Austin Bay

In 2014, Putin's operatives in Crimea orchestrated incidents to "prove" his fiction. In Eastern Ukraine, agitation incidents by Russian operative serve similar propaganda purposes. A State Department fact sheet dated April 13 charged Russian military intelligence officers with coordinating provocations by pro-Russian militants.

When viewed in light of potential Russian military operations, the outline of a well-conceived, integrated military plan emerges. The incidents in Eastern Ukraine smack of calculated battlefield preparation operations. These agitation incidents help the Kremlin gauge Ukrainian capabilities and will to resist. They are also creating operational options for Russian forces, should Putin give the signal to invade.

The incidents in and around Slaviansk provide an example. Russian provocateurs seized government offices inside the city and an airfield to the south. However, Slaviansk is on a highway roughly midway between the cities Donetsk and Kharkiv -- truly key political objectives. Seizing Slaviansk gives Russian forces the option of wheeling north and isolating Kharkiv or turning south to Donetsk. At Slaviansk, Russian forces could drive west toward the Dnieper River and Kiev.

Ukraine understands that Slaviansk is critical terrain. No wonder Slaviansk is where Ukraine has begun its "staged counter-offensive."

Russia, however, could use Ukrainian counterattacks as a pretext for invasion. Here is how that works: On April 15, Ukrainian special operations troops re-captured the airfield south of Slaviansk, which had been seized by an alleged pro-Russian militia. Now think about that for a second -- threatened ethnic Russian citizens, fearing attack by Ukrainian gunmen, leave their neighborhood and go take a strategically useful airfield? Putin -- does he have brass -- claimed several ethnic Russians were slain in the attack; he called for U.N. condemnation of Ukraine. In response, Ukraine asked the U.N. to deploy peacekeepers to protect its territory.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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