The West Australian

Invasion fears in Ukraine

- MARK NICOL

Ukraine fears more than 100,000 Russian troops will be in place on its borders, ready to invade, by the end of the month.

A Ukrainian government report estimates the Kremlin will deploy up to 30,000 extra soldiers, accompanie­d by more tanks and rocket systems, in support of 80,000 Russian troops already awaiting orders to advance.

The figures are based on intelligen­ce intercepts and satellite photograph­s as troops and equipment travel hundreds of miles across Russia to amass around its neighbour.

Moscow has claimed it has no plans to invade and is merely carrying out military exercises.

So how close are we to wider war in Europe? Arguably, only Vladimir Putin knows.

The Kremlin’s agent provocateu­r is indulging in his characteri­stic high-stakes games and contempt for internatio­nal laws.

While his frightenin­g show of force may merely be intended to boost his popularity — his approval rating hit a record high after his invasion of Ukraine in 2014 — make no mistake, we are just one step from serious conflict.

Putin is playing “a suspense game”, according to Russia expert Dr Maryna Vorotnyuk, of the Royal United Services Institute, and the longer he keeps everyone anxiously waiting, the more political capital he gains.

A full-scale invasion of eastern Ukraine and Crimea seems on hold for now, because the build up of troops and military hardware is achieving its desired effect of scaring the West.

But just one mistake by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky could dramatical­ly trigger an advance of thousands of Russian troops back into the territory they seized illegally seven years ago.

The response by Britain and US would be heavy on rhetoric rather than military action, thereby providing Putin with another propaganda victory in time for the Russian parliament­ary elections later this year.

As this game plays out, London and Washington appear impotent, all words and no interventi­on — because there is simply no desirable course of action for NATO’s leading partners to embark upon to influence Russia’s affairs.

This lack of options is as obvious to Putin as it is to anyone else.

The reality is only he is in a position to call the shots.

Comedian-turned-politician Zelensky is equally powerless when it comes to influencin­g Putin or NATO, the defence alliance he is so desperate to join.

Because while US President Joe Biden and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab have been at pains to express their unwavering support for Ukraine’s territoria­l sovereignt­y and profuse in their condemnati­on of Russia’s escalation of tensions, the US and British Government­s are not going to risk a direct confrontat­ion with Moscow.

Similarly, in spite of Ukraine’s valuable contributi­ons to NATO security operations in Iraq and Afghanista­n, it is not going to be granted membership of the alliance any time soon, certainly not before the issues in the Donbass breakaway regions and the Crimea are solved.

The consensus of opinion among security experts is that there is definitely more to Putin’s actions than simply “sabre rattling” — he did not need to move military manpower and hardware from as far away as the Estonian border and Siberia to achieve that. This is already the bloodiest war in Europe since the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, with at least 14,000 people killed since the Russian invasion in 2014 and more than 1.5 million people forced to leave their homes.

Russia’s proposed solution is for Ukraine to federalise and for the breakaway regions to be granted permanent autonomy.

But this is unacceptab­le to the Ukrainian Government and to Britain and the US.

For its part, Moscow is equally averse to Zelensky’s plan for further integratio­n with the EU and NATO.

So with tragic inevitabil­ity, it appears the seven-year conflict, during which time more than 20 officially sanctioned ceasefires have failed, will linger on.

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