Russia again appeared on the verge of invading Ukraine last weekend, this time in the guise of a “humanitarian operation.” President Obama and other Western leaders sounded the alarm, warning that the prospective intervention “is unacceptable, violates international law, and will provoke additional consequences,” as a White House statement put it.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko agreed to a nonmilitary relief operation under the auspices of the Red Cross that would allow for Russia’s participation. Whether that would deter Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, wasn’t clear.
According to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, tens of thousands of Russian troops remained poised on Ukraine’s border; he said “there is a high probability” of invasion. Though a vacationing President Obama is overseeing U.S. air strikes in Iraq, the United States and its allies must be prepared to act quickly if Russian military forces cross the frontier.
The motive for another escalation in Russia’s meddling is clear: not the “humanitarian crisis” the Kremlin claims in areas held by its surrogate forces, but the threat that the Ukrainian army and allied militias will win a military victory.
Government spokesmen say Kiev’s forces have surrounded the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, where the remaining Russian-backed forces are concentrated, after recapturing three-quarters of the territory they held. Mr. Putin faces the collapse of his proxy force; that not only would loosen his hold on Ukraine but also could lead to political trouble at home, where state propaganda has whipped up a nationalist fervor over Ukraine.
To their credit, Western leaders who once pressed Mr. Poroshenko to accept a cease-fire deal tilted toward Russia have not tried very hard to stop the Ukrainian military offensive. In a phone call this week, Mr. Obama urged Mr. Poroshenko “to continue to exercise restraint and caution in military operations in order to avoid civilian casualties,” according to a White House statement, but did not say the operations should stop.
The fighting risks providing Mr. Putin with a pretext for “humanitarian” intervention. Western leaders, though, appear to accept Mr. Poroshenko’s argument that the military operation is not about defeating Russia but saving Ukraine. If Mr. Putin’s forces hold onto a piece of territory, he will be able to block Ukraine’s stabilization indefinitely, just as he has used “frozen conflicts” to sabotage other Russian neighbors.
Mr. Poroshenko offers a peace plan that involves a cease-fire and political dialogue, provided that Ukraine’s border is sealed to further infiltrations of Russian weapons and fighters. That could provide a face-saving exit for Mr. Putin, but Moscow is unlikely to embrace it unless its proxy forces are on the verge of defeat.
That’s why the Ukrainian military operation should continue with Western support, including fresh aid for the army, and why the United States and its allies should do everything possible to deter Mr. Putin’s “humanitarian” invasion.
What “additional consequences” can Moscow expect if it crosses the line? A robust package should be readied and telegraphed to the Kremlin.