Tuesday.

U.S. officials have claimed that Russia has deployed agents in Ukraine's east to provoke unrest and provide a pretense for Russian forces massed on Ukraine's border to invade. Speaking in Beijing, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov condemned Kiev's attempt to calm unrest. "You can't send in tanks and at the same time hold talks. The use of force would sabotage the opportunity offered by the four-party negotiations in Geneva," he said, referring to talks between Russia, the United States, the EU, and Ukraine, that are scheduled for Thursday.

Should Russian forces cross the Ukrainian border, there are several possible scenarios that could play out. They could claim a limited swath of territory in the south and east, opening a land corridor to Crimea or attempt a broader land grab and seize large portions of the country east of the Dnieper.

According to Igor Sutyagin, a fellow at Royal United Services Institute who has written about the Russian military's plans in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin probably has not decided on a course of action. "Putin is a tactician. He does not know what he will do," Sutyagin said in an interview. "Many want to believe that Putin has some sort of plan. The problem is that he does not, and that is even more dangerous. The problem is that he reacts to opportunities that he very often gets wrong."

 

ANASTASIA VLASOVA

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What Would Russian Troops Do Once They Cross the Ukrainian Border?

If Russia decides to invade eastern Ukraine, extending its grip on its neighbor's territory from the Crimean peninsula to its eastern and southern provinces, how would it do so?

Since Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, the prospect of a full-fledged Russian invasion has gained new currency with Ukraine's government locked in a bitter stand-off with separatists in the country's east. Pro-Russian activists and gunmen have seized government buildings there, and while the government in Kiev has pledged to oust them, that ultimatum has so far gone unenforced.

Many observers speculate that the seizure of government buildings have come at the behest of Moscow -- senior U.S. officials have claimed as much -- in order to stir up a pretext for invasion. Once Moscow's agents have sowed sufficient chaos, the thinking goes, Russian forces will swoop in from their positions just outside Ukraine's borders and restore the peace, selling their invasion as a peacekeeping mission.

But what will Russian forces do once they cross the Ukrainian border? In a little-noticed and increasingly prescient report from earlier this month, analysts at the Royal United Services Institute, a defense think tank, lay out a series of scenarios spelling out possible courses of actions for Russian troops invading the eastern and southern provinces of Ukraine.

While a Russian invasion of Ukraine is far from certain, recent events in Ukraine mirror events in the lead up to the stealth invasion of Crimea. And even if predictions of a Russian invasion do not come true, these scenarios provide a framework for considering Moscow's military options.

According the authors of the report -- Igor Sutyagin, a research fellow at RUSI, and Michael Clarke, the institute's director general -- Russia has some 50,000 troops lined up against roughly 70,000 Ukrainian troops. While Ukraine possesses a numerical advantage in troops, Kiev's forces are "poorly equipped and would struggle to mobilise fully." "In the event of a military clash," the report notes, "its formations would be locally outnumbered and certainly outgunned by Russian forces and their reserves."

The map below presents a rough guide to the location of Russian troops massed along Ukraine's borders. As the report notes, the Polessya Group and Northern Group are poised to strike quickly at Kiev. While reports on Monday indicate that Ukrainian commanders have shifted their forces east to crack down on separatists in the east, Russian forces along the northern border prevent them from moving east in greater numbers. Moreover, as seen further below on the map tracking Ukrainian troops deployments from early this month, its forces are already heavily clustered in the west.

Under the first scenario laid out by the report, Russian troops have been placed in large numbers along Ukraine's border in order to force Kiev and the West to acquiesce to Moscow's land gains in Crimea. According to this line of thinking, Russian troops won't cross the border and "would be stood down quite quickly once the political process has given Putin the recognition of his fait accompli over the Crimea." Recent unrest in Ukraine points to the unlikelihood of this scenario. Moreover, the report's authors consider this scenario less probable given the placement of Ministry of Interior troops on high alert, whose purpose is typically to pacify local populations.

Under a more aggressive scenario, "Russian forces would covertly support, or even engineer, civil unrest throughout south-east Ukraine and use that as a pretext for opening the secure land corridor to Crimea through Donetsk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts." As shown on the map above, the Donbass Group and troops stationed in Crimea would likely move to secure that territory.

Under the third scenario, "unrest and separatist pressures in south and eastern Ukraine, real or manufactured, may present a dangerous, but nevertheless tempting opportunity to split the country in two, south and east of the Dnieper River." As the map indicates, Russian forces are well-positioned to execute such a split.

But Russia could go even further than that and carve out a "western corridor from Transnistria in Moldova into Crimea through Odessa and Mykolaiv Oblasts, which would encompass the historic city of Odessa itself." Such a move would create a southern arc of Russian territory in Ukraine, uniting the pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria with newly claimed Russian lands. (As my colleague Christian Caryl reports from Odessa, residents of that city aren't exactly enthused at the prospect of incorporation into Russia.)

So how are Ukrainian troops poised to respond to these threats? In short, not well. Recent reports have Ukrainian troops moving east, but it is unclear whether they are redeploying in large numbers. And even if they effectively shift ahead of a Russian military incursion, they would likely be outmatched by their opponents.

For all this prognosticating, it remains highly unclear which of these scenarios is most likely to play out. For now, we remain somewhere between scenarios one and two, with Russian troops holding along the eastern borders to secure their land gains in Crimea and Russian agents stirring up trouble in the east as a potential justification for a future invasion.

Several geopolitical factors, the authors argue, make some of these scenarios more likely than others. As the report notes, Russia would greatly ease Crimea's isolation by securing a land corridor between Russian territory and the peninsula. Moreover, by securing a land corridor to Crimea, Russia would end a dispute over the Kerch Strait and secure exclusive access for Gazprom to energy deposits in the Sea of Azov. Moreover, key elements of the Russian defense industry -- including its missile programs -- rely on Ukrainian suppliers in the country's east. Its SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles, for example, are designed and manufactured in Dnepropetrovsk on the Dnieper River.

But whether that indicates Russia will pursue the most aggressive options available to it, is far from certain."It could be argued that since most of the military plants in question are in south and east Ukraine, the temptation to follow the third and fourth scenarios will be all the greater," the report says. "To suggest these scenarios for the sake of capturing the production at these various plants would be a very nineteenth-century way of looking at a twenty-first century relationship. However, even that cannot be ruled out in current circumstances."

GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images