On Thursday night, the best assessment from the U.S. intelligence community—and for that matter most experts observing events in Ukraine—was that Vladimir Putin’s military would not invade Ukraine. Less than 24 hours later, however, there are reports from the ground of Russian troops pushing into the Ukrainian province of Crimea; the newly-installed Crimean prime minister has appealed to Putin to help him secure the country; Putin, in turn, is officially asking for parliament's permission to send Russian forces into Ukraine. It’s not a full-blown invasion—at least, not yet. But it’s not the picture U.S. analysts were painting just a day before, either.
There was good reason to think Putin wouldn’t do it. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov told Secretary of State John Kerry that Russia respected the territorial integrity of the Ukraine. U.S. intelligence assessments concluded that the 150,000-man Russian military exercises announced by Putin on Wednesday were not preparations for an invasion of Ukraine because no medical units accompanied the troops. And Russian and U.S. diplomats were still working on Iran and Syrian diplomacy. All of this followed a successful Winter Olympic games for Putin’s Russia.
Yet private security contractors, working for the Russian military, seized control of two airports in Crimea on Friday. And Ukrainian border officials said that Russian cargo planes had landed inside the province, and that 10 military helicopters flew into Ukrainian airspace.
U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence on the fast moving situation in Ukraine tell The Daily Beast that analytic products from the intelligence community this week did not discount the prospect of Russian provocations and even light incursions in the Russian majority province of Crimea, the home of Russia’s fleet in the Black Sea.
Nonetheless, until Friday, no one anticipated a Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory."Nobody thought Putin was going to invade last night,” one Senate aide who works closely on the Ukraine crisis. “He has the G8 summit in Sochi coming up, no one really saw this kind of thing coming." This source also stressed that events are still moving quickly on the ground. “There is still a question about whether this is Russian troops coming across the border or Russian troops moving around the installations in Crimea.”
One former U.S. intelligence officer told The Daily Beast he expects Russian operatives to begin launching false flag style operations designed to look like terrorist attacks or arms shipments to anti-Russian groups in Crimea and to leak alleged conversations implicating Kiev and the CIA in these drummed up events.
“Putin's aim is to show that he is in the catbird seat, and there is nothing we can do about it,” this former officer said. “He's like a kid with a can of gasoline and a book of matches, and he laughs as Obama tries to deliver lectures on how fire is dangerous. Indeed, Putin throws banana peels on the ground, and Obama manages to slip on every one of them. I've never seen anything like it.”
Already there are signs of Russian trickery. Ukrtelecom, Ukraine’s largest internet and cell phone provider, said Friday that most cell and internet service was down for the Crimea region.
Jim Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former U.S. diplomat, said disrupting communications networks is part of Russian military doctrine. In Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, the military invasion was preceded by a cyber attack on Georgia’s communications networks.
“This is Russian doctrine,” Lewis said. “This is their cook book on how to stage an intervention or military operation starts with knocking out communications nodes.” Lewis said Russia would have most likely disrupted the internet and cell phone service through a cyber attack because this kind of attack can be repaired, as opposed to taking a bulldozer to the fiber-optic cables. “The intent is information warfare,” Lewis said. “They talk about knocking out the nodes so they are the ones to control the narrative and the information and it’s harder for others to get out a counter story.”
In Washington, the Obama administration is still formulating options and hoping for the best. Among the options being considered, according to U.S. officials, is boycotting the G8 Summit scheduled for Sochi in June and encouraging other countries to do the same. If Russian troops stay in Crimea, it could scare off trade and further investment in Russia and also further weaken the ruble. It’s debatable whether that would influence Russian thinking.
“We have a very weak hand,” Paul Saunders, the executive director of the Center for the National Interest, tells The Daily Beast.
If anything, Saunders added, President Obama’s warning to Putin that “there will be costs” to the incursion might force Putin to dig in to his position, lest he be seen as caving to American pressure.
“It’s a mistake of the administration coming out I the way that it has trying to discourage Russian military action because they are in essence waving a red cloth in front of a bull,” Saunders said. “Is a public message the best way to deal with that versus some private communication? They are setting themselves up for another Syria red line.”
Others in Washington, however, are beginning to face the grim consequence of Russia’s actions. “It appears that the Russian military now controls the Crimean peninsula,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in a statement. “This aggression is a threat not only to Ukraine, but to regional peace and stability. Russia’s latest action is yet another indicator that Vladimir Putin’s hegemonic ambitions threaten U.S. interests and allies around the world."
—additional reporting by Josh Rogin