If Vladimir Putin invades Poland, I’ll eat my hat.
It’s not going to happen.
Even so, American ground troops are being deployed there as a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. This is the West telling him STOP. He’s not going to invade a European Union or NATO state either way, but we’d end up sending a crazy-weak signal if all we did was collectively shrug.
Ukraine still isn’t in NATO, however, and probably never will be, so it’s still vulnerable. Putin can slice it and dice it all over again. The US won’t physically stop him for the same reason he won’t invade Poland. Nobody wants to blow up the world, especially not over this.
So Ukraine’s vulnerable. Pro-Russian militiamen are occupying dozens of government buildings, city halls, and police stations in the eastern part of the country where many ethnic Russians live. It’s hard to say for sure if Putin is egging these people on or if they’re acting on their own, envious of their cousins in Crimea who got to go “home” without moving. Either way, they’re serving Putin’s agenda.
By annexing Crimea, he proved to the world that he’s willing to mutilate Ukraine when it displeases him, which it very much did when it cast off his vassal, Viktor Yanukovych, in February.
He doesn’t need, and probably doesn’t want, to do it again. What he needs in Ukraine now is leverage, and the best way to get it is to hang another potential Russian invasion over Kiev like a Sword of Damocles.
Putin could take Eastern Ukraine, but it would do him no good. It’s the poorest part of the country and would turn into an instantaneous money pit for him, akin to the United States annexing Tijuana in Northern Mexico. He can’t possibly want that, not if he has any sense.
He’d lose all his leverage over Kiev. Even an unspoken threat of invasion, occupation, and annexation is enough to make Ukraine act with tremendous caution toward Moscow, but if Putin pulls the trigger, Kiev would have nothing left to lose.
And the odds that Ukraine, shorn of nearly all its ethnic Russians, would ever again elect a president who’s soft on Moscow would be virtually nil. Ukraine would slip from Putin’s sphere of influence so utterly that the only way he’d be able to get it back into his orbit would be by invading and conquering the whole country.
Never mind the price he’d pay internationally for that kind of stunt; invading and occupying the largest country in Europe would require more than a half-million troops and God-only-knows how much money. And for what purpose? Ukraine poses no national security threat whatsoever to Russia.
Still, a fight broke out with a pro-Russian militia in the far-eastern city of Sloyvansk yesterday, leaving at least three militiamen dead. The mayor is asking Putin to send peacekeepers, something the militiamen would almost certainly welcome. This sort of thing could easily get out of hand, especially if the pro-Russian militias decide to wreak as much havoc as possible to draw Putin in even if he’d rather stay home. Wars break out all the time that aren’t wanted or planned for.
It’s no big deal that Poland is asking for American ground troops. That’s just predictable, and prudent, geopolitical posturing. If Ukraine asks, though, that would be the time to start getting nervous.