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The situation in Ukraine has suddenly become very fluid. What is in play at the moment is a series of calculations by Russia, the US, the EU and the new Ukrainian regime. Russia was never likely to remain indifferent to developments in its south western neighbour. Ukraine has long been seen as an open door for invaders. The origin of the Slavic word 'Ukraina' means border – like the English word 'marches'. Russia has always watched its border lands carefully, says Nick Watts.
The move for Ukraine to join both NATO and the EU which gained momentum after the 'Orange revolution' of 2004 was worrying to Russia, which sought to block it. Subsequent Ukrainian elections were particularly closely contested by both sides and the results were also contested. At stake lies the future of an independent Ukraine, either as a European country or as Russian controlled buffer state.
The recent mobilisation of Russia's military as a precaution is a well understood ploy in the Moscow political playbook – last seen in Georgia in 2008. Western observers note that Russia's military may have suffered from obsolete equipment – but it has got a lot of it. According to the 2014 Military Balance published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) the Russian military numbers some 845,000 personnel; 250,000 army and 35,000 airborne troops. Ukraine has a military of 129,959; 64,750 army and 6,000 airborne.
Military strategists will look at the local balance – not all of Russia's army can move to crush Ukraine, and Ukraine has 84,900 paramilitaries it could call upon. The most likely scenario is a replay of the Georgian scenario where Russian forces intervene to protect ethnic Russians in the Crimea. The resulting stalemate – as in Georgia and in Transdnistria in Moldova, will establish de facto Russian sovereignty.
Both the EU and the US are hesitant on how to play this. It is no secret that Moscow has resented the advance of NATO and the EU into what it sees as its sphere of influence. In Ukraine the west has found an uncertain ally. The country is deeply divided and there is a strong body that wishes to remain under the Russian economic umbrella which provides the gas to heat their homes. Offers from the EU have consisted of vague promises of financial support. The new regime has still to establish itself and set up structures of government.
Should it come to a military confrontation the Russians will easily over match the Ukrainians. As well as the Black Sea fleet based in Sevastopol, with an attendant naval infantry brigade, the Southern Military District headquartered at Rostov on Don has 2 Special Forces brigades (spetsnaz), 1 reconnaissance brigade, 6 motor rifle brigades an airborne division and an air assault brigade. Alongside this is the necessary artillery engineering and logistic support, if needed. Add in the air force which is comprehensively equipped with modern aircraft, and there is still a potent mix of forces.
Russia may choose to use its cyber capability to disrupt communications while the new regime is still trying to establish itself. Russia typically likes to move fast – so western intelligence will be trying to discern patterns of force movements which are being masked by 'military exercises' nearby. Ultimately this matter will come down to a question of political resolve. The west must ask the question – what does Putin have to lose? Putin must ask himself the question 'how does this end?'