In my last discussion on the Crimea situation, I wrote:
Putin has now signed a law ratifying a treaty that makes Crimea part of Russia, and has also created two new Russian administrative districts (Crimea and Sevastopol). Ukrainian military bases and ships have been taken by Russian forces (yes, ok, they’re still pretending not to be Russian, by not wearing identifying tags, but that’s not fooling anyone…) without resistance. The US and EU have targeted some light financial sanctions against various individuals supposedly associated with the takeover, while Russia have laughed off the sanctions and have hit back with some light sanctions of their own. Those on both sides who have been sanctioned are now wearing their sanctions as a badge of pride.
And that’s about where it will end, until the time comes to gently phase out the sanctions in the interests of international diplomacy.
Since that post, all sorts of alarm bells have been rung by Western governments and Ukraine’s interim government regarding the number of Russian troops on various parts of Ukraine’s border (and close to the borders of various other ex-Soviet territories). Nato’s rhetoric has certainly stepped up, with various claims that Russia could take Ukraine within three to five days (see this Stuff.co.nz article), and that the “Russian forces are positioned and prepared to begin an invasion of Ukraine within 12 hours of the order being given” (see this NZ Herald article).
I’ve said all along that I don’t believe that Russia will make any further incursions, whether into the Ukraine or elsewhere. They’ve taken back the strategically crucial Crimea, and the costs haven’t been large. But with all of the sabre-rattling that’s been occurring (on both sides), a second incursion may result in much more serious consequences.
That’s why I see the Russian troop movements as nothing more than leverage. Putin gets to show off the supposed might of the Russian military, Russia’s neighbours quake in their boots and privately vow to be nicer to the big kid next door in future, and Nato commanders get to pretend they still have some relevance. Then after some extensive negotiation, Russia agrees that in a show of good faith, it will stand down tens of thousands of its troops from border patrol. Presumably, the West will offer Russia something in return – perhaps a relaxing of sanctions and a return to a few diplomatic tables in future. Russia is seen to have given something away, but it’s something it never intended to use. The crisis is seen to have been averted, and life returns to normal.
Essentially, the sole point of Russia’s troop escalation is to provide diplomatic leverage.