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Critical Time for Deterring Putin

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Russia could double down on Ukraine anytime now.

Undeterred by the West’s questionable response to the tragic Malaysian airliner shoot-down — or the moral and material support to the Ukrainian rebels — or the carving off of Crimea, Russia seems ready to roll.

News reports indicate Moscow has bumped up Russian forces near the Ukrainian border to some 20,000 troops for Kremlin-described “military exercises.” Last week, NATO estimated Russian forces along the Ukrainian border at about 10,000 troops.

These bolstered Russian ground forces are reportedly backed by some serious firepower in the form of long-standing Kremlin favorites: armor and artillery. Russian fighters are also boring holes in the sky along the border.

Is this latest Russian saber rattling just bluster? Maybe; maybe not.

At a minimum, we can conclude with confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin is sending some sort of serious signal. He’s probably not too happy with his post-Crimea capers to dominate Kiev by unsettling eastern Ukraine.

It’s not like the Russian-supported insurgents in Ukraine are carrying the day for their — or Moscow’s — cause. For the moment, news accounts seem to indicate that Kiev’s forces are making progress (though sometimes halting) against the insurgents.

At this pivotal moment, Putin & Co. have to be considering their options.

From Moscow’s point of view, if the Kremlin doesn’t act decisively, it’s very possible that Ukrainian forces could crush the rebels in the coming days, ending the crisis — for the moment at least.

While a boon for Kiev, it would be a bust for Moscow.

If Russia lets the pressure off Ukraine by allowing the insurgency to fold, with some breathing room, Kiev will be able to — in theory — get its political, economic and security house in order over time.

Even worse for Moscow, it’s likely that Kiev will look to become even closer with the West. Of course, this is one of the key causes of the current troubles between Russia and Ukraine.

With tighter ties with the West a possibility, even a probability, there’s no question that Russia benefits by keeping Ukraine weak, off-balance and distracted.

With the brutal Russian winter not far off, which makes military operations doable but certainly more challenging (right, Napoleon?), Putin will be motivated to make some bold military decisions soon.

As such, it’s certainly possible that we could see increasing military support for the rabble of Russian rebels — such as a limited incursion by the Russian army to pound weaker Ukrainian ground forces.

While a punitive strike would certainly give a shot in the arm to the insurgents, Moscow could escalate further by conducting a larger invasion of Ukraine to take — and hold — territory for negotiating or annexing purposes.

Clearly, neither outcome is desirable for the West.

Unfortunately, from Crimea to eastern Ukraine, the United States and Europe have done a lackluster job of getting in front of these troubling events to shape, or better yet, prevent them.

With this in mind, now — not later — is a critical time to deter more Moscow meddling.

 - Dr. Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation
 senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

Originally appeared in the Boston Herald

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