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Putin needs a real casus belli to invade Ukraine

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When Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, names specific dates for a Russian march on his country — late January or early February — it’s hard to believe Russian President Vladimir Putin will stick to Budanov’s schedule as if it were embossed on an RSVP card.

As I’ve argued earlier, such action would jeopardize a major part of Putin’s grand natural gas pipeline project, which is important to his legacy. And yet an all-out war in Ukraine is far from impossible.

Putin’s previous attacks on Ukraine followed two distinct scenarios. The Crimea annexation was a dazzlingly sudden grab. The Russian military involvement in Eastern Ukraine was, by contrast, reactive and perhaps even somewhat reluctant. It followed an attempt by armed groups of Russian nationalists with some initial backing from hawks in Putin’s own entourage to break the region away from Ukraine; after Ukrainian forces pushed back with surprising panache, Russian troops were sent in to save the secessionists.

It would be reasonable to assume that Putin is weighing some kind of sudden onslaught scenario in case his “red line” in relation to Ukraine is crossed. On Nov. 30, he laid down the red line explicitly at an investment forum:

If some kind of strike capabilities emerge in Ukraine, flight time to Moscow will be seven to 10 minutes, and with the deployment of hypersonic weapons it goes down to five minutes.

In other words, what Putin fears is U.S. missile deployment in Ukraine, along the lines of the anti-missile defenses placed in Eastern European member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. As Fyodor Lukyanov, the most clear-sighted of the Kremlin’s foreign policy explainers, wrote recently in the journal he edits, Russia in Global Affairs, Ukraine wouldn’t even need to join NATO to become a de facto U.S. military beachhead.

Lukyanov’s suggestion was that Russia is seeking some kind of neutrality, or “Finlandization,” guarantee for Ukraine — but, since it’s........

© The Japan Times

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