KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko grabbed international headlines last week when he warned his country about a potential “full-scale” Russian invasion.
A day earlier, Moscow-backed separatists launched what officials here said was their largest assault in months, leaving at least two dozen dead outside the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.
But some experts say we shouldn’t expect that “full-scale invasion” any time soon.
Observers have long warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have his sights set on snatching more territory, with plans to craft a land bridge to Crimea.
But goals that lofty would require a serious commitment. For one thing, Russia can’t afford that — militarily or otherwise.
Alex Kokcharov, a Russia and Ukraine country analyst at IHS, says the country’s weakened economy and the threat of further Western sanctions make a massive offensive less attractive.
“Russia appears no longer to want to seize, annex, [or] occupy eastern parts of Ukraine,” he told GlobalPost in an email Friday, “and its current political aims in Ukraine, including destabilizing it politically and economically, can be achieved by a limited conflict in Donetsk and Luhansk regions.”
There were hints of that decreased appetite last month, when rebel leaders announced they were shuttering their “Novorossiya” or “New Russia” project — the ambiguous political union of the two separatist regions in Ukraine once publicly supported in Moscow.
That suggests the Kremlin may be forcing rebel leaders to stick to a broadly autonomous arrangement with Kyiv, observers say.
“Perhaps Putin has realized that the expansionist project overextended itself; it is now too dangerous to continue beating the war drum,” Andrei Kolesnikov, an expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote last month.
That doesn’t mean the Kremlin’s not interested in a fight.
Stoking fierce but lower-level combat — like the kind seen in Marinka last Wednesday — is Putin’s best (and cheapest) bet at distracting Ukraine on its toes and stymying its efforts at reform, critics say.
That, in turn, would make it easier for Moscow to keep Kyiv in its orbit and consolidate support at home.
But it’s also telling that there were no signs of overwhelming Russian support after the apparent rebel defeat this week. That’s usually been the case after previous key battles aimed at snatching more territory, such as in Ilovaisk last summer and in Debaltseve last February.
Make no mistake, though: Russian troops are in Ukraine, bolstering the rebels’ fighting forces.
Oh, and captured Russian soldiers — special forces, actually — even say so themselves.
So where does that leave things in the east?
In an “unstable frozen conflict,” according to Kokcharov, the IHS analyst — meaning an embryonic version of the legal limbo a handful of other former Soviet territories remain in after fighting bloody wars.
Moving forward, he says, Putin will just play it by ear.
“The conflict is quite likely to evolve into a larger version of Transnistria or Nagorno Karabakh,” Kokcharov said, referring to the separatist territories, “and details of the evolution will depend on the developments on the ground.”