5 May Update: Can The Sloviansk Offensive Trigger Russian Intervention?

News reports from the Ukraine this morning indicate that Ukrainian military and government forces are pushing deeper into the suburbs of Sloviansk.  Rebels are withdrawing into the city and preparing ad-hoc fortifications and blockades. Gun battles between government forces and separatists have been raging all over the city, although BBC reporters in Sloviansk claim there is a lull in the fighting. The Ukrainian ‘Anti-Terrorist Action’ appears to be showing concrete signs of success.

In the southern portion of the country, Ukrainian military units are moving into Odessa to reassert government control over the city and region. Days of deadly violence have left dozens of people dead and the police have been unable…or perhaps unwilling….to bring the pro-Russia separatists under control. The outbreak of violence in Odessa caught the Ukrainian government by surprise. Kiev wasted little time in placing blame on Moscow.

 

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The focal point remains in the east, however. Pro-Russian separatists there are suffering their first real setbacks in the face of a determined Ukrainian offensive to resume control of areas which have been under the thumb of the pro-Russian gunmen for the last month. For the first time since this crisis began in March, the separatists woke up today to  find themselves losing the initiative.

Russia’s reaction to the complication in Sloviansk determine what direction the crisis is moving in. Moscow can hardly afford to let the situation get away from it. An overwhelming amount of support has been given to the pro-Russian separatists. Arms, supplies, advisors, and possibly even combatants have crossed the border. Up until now, the mainly material contributions have been enough to keep the separatists in control of large pieces of real estate in the eastern Ukraine. That could be changing now.

The military option does remain viable for Russia. A large force remains encamped near the Ukrainian border, poised to intervene within twelve to eighteen hours of the order to do so. These units have spent the past weeks working up and preparing for action. Readiness is a perishable thing in the military realm. Units cannot remain at peak efficiency forever. Eventually, Russia has to use its military option or lose it.

The setbacks in Sloviansk are a near perfect pretext for Russia to intervene. The body count is high and for the first time a large number of the casualties are ethnic Russians. The chess match that has existed since March might be rapidly reaching the end game stage.

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