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Ukraine: The Russian Danger Zone

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Tensions are subsiding in Crimea even as they are building in the pro-Russian provinces of Eastern Ukraine. Moscow has kept substantial forces in place near the border long after the conclusion of scheduled military exercises, including tanks, mechanized infantry, paratroopers and plenty of tactical aircraft. This is the sort of combined arms force that Russian doctrine calls for to wage a successful military offensive against a conventional enemy.

Meanwhile, the Russian economy is beginning to feel the bite of the sanctions imposed upon it, as well as the natural risk aversion of investors. Billions have been pulled out of the Russian stock exchange, foreign direct investment is drying up, and the United States has specifically mentioned the possibility of targeting the critical energy and financial sectors if Russia enters Eastern Ukraine. Although the Russians would undoubtedly react harshly to such an escalation,  for example by seizing Western assets in Russia valued at $500 billion, there is no doubt that a united set of sanctions by Europe and the United States would at this time hurt Russia more than Russian countermeasures would hurt the West. Although Russia is attempting to realign its oil and gas sales towards Asia, these new distribution channels are not yet fully online and the Asian markets not yet fully able to replace lost sales to Europe. It is also doubtful if anyone would be willing to replace the lost foreign direct investment if Russia continues down the path of revanchisme, and Russian industry depends on this investment for Western technical and managerial expertise at least as much as for project financing.

So Russian troops have not crossed the border, but have not returned to their barracks yet either while President Putin weighs the costs and benefits of moving against Eastern Ukraine. His domestic political gains would be great, but temporary, while the economic damage of sanctions could last much longer. If the economy enters recession and stays there, the man on the street will eventually begin to grumble: re-annexing bits of Mother Russia is wildly popular, but it doesn’t feed the kids or heat the house. There is nothing Mr. Putin fears more than a “Color Revolution” at home and, like every autocrat, he knows that his foundation of power depends on him delivering a minimally acceptable standard of living to his people. He also knows the vulnerability of the Russian Federal Budget to the profits of the energy sector – if Western sanctions begin to make significant inroads in these, Moscow will find itself unable to fund its military modernization program nor its generous public benefits and subsidies that keep Russian citizens docile and content (as they do in all countries).

Nor would absorbing Eastern Ukraine help him economically. The Donbas region is the second most heavily populated region of the country and home to much of Ukraine’ heavy industry, manufacturing and coal mining. It comprises the arc from Luhansk to Donetsk and Mariupol, forming a great salient into Russian territory. While the loss of the Donbas would hurt Ukraine’s economy severely, it would hardly benefit Russia: the latter has no need of additional coal resources and the Soviet-era industries are totally uncompetitive in world markets. Indeed, the region would be very expensive to maintain, even more so than Crimea, due to the much larger population. Subsidizing Eastern Ukraine may be more than the Russians can afford.

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Yet economic arguments rarely prove decisive where nationalist fervor and sentiment drives decision-making. President Putin might find himself captive to events, or he may feel that it is a question of “now or never”. He may fear that a Ukraine without Crimea will move decisively towards integration with Europe and NATO, and that the Ukrainian defense forces can only get stronger. If so, we are passing through a “danger zone” when military intervention is most likely to occur: the Russians cannot keep a substantial portion of their army on a war footing forever.

I believe the most likely window of opportunity for a Russian intervention is between 23 June and 15 July as the following table shows:

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It may seem trite to link world sporting events to great geopolitical crises, but the reasoning is not as illogical as it may appear at first glance. Autocrats have traditionally given exorbitant weight to international sporting events far out of proportion to their real importance or benefit. Think of Hitler and the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the 1980 Moscow Games, and the emphasis placed on both the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2014 Sochi Olympics as testimonies to the strength and modernity of those regimes.

Besides, what better time to invade your neighbor than when most of the planet is viscerally engaged in the world’s greatest sporting competition (yes, the World Cup is bigger than the Olympics)? No one is going to care so long as their national team is still in the competition, so Western leaders are going to find it difficult to mobilize much public support until after the competition.

Russia plays in the World Cup this year. They are in Group H, together with Belgium, Algeria and South Korea. The Russians have a good chance of passing the group stage and moving into the play-offs. Russia plays its last game of the group stage against Algeria on the 26th of June, though they could be eliminated by the end of the second game on the 22nd of June against Belgium. A disastrous performance by the Russian national team could therefore open the “danger zone” as early as the 23rd of June and lasting slightly beyond the end of the competition on the 13th of July.

There is a second danger zone in August, when European leaders are too busy with their holiday plans to worry much about foreign affairs. When this window closes at the beginning of September, Ukraine begins to see light at the end of the tunnel. The fall is not a good time to be campaigning in Ukrainian countryside. Even though the country’s infrastructure is far more developed than it was during the Second World War, the autumn rains still turn the vast fields into seas of mud, known as rasputitsa. Armored columns can’t stay exclusively on roads and Russia depends on a quick campaign to secure victory, so the autumn and winter months are unlikely to be favorable times for an invasion.

So keep one eye on your national team and another on CNN – we might see more than just o jogo bonito during Brazil’s World Cup.

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