LONDON - Russian President Vladimir Putin may be able to annex pieces of Ukraine just by encouraging the pro-Russian separatist forces inside the country, warns US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, who commands all the Nato alliance forces.
"As little as a week and a half, two weeks ago, I would have put military incursions as the most likely outcome," Gen Breedlove told local media during a visit to Canada this week.
"I don't take that option off the table", he cautioned, but Mr Putin may be able to accomplish his objectives "with simply the unrest his forces are causing in eastern Ukraine".
This is the first public indication from a senior US official that Western military planners are reluctantly concluding that Russia is in a good position to win the confrontation. Still, no analyst has succeeded in understanding how far Mr Putin is prepared to push this showdown, and that remains the key to predicting how the conflict will evolve.
All Western intelligence agencies failed to predict the initial Russian military incursion into Crimea and, more importantly, the subsequent annexation of Crimea, the clearest sign that President Putin was not interested in just punishing Ukraine, but had decided on the country's permanent carve-up. Having been "behind the curve", US, British, German and French intelligence agencies then over-compensated by exaggerating the significance of Russia's military build-up on Ukraine's borders: most convinced themselves that this was a prelude for an outright invasion of eastern Ukraine.
Yet this was also an intelligence error, since it's becoming clear that Mr Putin never had any intention of sending his troops into battle. For although eastern Ukraine may be home to a large ethnic Russian community, the majority of the local population is Ukrainian. Eastern Ukraine is also a big flatland expanse with no obvious boundaries; invading it would embroil Russia in fierce fighting in built-up areas with no end in sight, a nightmare President Putin is certain to avoid.
The most likely explanation for the massing of Russian troops at Ukraine's borders is to give Mr Putin a bargaining chip in his negotiations with the West.
The fact that rebels have managed to shoot down three Ukrainian army helicopters by man-portable air-defence systems, or Manpads, is an indication that Russia's special forces are directly involved: Manpads are not in the inventory of Ukrainian security forces so the insurgents could not have seized them locally, and they require considerable skill to operate.
But the accusation by Nato's Gen Breedlove that the separatists are "a professional military force", acting under the "direction and leadership" of Russia, may be an exaggeration, for there are plenty of local Russians willing to do Moscow's bidding.
"Just as in the Cold War, when the KGB was stirring up revolutionary wars and insurgencies," writes Mr Mark Galeotti, a security expert at New York University, Russia's men "are behind the scenes, coordinating, recruiting, training, arming and supporting."
For the moment, Mr Putin may be right in calculating that this is a confrontation he can't lose. Even if, for example, the Ukrainian army tightens its hold on the rebel city of Slovyansk, the separatists can seize government offices in the nearby city of Donetsk. And if the authorities manage to put out that rebellion, insurgents will pop up somewhere else.
And Ukraine's fate will serve as a grim warning to any other former Soviet republic contemplating links to the West.
Still, Mr Putin's strategy is not risk-free. The more the violence develops, the higher the chance of a single bloody incident which forces Mr Putin into the military intervention he doesn't want: an early warning of this was last week's tragic fire in the city of Odessa in which at least 40 ethnic Russians perished.
And, the more the rebellion expands, the less control Russia has over the unemployed youth and social misfits who are now doing President Putin's bidding. Western intelligence services know from intercepted Russian communications that Mr Putin was embarrassed by the rebels' recent seizure of Western observers.
Mr Putin's Ukraine strategy mimics that employed by Serbia during the Yugoslav civil wars of the 1990s, when Serb separatists were supplied with weapons and encouraged to carve up neighbouring states: the separatists ended up destroying Serbia itself, infecting the country's politics with violence and murderous nationalism.
It's a historical lesson Mr Putin ignores at his peril.
This article was published on May 7 in The Straits Times.
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