The latest turn of events in the Ukraine crisis appear to be creating the conditions in which Russian president Vladimir Putin might at any moment order his troops to invade his western neighbor.
Ukraine troops yesterday acted to quell a coordinated uprising by pro-Russia activists in the east of the country, attacking and capturing (paywall) an airport in the town of Kramatorsk and taking up positions outside a second eastern city. The activists are backed by tens of thousands of Russian troops deployed just over the border, along with incognito Russian special forces on the ground within Ukraine.
Politicians from Russia and the West alike are describing the situation in dire terms. British foreign secretary William Hague said relations with Moscow will be harmed for at least a decade. “In recent days Russia has deliberately pushed Ukraine to the brink, and created a still greater risk of violent confrontation,” he said.
In a call with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Putin demanded that the body explicitly condemn Ukraine’s move against the activists. Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev wrote on his Facebook page that Ukraine “is on the brink of civil war.”
Meanwhile, Putin has maintained a barrage of hyper-antagonistic propaganda on Russian television apparently intended to whip up a pro-war fervor. In a statement to the New York Times, Aleksandr Lukashevich, a Russian foreign ministry spokesman, complained of “the unchecked rise of aggressive nationalism and neo-Nazism” in Ukraine.
Until yesterday, the picture was of Russia simply destabilizing eastern Ukraine ahead of May 25 presidential elections, which it appears to oppose on the grounds that it first wants the country broken up into autonomous federal states.
With Ukraine soldiers actively deploying, an extra dose of combustibility has been added. The question now is how Putin will respond.