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An exciting new crisis brewing in Ukraine

There is a threat today that there will be war tomorrow. We are entirely prepared for an escalation,” said Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky last Friday. His head of military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, warned that around 90,000 Russian troops are now deployed in the vicinity of Ukraine, and could invade “from several directions” by January.

Budanov also said that his government has asked several Western countries to send small contingents of military forces to Ukraine to show support (and to get killed and thereby guarantee NATO military backing if there were an actual Russian invasion). Ukraine has also requested air-defense weapons, multi-purpose fighters and naval reinforcements.

NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that Russian use of force against Ukraine would “come at a cost,” without specifying what this would be. The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv issued an alert for Americans in Ukraine over reports of “unusual Russian military activity near Ukraine’s borders and in occupied Crimea.”

And the U.S. State Department let it be known in the usual way (unattributed briefings) that it is considering its options to deter the Kremlin, including sending military advisers and new weapons to Kyiv.

Just in time for winter, an invigorating new crisis pops its head up. It was first discovered by the American intelligence services, which started warning that Russian tanks were moving west several weeks ago. Ukraine played down the reports at first, but now it’s begging for new weapons to resist the allegedly impending  attack.

Here we go again. All the players know the steps of the dance, and some of them even enjoy it. The purpose, however, is obscure.

First, let’s consider the Russian tanks “moving west” and threatening the borders of Ukraine. One significant Russian military force did move west last month: the 41st Combined Arms Army, which was transferred from Novosibirsk in western Siberia to Yelnya, southwest of Moscow.

That puts it 280 km from the Ukrainian frontier, which is not exactly breathing down the necks of the Ukrainians. The Russian troops that really are near Ukraine’s borders in the east and in the Crimean peninsula are exactly where they were before this ‘crisis.’

So why did the 41st Combined Arms Army (around 30,000 soldiers) move almost 4,000 km. west last month? Here’s a clue. It’s now 280 km north of the Ukrainian border, but it’s less than 100 km from the border of Belarus.

It’s not there to invade Belarus right now, of course. ‘President’ Alexander Lukashenko, still clinging to power there after rigging an election last year and crushing the massive protest movement that ensued, is a longstanding Russian ally. The 41st Army’s job is to keep Lukashenko in power if it can, and to ensure that his successor is friendly to Moscow if he falls.

That didn’t work for Russian president Vladimir Putin in the case of Ukraine, where not one but two different pro-Moscow leaders have been overthrown by popular revolutions and the current leadership wants to join NATO (which is essentially an anti-Russian alliance). It may not work in the Belarusian case either – but that’s why the 41st Army is on the Belarusian border.

So there’s no threatening build-up on Ukraine’s border – nor would Russia have an easy time invading Ukraine even if there were. Russia has three times Ukraine’s population, but its ground forces are not even twice as big (400,000 vs. 255,000). It has many far-flung borders to guard, and half its soldiers are conscripts serving only one year.

True, Russian air power is much superior to Ukraine’s, so it might win in the end if NATO did not intervene militarily (and NATO wouldn’t do that – nobody wants a nuclear war). But it would be colossally stupid for Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine, and he is not a stupid man.

He would end up occupying a country of 45 million people most of whom resent the Russian occupation so much that a big, long guerrilla war would be almost inevitable. He would face a rejuvenated NATO that posed a real threat to Russia from borders far closer to Moscow than those of the old  Cold War, plus a crippling full-spectrum trade embargo.

There has been some rhetorical sabre-rattling from Moscow recently, but NATO has also been pushing the Russians hard: American and British warships in the Black Sea coming very close to Russian-occupied Crimea, U.S. nuclear-capable bombers doing the same, and sales of advanced Western weapons to the Ukrainians.

The Kremlin is just as suspicious and frightened of the West now as it was at the height of the Cold War. That does not excuse Putin’s behaviour towards Ukraine, but if the ‘Western media’ just go on printing the handouts, everything will seem to be under control until one day somebody makes a serious mis-step in the dance, and everything goes very badly wrong.

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