Reports continue to grow of an increase in Russian troops along the border with Ukraine. But how likely, really, is a military invasion of Ukraine? Russia Direct asked the experts.

Russia's defence minister Sergei Shoigu watches military exercises at the Kirillovsky training ground. Photo: ITAR-TASS

Around the world, media sources continue to claim that Russian troops are ready to enter East Ukraine, citing a U.S. classified intelligence assessment of the situation.

According to CNN, for example, U.S. military and intelligence officials saw “several worrying signs in the past three to four days” in the troublesome region. They compared the alleged buildup of the troops with Moscow’s military stance before the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict “in both numbers of units and their capabilities,” CNN reported.

“This has shifted our thinking that the likelihood of a further Russian incursion is more probable than it was previously thought to be,” one top U.S. official said.

Meanwhile, Fox News quotes Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby and the Wall Street Journal in its claims that Russian forces deployed along the border with Ukraine are not carrying out legitimate military exercises. Instead, they “are concealing their positions and establishing supply lines, stoking fears among U.S. intelligence agencies.”

With this in mind, Russia Direct asked Russian and foreign experts about the likelihood that Moscow will interfere in Ukraine and what the consequences of such a move would be.

Dmitri Trenin, Director of Moscow Carnegie Center

I think that psychosis about Russia’s upcoming intervention [in Eastern Ukraine] should be characterized as a “medical” finding. The reality is that Russia is preparing for different scenarios in Ukraine, including a response to public unrest based on socio-economic grounds and the Ukrainian authorities’ inability to cope with the standoff. This could result in the collapse of the Ukrainian state. And it is a very bad scenario if it comes true.

In order to prevent Moscow’s “expansion,” the West should quickly and effectively prop up Ukraine’s interim authorities financially, politically, constitutionally and administratively. Stability in Ukraine depends on the capability of its leaders to create a domestic balance – both regionally and linguistically – and that means finding a geopolitical equilibrium in Ukraine’s East.  

Michael E. O’Hanlon, visiting lecturer, Princeton University, adjunct professor, John Hopkins University, senior fellow and director of research, Foreign Policy Department, Brookings Institute

I am strongly opposed to any such move into eastern Ukraine by Russia.I write this as someone who understands even if I do not support what Russia did in Crimea. Any referendum should have waited a much longer time to allow fears and tempers to cool and international observers to arrive and a full debate to occur first (even if Russian troops stayed in Crimea at the same time).

So what Russia did in Crimea was wrong, but it could have been made more or less tolerable if it had been handled differently and more patiently. That is because of Crimea's complex history and current high proportion of native Russians and Russian speakers.

By contrast, any move into eastern Ukraine under current circumstances would signify a much more general imperialist and expansionist attitude by Moscow and be deeply regrettable.

Andrei Kortunov, General Director of the Russian International Affairs Council

It is premature to say that Russia’s troops will invade Eastern Ukraine. After all, Russia has no plans to deploy its troops there, according to official information that was confirmed by Russia’s Foreign Ministry and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

However, under certain circumstances, Moscow might interfere. Yet, such interference might be justified only in the case of total havoc and chaos in Kiev, if Ukraine is in total collapse, if radicals increase their influence in the country. Given the recent events and increasing activity from the Right Sector radical organization, the turmoil in Ukraine is far from having been resolved.

Nevertheless, currently, there is no such situation in the country that would justify Russia’s interference. We also should keep in mind the response of the West, which strongly opposes such a scenario and makes no bones about the grave consequences that would result. And the Russian authorities are mindful about it.          

Igor Korotchenko, editor-in-chief of the Moscow-based National Defense magazine and director of the Center of Analysis of the World’s Arms Trade

Russia will deploy its troops in Eastern Ukraine only in the case of full-fledged civil war and military actions against ethnic Russians. Moscow will protect it compatriots and rely on the Kosovo precedent as well as on the norms of international law. In this context, Russia doesn’t care about its relations with West. We don’t care about the NATO response if we find our compatriots’ lives endangered in Ukraine. In short, we will act in accordance with our national interests and international humanitarian law. 

Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Brookings Senior Fellow at Center on the United States and Europe

Washington is very concerned about the size and readiness of the Russian forces that have deployed near the eastern Ukrainian border. Instead of moving to de-escalate the crisis, Moscow is keeping the heat on. At the least, the Russian military presence seems intended to keep the government in Kiev on edge.

That would be consistent with other Kremlin actions designed to destabilize Ukraine. It is unclear how far Mr. Putin intends to go, despite his statement that he had no further territorial designs on Ukraine. A Russian military intervention into eastern Ukraine would be a dangerous move. Ukrainian military units would fight, and there could be resistance from the civilian population as well.

While the Russian military is superior in weapons and troop numbers, it would be a very ugly situation. Should Mr. Putin make the mistake of a broader military intervention in Ukraine, I would expect the West to respond in a variety of ways, including with major financial and economic sanctions against Russia.

Michael Slobodchikoff, professor in the Political Science Department at Troy University.

The West is increasingly worried. Many observers are convinced that Russia will invade Eastern Ukraine, and that Eastern Ukraine will become a part of Russia much like Crimea. While that is a distinct possibility, Russian forces have not invaded Eastern Ukraine yet, and seem reluctant to do so. Had the annexation of Eastern Ukraine been Russia's goal, it would have done so already.  So the question remains as to whether or not the Russians will annex Eastern Ukraine, and the answer to that question is a resounding “maybe.”

The Russians are ready to move their forces in should they decide that they want to annex Eastern Ukraine, but do not seem to be in a hurry to do so.  Instead, they have approached the West and made a proposal to make Ukraine a federal system, with increased autonomy for Eastern Ukraine. This is a way of ensuring that they don't have to annex Eastern Ukraine, yet can still influence policy there.

[Read full version of Slobodchikoff’s opinion here]

UPDATE: This article was updated on March 28, 2014 to include commentary from  Steven Pifer, Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.