Russia's aim in recognizing 'independent' republics is to smash Ukraine bit by bit, expert says

Russian President Vladimir Putin's recognition of two breakaway regions of Ukraine as "independent" republics is the pretext Moscow has been looking for to invade, say experts. The problem is, even with 160,000-190,000 troops, Russia may not have enough forces to take — and more importantly hold — the entire country.

Recognition of 2 breakaway regions in Ukraine is pretext for invasion, former national security chief says

Multiple launch missile systems are seen on a road outside Kyiv on Tuesday. (Antonio Bronic/Reuters)

Over the last few weeks, as allied Western nations screamed from the rooftops that a further invasion of Ukraine was nigh, the people at the centre of this extraordinary crisis in eastern Europe have been patiently waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop.

And now it seems it has.

It wasn't as though, with their suppressed anxiety and studied skepticism, the Ukrainians were willfully blind as they pushed back against the warnings. They could see the massive Russian military buildup on their border and knew what it meant.

They have seen this movie before, a couple of times. The difference was that before, we in the West weren't paying attention, or perhaps didn't fully understand what was unfolding in the complicated layers of post-Soviet politics. 

Justification key for Moscow, expert says

What was missing for several weeks throughout the sky-is-falling invasion warnings was pretext, many Ukrainian leaders and senior officials have argued to anyone who would listen. 

Moscow, they said, needed a set of circumstances that they could use — or engineer — to give Russian military action a veneer of global legitimacy.

"The matter of justification of the invasion is crucial for them to avoid serious international punishment," Oleksandr Danylyuk, Ukraine's former national security chief, told CBC News in a recent interview. 

With Russian President Vladimir Putin's recognition on Monday of two breakaway Eastern Ukrainian regions as so-called "independent" republics and his order for Russian peacekeepers to protect them, the final missing piece of this tragic international puzzle fell into place. 

Oleksandr Danylyuk, Ukraine's former national security chief and expert on Russian warfare, says the matter of justification of any potential invasion is crucial if Russia is to avoid serious international punishment. (Murray Brewster/CBC News)

Interestingly, the Russian parliament last week called on Putin to recognize the autonomy of both the Donetsk and Luhansk regions — a notion the Russian president's spokesperson initially swatted away as a violation of the international agreements that have tried to end the seven-year proxy war in the region.

"As we can see, the West is mostly not ready for a real clash with Russia, and Russia is very good at giving them, you know, excuses to say that this is not a very certain situation," said Danylyuk, who now heads the Centre for Defence Reforms, a Kyiv-based think-tank that has studied Russian warfare methods.

The goal, he said, is to dismember the country, piece by piece.

WATCH | What does Putin's recognition of separatist regions mean?: 

What does Putin's recognition of separatist regions mean?

6 months ago
Duration 4:44
Jodi Vittori, a non-resident scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, discusses the wider implications of Russian President Vladimir Putin's recognition of two breakaway regions in Eastern Ukraine as independent. (AP Photo/Denis Kaminev)

"It's not a matter about their ability to invade Ukraine. It's about their ability to control Ukraine after that," said Danylyuk.

"That's why the partition of Ukraine into several parts — this is what they need. In such a case, they could leave the central and western Ukraine for some time and start digesting the east and the south."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, reacting to Putin's decree, tweeted on Monday that "Canada strongly condemns Russia's recognition of so-called 'independent states' in Ukraine."

"This is a blatant violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and international law. Canada stands strong in its support for Ukraine — and we will impose economic sanctions for these actions."

WATCH | Canada condemns Russia's recognition of separatist regions in Ukraine: 

'Further invasion of Ukraine' will trigger long-threatened sanctions package against Russia: Joly

6 months ago
Duration 7:51
"Should there be a further invasion of Ukraine we will go ahead and do it," said Foreign Affairs Min. Mélanie Joly when asked whether Putin sending a "peacekeeping" mission into separatist-controlled regions of Ukraine would trigger the long-threatened sanctions package.

Russia likely lacks forces to hold Ukraine

Military experts who've watched the Russian buildup for weeks have candidly said that even with 160,000 to 190,000 troops, Moscow had not assembled enough forces to overrun — and more importantly hold — all of Ukraine.

"I don't think they could make it to the Dneiper River, actually," said retired American lieutenant-general Ben Hodges, referring to the river that divides Ukraine and a north-south line, in a recent interview with CBC News.

"If the Russians attack it will be bad. It will be bad, but I don't think they can sustain logistically what will be necessary."

Defence Minister Anita Anand met with her Ukrainian counterpart, Oleksiy Reznikov, at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, and watched last weekend as Russian proxy forces in the Donbas ordered a general mobilization and evacuated civilians.

The writing appeared to be on the wall at that time. 

"We are preparing for all eventualities and we are supporting Ukraine in responding to all eventualities," said Anand in an interview with CBC News.

Canada's shipment of lethal weapons, including machine guns, carbines and hand guns, arrived in Ukraine over the weekend.

Ukrainian soldiers walk during training for the use of US M141 Bunker Defeat Munition (SMAW-D) missiles at the Yavoriv military training ground, close to Lviv, in western Ukraine, on Feb. 4. The U.S. accused the Kremlin on Thursday of an elaborate plot to fabricate an attack by Ukrainian forces that Russia could use as a pretext to take military action against its neighbour. (Pavlo Palamarchuk/The Associated Press)

During her meeting with Reznikov, Anand also restated Canada's pledge to help bolster Ukraine's cyber capability — something promised at the end of January.

Over the last few days, the Ukrainian government has suffered a debilitating cyberattack, but Anand declined to say what sort of assistance Canada has provided to get government departments, including Ukraine's defence ministry, back on their feet.

WATCH | 'Putin should and will be punished' former Ukraine ambassador says: 

'If necessary, we will fight for every house and for every street': Former Ukrainian ambassador

6 months ago
Duration 7:59
"We know that we stand on the wall, the winter is coming and we are to defend civilization from the evil," said former Ukrainian Ambassador to Canada Andriy Shevchenko, referencing the Night's Watch from Game of Thrones when asked to describe the mood of Ukrainians right now.

Tug-of-war over Donbas region continues

Danylyuk said the Donbas region, which Putin has ordered Russian troops to protect, has long been at the heart of a tug-of-war between the two countries.

The first attempt to "invade and divide Ukraine," he said, took place in 2004 when pro-Russian politician Viktor Yanukovych, who later became the country's president, tried to organize a separatist assembly in the Luhansk region, along the border with Russia.

The Russians failed in that attempt, and Danylyuk said they tried again once Yanukovych was elected president, but "they miscalculated the potential support from the Ukrainian population that the Russians could get."

Yanukovych was deposed and forced into exile in 2014 after rejecting closer ties with the European Union and overseeing a bloody crackdown against demonstrators in Kyiv's Maidan Square.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.