Russia looks to be rolling into Ukraine again. “We have seen columns of Russian equipment, primarily Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air-defense systems and Russian combat troops entering into Ukraine,” NATO’s top military commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said in Bulgaria on Wednesday.
The accusation, which was denied by the Kremlin, dovetails with Ukrainian government reports that separatists and their Russian backers have begun massing in the rebel-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. That could reignite the warfare that broke out in eastern Ukraine over the summer, when NATO and others reported that more than 1,000 Russian troops and combat equipment had entered the country to reinforce the separatists.
The Russian forces appeared to withdraw after that—so why might they have come back now? Here are four reasons, both political and practical.
• First, the political. Ukraine’s Oct. 26 parliamentary elections produced a landslide for pro-Western parties, with a pro-Russian bloc winning less than 10 percent of the popular vote. The result was “a slap in the face to the Kremlin,” which seeks to keep Ukraine within its orbit, says Joerg Forbrig, program director with the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. in Berlin. In stirring a new military confrontation with the government in Kiev, President Vladimir Putin seeks “to undermine, weaken, and challenge that government,” Forbrig says.
• One practical concern for the Kremlin is that pro-Russian rebels don’t have an ironclad grip on eastern Ukraine. Even in their strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, they don’t control such key assets as the Donetsk airport. Nor do they control the port city of Mariupol. “There is a push now to militarily create an entity that is more sustainable logistically,” Forbrig says.
• Crimea is an additional Kremlin worry. It’s been annexed by Moscow but has no land connection to Russia, which has to supply it by sea and air. Putin might try to “punch through a corridor by force,” opening a supply route via eastern Ukraine, Igor Bunin of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow told Bloomberg News last week. The situation in the next few weeks “could get pretty hairy” around Mariupol, a vital port controlled by Ukraine’s military, analyst Otilia Dhand of Teneo Intelligence in London told Bloomberg.
• Putin may also be trying to reassert Russian influence over the Ukrainian rebel movement, which “has developed a bit of a life of its own” and can’t always be counted on to do his bidding, Forbrig says. “He may want to put them on a shorter leash.”