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Putin doesn’t plan to invade Ukraine—but he’s taking steps just in case

A dozen armed gunmen are camped out just outside a key Crimean airport, just hours after a larger group seized it in a possible hunt for arriving Ukrainian soldiers—or perhaps the country’s interim president. The confusing events overnight in the Russian-majority Crimean capital of Simferopol coincide with growing signs that Moscow is seeking a tactical advantage in Ukraine, short of an actual invasion.

Among the recent developments: Russia gave apparent refuge to ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who plans to surface in a news conference today, a week after fleeing the capital of Kiev. Earlier, gunmen took over the Crimean parliament building and raised the Russian flag—reportedly in uniforms similar to those who turned up later at the airport. With the gunmen in their midst, the parliament dismissed the local government and set a May 25 referendum for some form of independence from Ukraine—that’s the same day as the national election to replace Yanukovych. Meanwhile, some 150,000 Russian troops continued maneuvers on Ukraine’s border.

Taken as a whole, the movements bear eerie similarity to the run-up to Russia’s 2008 assault on Georgia. But it’s still likely that Putin has no plans to engage militarily in Ukraine, despite his distaste for the popular uprising in Kiev and the likelihood that the country will move into closer association with Europe.

Putin is not put off by Western warnings for Russia to stay out of Ukraine. Instead, his is a pragmatic calculus. Unlike the invasion of Georgia, going into Ukraine would probably not be a quick affair, but drawn-out, bloody for both countries, and destabilizing for the region as a whole. Georgia was a walkover; Ukraine would not be.

Yet the deployment of trained gunmen in strategic positions like the parliament and airport—whether they’re Russian or just from sympathetic pro-Russia groups—signals an organized mind at work. It allows for a Plan B.

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