Now that Sunday's referendum in Crimea approved the peninsula's annexation to Russia, the authorities in Moscow and Simferopol appear to be on the fast track to changing Crimea's borders, introducing the Russian ruble in Crimea as early as next week (though they say full incorporation into Russia may take up to a year). The opponents of annexation, meanwhile, are working on various fronts, preparing legal defenses and international sanctions.
For now, Kiev and Moscow have apparently agreed on a weeklong truce: "An agreement has been reached with (Russia's) Black Sea Fleet and the Russian Defence Ministry on a truce in Crimea until March 21," Ukrainian Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh told journalists. "No measures will be taken against our military facilities in Crimea during that time. Our military sites are therefore proceeding with a replenishment of reserves."
The big question from a military perspective now is, what might be the trigger for an armed conflict? Up until now, Russia has carried out its annexation remarkably adroitly, without firing a shot, and putting the onus on Kiev to fight back. Ukraine seems to have ceded Crimea to Russia, but if Russia were to try to press its advantage into eastern Ukraine, that would almost certainly draw a response from Kiev. Testifying before Congress on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S. didn't believe Russia would launch a full-scale attack on Ukraine:
"We make the judgment at this point that they don't have the assets in the places necessary to be able to march in and take over all of Ukraine, but that could change very quickly and we recognize that."
Citing discussions with Ukrainian officials on the possibility of a Russian invasion, Kerry said they believed "there would probably not be an all-out confrontation initially, but you would have a longtime insurgency."
Thus far, the U.S. and NATO have given no indication that they expect to be militarily involved in Ukraine. A request by Ukraine for military aid resulted in the U.S. giving nothing but the field rations known as "Meals Ready-to-Eat." NATO and the U.S. have carried out a small number of military exercises and deployments around Ukraine's borders as a show of support, but the appetite in Europe and the U.S. for direct conflict with Russia remains very low. "We are not talking about sending American troops into Ukraine, period," said U.S. Senator Dick Durbin on a visit to Kiev this weekend.
But what if they're not American troops, or Western European? There are a handful of countries in Ukraine's neighborhood that may see Russia's land grab in the Crimea as a threat significant enough to involve their own militaries. The Bug Pit decided to conduct a brief, extremely speculative thought experiment, imagining what sort of military might could be mustered by countries which actually might be willing to get involved. The likely possibilities seemed to be Poland, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania: all countries afraid of Russian power, with strongly anti-Russian foreign policies, and in which the populations would likely get behind supporting Ukraine. And the results of the thought experiment is that, those countries together would roughly double Ukraine's might, but still fall pretty short of Russia's. For example, to Russia's 766,000 active-duty troops, and Ukraine's 160,000, this coalition would add about 175,000. Russia has aver 15,000 tanks, Ukraine 4,100 and all these countries together about 1,200. And the coalition would more than double Ukraine's combat aircraft numbers, but still add up to only about a third of Russia's. (This is based on a very crude, back-of-the-napkin calculation of numbers of troops and heavy weaponry and doesn't take into account difficult-to-quantify factors like airlift, communications, command-and-control, and so on, in which Russia's advantage would probably be even greater.) The greater strength of this coalition of the willing would be political: it would look less like a geopolitical battle of the West vs. Russia, and more like Russia's neighbors fed up with its bullying, and as such would have a far greater degree of legitimacy both internationally and inside Russia. And it's better than nothing, which is what Ukraine has now.
The Bug Pit asked Konrad Muzyka, a Poland-based armed forces analyst at IHS-Jane's, about this, and he diplomatically called it "a very … interesting scenario" (ellipses as in original). He said that Poland's response in case Russia decided to invade Eastern Ukraine was certainly under discussion in the Ministry of Defense and General Staff. But Warsaw would not get involved outside of NATO, he said. "Poland would only act militarily (in a defensive posture) if it perceived its territorial integrity in jeopardy. I do not think the Polish armed forces have capabilities to conduct offensive operations in Ukraine," he said.
And that's Poland, the country in this would-be coalition with by far the greatest military capability. So it looks like, barring some extraordinary events, Ukraine is on its own for now.