NOTE 2017: I originally wrote this in November 2014.
Breedlove has come and gone but Western media outlets still push the idea that there are thousands of Russian soldiers in Eastern Ukraine. So this is apposite again.
Here we go again. NATO is again – how many times does that make it? – echoing Kiev and saying that Russia has invaded Ukraine. Or so says NATO’s General Breedlove. “‘Across the last two days we have seen the same thing that O.S.C.E. is reporting,’ General Breedlove said at a news conference in Sofia, Bulgaria. ‘We have seen columns of Russian equipment, primarily Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defence systems and Russian combat troops entering into Ukraine.’” Well, here are the OSCE reports, read then and see whether you think Breedlove is telling the truth: columns moving around in east Ukraine, yes; crossing the border, no. Meanwhile, back at the Pentagon, the official spokesman has no “independent operational reporting that tells me that they have crossed the border”. But NATO has its own reality.
So has Russia invaded Ukraine? Of course, that all depends on your definition of “is” is, or some similar piece of deceptive hair-splitting, doesn’t it? But, for most people, “invasion” means regular troops and equipment crossing the border and staying there. Is Moscow aiding the rebels in the east? Probably. But that’s not what’s being claimed.
The neatest way to respond to these endless frothings is this:
If Russia had invaded, you wouldn’t have to ask; if you have to ask, it hasn’t.
It would have happened quickly and be plain for all to see. A thousand soldiers, a dozen or two tanks is not how it would have happened: it would have been big, it would have been sudden and it would have been over quickly. There would be no need for grainy satellite photos of combine harvesters or whatever they were; no need for reporters who forgot their cell phones saying they saw something: there would be Russian soldiers at the Dnepr certainly and maybe in Kiev or Lviv; Russian soldiers, guns, helicopters, tanks and aircraft all over the place. (Interesting to speculate, as it gets colder and armed thugs throw their weight around, how Russian troops would be received in Kiev today, isn’t it? But we’ll probably never know).
Or at least the first part would have been over quickly. Just like the US invasion of Iraq. Getting to the Dnepr, Kiev or Lviv would have been easy, but once there, the Russians would have found themselves surrounded by people who didn’t want them to be there. And that, as the Americans found out in Iraq, is quite a different thing. If one were to take a horizontal slice of Ukraine from east to west and ask the inhabitants to rate the presence of Russian soldiers in their neighbourhood from one to ten, one would get an answer ranging from ten in the far east to minus ten in the far west: flowers in the east, bullets in the west.
Russian troops in the centre and west would find themselves opposed by people who had had military training in the Soviet or Ukrainian Armed Forces, many of whom had military experience in Afghanistan. In other words, Russian invaders would be met with exactly the same response that western Ukrainian invaders found in the east.
Crimea was different: there it was all flowers, all the way and the borders are clear, distinct and obvious. Not at all the same in the rest of Ukraine. (2017: And the Russian troops were already there, a point that Western accounts usually glide over.)
Yes, the Russian Army could get to the western border in a week or two without much difficulty but it wouldn’t be able to stay there.
So that’s why Moscow hasn’t and won’t “invade Ukraine”: it doesn’t want to find itself bogged down in months or years of ambushes, IEDs and all that. And then probably have to leave at the end, anyway. Moscow has watched the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, of course, it remembers its own experience in Afghanistan. Huge cost for a trivial and momentary gain.
The same reason, come to think of it, why Moscow, with its alleged desire to rebuild the empire or whatever, didn’t put Georgia into the bag in 2008. And why it won’t invade Estonia either. It could do it, but it wouldn’t be worth it.
Afterword: All this is predicated on the West confining its support to the discreet provision of training and weapons (something that Breedlove and the others don’t talk about much – the projection in this whole affair is enormous). Should NATO forces enter Ukraine and move east, then all bets are off.