Douglas Cohn: Next up in Putin’s war: Full-blown incursion into Ukraine

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WASHINGTON — There will not be a peaceful solution to the crisis in Ukraine as long as Vladimir Putin is president of Russia. And he is going to remain in power because he controls the news, a fact that propels his popularity rating among the Russian people to over 70 percent.

He was able to annex Crimea from Ukraine without a military confrontation, and he expected that Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine could also be broken away with the help of Russian military supplies and Russian saber rattling in the form of military maneuvers along the Ukraine-Russian border. But it did not tot turn out that way.

The Ukrainian military efficiency dramatically improved while the Ukrainian rebel efficiency declined. As a result, Putin stepped up the flow of supplies — to no avail. Russian “advisors” followed, and it most likely was a Russian-manned missile battery that downed a Malaysian passenger plane. International condemnation and sanctions increased.

Next, in an almost comic-opera manner, Putin sent a large convoy of humanitarian supplies to eastern Ukraine as if to confirm his claim that the Russian-speakers there were suffering at the hands of the Ukrainian government, while all the while he was using the convoy as a diversion for Russian armor to shuttle across the border. Foreign correspondents reported this fact, but were generally ignored until Aug. 14, when the Ukrainian Army fired on and almost destroyed an entire Russian column. This has upped the stakes.

Ex-KGB operative and unabashed macho-man Putin cannot let this stand. If he fails in his efforts in eastern Ukraine, he is finished. He began all this for reasons known only to him and surmised by everyone else. Is he trying to re-establish the Russian Empire? Does he believe that all regions containing Russian-speaking populations in countries bordering Russia properly belong to Russia? Is he following a page out of Stalin’s Soviet Union that only expansion could save the Russian economy? In the end, however, all that matters is that Putin, for whatever reason, is intent upon conquest.

He will proceed with economic coercion, threats, bluffs, propaganda, provocative military maneuvers, arming of rebels, and, if all else fails, with thinly veiled military action. It is the last of these that now appears to be his only choice left in Ukraine. If rebel-held Donetsk falls to the Ukrainian Army, the Putin inspired civil war will come to an end.

Therefore, Putin has resorted to the movement of Russian armored columns into the region, an act that can only result in a direct confrontation with the Ukrainian Army as occurred on Aug. 14.

And because Donetsk is about to fall, the next move is Putin’s, and it will probably entail the substantial involvement of significant Russian armor, which he will claim is on loan to the Ukrainian rebels. In fact, it will be a full-blown Russian military incursion into Ukraine, and it is such a Ukrainian-Russian conflict that is so unsettling for Europe, NATO, the U.S., and all of Russia’s neighbors. It is Putin’s war, and it need never have been.