Russia is laying the groundwork for a military intervention in eastern Ukraine but has apparently not decided whether to make a move, a former American ambassador to Russia said Tuesday.
“They’re starting to put together the narrative to justify it,” said the former ambassador, Michael McFaul, who left the job earlier this year.
Over the past two days, pro-Russian protesters have fought Ukrainian security forces for control of government buildings in eastern Ukraine. And Russia has expressed concern for the fate of Russian speakers there.
“The playbook is not as far along yet,” McFaul said. “But I emphasize the word yet.”
The buildup sounds similar to Russia’s takeover of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea last month, but McFaul said there are important differences.
For one thing, groups in eastern Ukraine calling for independence number in the hundreds — a far cry from the mass popular support for the breakaway by Crimea, he said.
Ethnic Russians also make up a smaller share of the population in eastern Ukraine than in Crimea, and eastern Ukraine lacks the deep historical ties to Russia that Crimea had.
Already, punishment against Russia — American sanctions against individuals, NATO’s severing cooperation with Russia, the canceling of meetings between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin — has been the most serious in a generation, he said.
A Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine would trigger a tougher American response, probably sanctions against whole sections of the Russian economy, he said.
But it’s a balancing act: Because Russia has a larger and globally connected economy, any extreme sanctions against Russia would reverberate through Western Europe and eventually the United States.
McFaul, who now teaches at Stanford University and is an NBC News analyst, said he is concerned by propaganda being spread by government-controlled Russian media. This includes Russia’s labeling of Ukrainians as Nazis, its accusation that the CIA is driving instability in Ukraine and, in one case, its characterization of President Barack Obama as a neo-conservative.
“To me, that’s really dangerous,” McFaul said. “They have whipped up this nationalistic fervor. All of eastern Ukraine gets Russian TV. And, you know, they’re stirring up forces that I don’t think they can so easily manipulate or control.”