Ukraine on the brink of invasion?

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed in Iraq, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.  Israel and Hamas are wobbling through another cease-fire, as certain Western media outlets rush to assure the world that Hamas won the Gaza conflict with its brutal human-shield tactics – tactics that would be utterly ineffective if the media universally and unreservedly condemned them as the Hamas war crimes they are.  The President of the United states scurries off to yet another vacation during all of this, popping up from the far side of drinks festooned with miniature umbrellas and plastic swords to deny saying things that were caught on hundreds of videotapes two years ago.

This would be a wonderful moment for Vladimir Putin to pull the trigger on his long-gestating invasion of Ukraine.  And sure enough, such mischief looks as though it might be in the cards, as Russia sends what it describes as “humanitarian assistance” to its battered jetliner-murdering mercenaries in eastern Ukraine, and the Ukrainians say they’re going to stop the convoy at the border.  Fox News reports:

Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said the convoy would not be allowed to pass because it had not been certified by the Red Cross. Lysenko also showed a covertly filmed video appearing to show vehicles similar to the white-canopied trucks dispatched from Moscow on Tuesday parked at a military base in Russia.

One frame displayed by Lysenko shows uniformed troops lined up in front of one of the trucks.

Russian television reported early Tuesday that trucks carrying 2,000 tons of humanitarian aid were headed to Ukraine. NTV television showed hundreds of white trucks gathered at a depot outside Moscow, and said they were carrying everything from baby food to sleeping bags. A Russian Orthodox Priest sprinkled holy water on the trucks, some of which bore a red cross, before their departure.

However, Andre Loersch, a spokesman for the Red Cross in Kiev, told The Associated Press by phone that despite the general agreement among all parties, he had “no information about the content” of the trucks and did not know where they were headed.

“At this stage we have no agreement on this, and it looks like the initiative of the Russian Federation,” he said.

The Russians still have an out, since Ukraine says they’ll consider allowing the convoy to pass if it goes through a border crossing controlled by the government in Kiev, and proves to contain nothing but humanitarian supplies.  There are over 280 vehicles in the convoy, so it will take a few days to reach the border and receive clearance from the Ukrainian government, assuming it pauses for that nicety.  The Ukrainians themselves also announced an aid mission to the city of Lunhansk, where nearly half the population fled and basic services collapsed while rebels battled government troops.

And if the Ukrainians don’t let that Russian convoy through?  What if the Russians are expecting to be turned back by Ukrainian border guards, and plan to use the ensuing public spectacle as a pretext for aggression?  Well, NATO is remarkably glum about the growing odds of a Russian invasion, something they usually take pains to portray as a remote possibility, granting a bit of elbow room to Putin’s rhetoric about “training exercises.”  Not this time:

Also on Monday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Reuters that there were no signs that Russia had withdrawn any of its troops amassed at the border with Ukraine. When a reporter asked him about the possibility of a Russian invasion, Rasmussen said, “There is a high probability.”

“We see the Russians developing the narrative and the pretext for such an operation under the guise of a humanitarian operation, and we see a military build-up that could be used to conduct such illegal military operations in Ukraine,” he added.

Ukraine’s military claimed that the numbers of Russian troops along the border had risen dramatically. Lysenko told The New York Times that Russia had 45,000 troops at the frontier supported by 160 tanks, 1,360 armored vehicles, 390 artillery systems, 150 truck-mounted ground-to-ground rocket launchers, 192 fighter jets and 137 helicopters. Lysenko’s estimates had not been independently verified. NATO has previously estimated that 20,000 Russian troops have gathered at the border.

Putin’s hand is being forced because, after some early missteps, the Ukrainian government is defeating Russian-backed insurgents.  Russia seems to have hoped the eastern rebellion would combine with domestic problems to topple the government in Kiev, with that Russian army massed on the border serving mostly as psychological pressure, an implied threat to keep the Ukrainians from acting decisively against the insurgents.  Instead, the Ukrainians held together as a nation, embraced representative democracy over corrupt authoritarian rule, ran clean elections that produced a Russian-speaking centrist president, and generally conducted themselves as a stable and responsible state.  The murder of Flight MH-17 drew a sharp contrast between the Ukrainian government and Russian separatists – who’s going to forget the grisly tableau of international inspectors arriving at the rebel-controlled crash site, to find scavengers looting the corpses?

Russia’s case for supporting the separatists rests on the idea that a gang of wild-eyed Russia-hating fascists (the exact word used by Russian state media) had taken over Kiev, and would soon get busy persecuting or ethnically cleansing citizens of Russian heritage.  The secondary argument was that the Kiev government would collapse in a heap, plunging Ukraine into anarchy and putting those Russian citizens at risk from freelance gangs of fascist ethnic cleansers.  None of that is happening, and from a military standpoint, the sand is running out of the separatist hourglass.  It’s probably not helping Russia’s case that ISIS is busy showing the world what persecution really looks like in Iraq.  Comparing the unassuming Ukrainian government to those maniacs is absurd.

If Putin is not prepared to abandon his dreams of empire in Ukraine, he will need to act soon… or else it’s time to start breaking up the 40,000-soldier jamboree he’s been holding on the Ukrainian border, and risk the loss of face he will suffer from being so completely wrong about the Euromaidan revolution.  We’ll see his cards in a day or two, but I have to say, Vladimir Putin doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who takes the loss of face gracefully.

Update: A great dose of Photoshop humor, swiftly prepared and administered: