WASHINGTON – As the United States and Europe impose increased sanctions on Russia, there is increasing concern that Russian President Vladimir Putin could raise the ante by unleashing Russian troops into Ukraine to back pro-Russian separatists in their bid to break from the Kiev government.
Regional analysts voice concern that the Russian troops amassed along the Russia-Ukraine border could be deployed ostensibly for so-called peacekeeping intervention to protect the pro-Russian Ukrainians but be used to control the territory.
The U.S. Department of Defense says there are some 12,000 Russian combat troops positioned along the southern and eastern borders of Ukraine. DOD also reports it has information that more than 100 Russian vehicles moved into Ukraine, a development that has raised concern in Washington.
As WND reported, the increasing prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine follows concerns raised by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier that the crisis could prompt a war between Europe and Russia, warning of “unforeseeable consequences for all of Europe.”
DOD claims that on July 25, Russian artillery fired across the border into Ukraine.
Anthony Blinken, assistant to the U.S. president and deputy national security adviser, said Russia is showing signs of preparing an invasion of Ukraine.
“Ukrainian forces are right now making major gains to regain sovereignty in the east, but at the same time, Russia is doubling down on its own efforts to support the separatists and destabilize the country,” Blinken said at a White House press conference Monday.
“Indeed, it is cynically using all of the attention focused on the crash of MH17 as a cover and distraction for its own efforts. It’s increased the provision of heavy weaponry across the border. We’ve seen convoys of tanks, multiple rocket launchers, artillery and armored vehicles. There’s evidence it’s preparing to deliver even more powerful multiple rocket launchers,” he said.
Blinken said the U.S. has documented that Russians are firing from positions inside of Russia into Ukraine.
“And we’ve seen a significant re-buildup of Russian forces along the border, potentially positioning Russia for a so-called humanitarian or peacekeeping intervention in Ukraine,” he said.
The latest developments raise the question of how the U.S. and Europe would respond to Russia beyond having imposed new sanctions designed to cripple its banking system and the ability to purchase Western arms as well as stop high-technology energy exports.
The most critical portion of the sanctions will deny Russian state-owned banks access to European capital markets. Under the agreed sanctions, Europeans won’t be able to buy debt, equity or other financial instruments with a maturity higher than 90 days in Russian state-owned banks. The sanctions also include any brokering linked to any of these kinds of transactions.
The sanctions will be in place for three months, after which they will be reviewed.
President Obama announced Tuesday at the White House that the U.S. will match EU sanctions later this week.
The European sanctions include exemptions that will allow France to sell its Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia. In addition, any technology for the natural gas sector is excluded.
Tensions between Russia and the West have reached a critical stage following the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which killed all 298 civilian passengers on board. The plane came down in the eastern portion of Ukraine, which is hotly contested by Kiev and pro-Russian separatists.
Putin’s response to the downing of the airliner has been a call for peace and reconciliation. At the same time, he has continued to show backing for the pro-Russian Ukrainians fighters.
“Putin may feel he has been backed into a corner (due to U.S. and EU sanctions) and could respond by sending troops into Ukraine on a supposed humanitarian mission to shore up the separatists in the east of the country,” according to the open intelligence Langley Intelligence Group Network, or Lignet.
“Since Putin has shown no willingness to lose face by abandoning the rebels, he probably plans to continue to stand behind them, even if this means invading eastern Ukraine,” the Lignet report said.
Lignet is comprised of former U.S. intelligence analysts.
The West has condemned Russia for complicity in providing arms to the pro-Russian Ukrainians and accused the rebels of shooting down the Malaysian airliner.
Putin remains very popular at home, with an approval rating said to be close to 90 percent, based on a recent poll. Analysts believe, however, that any invasion of Ukraine could actually boost that popularity even more.