Ukraine Conflict Escalation May Yield Stronger NATO Moves

Ukraine’s offensive against pro-Russian separatists may have escalated the conflict to the point where NATO could be compelled to mount a stronger show of force to deter any Russian moves beyond eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian troops retook an airfield and government buildings from armed pro-Russia separatists in the restive east yesterday. White House spokesman Jay Carney said that while the U.S. administration is considering military assistance to Ukraine, lethal aid isn’t an option.

The two Ukrainian operations in the eastern Donetsk region have rattled eastern European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and that will require the 28-member military alliance to deploy defensive forces to member countries such as Poland, said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

“You’re not going to see large deployments of troops, but I think that you will see a greater military presence by NATO countries in central Europe, and perhaps even in the Baltic states,” said Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy research organization.

That increased military presence will be “designed to reassure those countries of NATO’s defense commitment, but also to send a signal to Moscow, which is going to be something along the lines of: ’NATO does not have a security commitment to Ukraine, but don’t misunderstand the fact that NATO does not fight for Ukraine to mean that NATO is not prepared to fight to defend NATO members,’” Pifer said in a telephone interview.

’Wild’ Backlash

Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov yesterday authorized the offensive against armed militants -- whom he said included Russian special forces -- who occupied government buildings in cities including Donetsk, a regional center about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the Russian border. This was the first time the interim Ukrainian government has used force since it came to power in February.

Ukraine had no option other than to wage a military operation because the backlash in Kiev “is pretty wild,” said Ievgen Vorobiov, an analyst at the Warsaw-based Polish Institute of Foreign Affairs, by phone from the Ukrainian capital.

“The public are genuinely outraged that nothing was done to people who are committing terrorist acts,” Vorobiov said. “So the government’s hand was forced into a very uncomfortable decision, even if it fits into the Russian plan.”

Sam Charap, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia in the Washington office of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the Ukrainian authorities were “damned” whether they did or didn’t decide to use force.

Inaction Risk

“If they don’t act, the risk is there’s no perceived cost, and that’s not a good thing from Ukraine’s perspective, in terms of rule of law,” Charap said in a phone interview.

There also is the question of the interim government’s credibility, he said, “not just domestically, but internationally in terms of who is governing that part of the country.”

U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top military commander, will present his plans for strengthening collective security in Europe today to the North Atlantic Council, the alliance’s political body.

Barry Pavel, a former career U.S. Defense Department official who served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said he’d be surprised if Breedlove’s plans for reassurance and deterrence don’t include deploying ground forces to eastern European NATO members such as Poland, Lithuania or Latvia.

More Assets

“You’ll see a brigade doing rotational presence, for example,” said Pavel. “You’ll see a squadron of aircraft, moving through here and there. You’ll see a bigger grouping of naval ships, maybe a Marine unit -- the Marines in particular have a good relationship with Romania.”

“You’ll see pre-positioned materiel, I’ve been hearing this, which is: ’Let’s put a bunch of ground equipment back in Europe so that an army unit can quickly meet up with it in a crisis, and then use it and move to a contingency location,’” said Pavel, director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group.

The Obama administration cut the U.S. Army’s force in Europe in half early in 2012, withdrawing two of the four brigades stationed on the continent, or some 10,000 troops plus their support personnel, as part of an effort to reduce the Army’s size.

Stationing Troops

Pifer of Brookings said Russia’s annexation of Crimea last month revived a 1997 debate within NATO on the need to station combat troops on the territory of new members.

“My understanding is that a number of NATO states have said, ‘The circumstances have changed, it’s time to revisit that,’” he said.

While the U.S. supports Ukraine’s use of force against armed pro-Russia separatists, it continues to encourage the interim government in Kiev to exercise restraint, said two U.S. officials. The officials said their Ukrainian counterparts have been told that if their forces overstep and provoke an overt Russian military reaction, America and its European allies would have no military option to assist Ukraine.

Instead, the officials said, the U.S. and its allies are continuing to follow a two-track approach -- preparing for talks tomorrow in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart, Andriy Deshchytsia, and simultaneously planning harsh new economic sanctions to penalize President Vladimir Putin’s regime for infiltrating special forces and intelligence officers to foment violence in parts of Ukraine.

Empty Chair

The officials said that if Russia pulls out of the Geneva talks, one option that’s been discussed is to proceed anyway and leave Lavrov’s chair empty during the usual photo opportunities to highlight Putin’s disinterest in serious negotiations.

Efforts by the U.S. and NATO to respond to the growing unrest in Ukraine have been hampered by a dearth of timely, reliable and independent intelligence, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive policy deliberations.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, one of the officials said, the U.S. and its allies largely abandoned much of their Cold War effort to recruit spies in Russia and in former Soviet republics such as Ukraine, instead relying on satellites, electronic eavesdropping and other remote technology to monitor Russia’s nuclear weapons and other military targets.

While satellite photos and other technical intelligence have revealed the Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders, one of the officials said, they’ve provided no insight into whether and how Putin intends to use his forces.

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