You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Russia Has Basically Invaded Ukraine Again. Here's Why Kiev Isn't Shooting Back


You’d be forgiven for losing count of the number of times the provisional government in Kiev has set a deadline for pro-Russian separatists to clear out of government buildings they’ve seized across eastern Ukraine, only to have that deadline pass with barely a whisper.

For the record, there have been two ultimatums, which is exactly one ultimatum too many. It's also now the number of times in as many months that Ukraine has been invaded by Russia: According to the Ukrainian government, the separatists holed up in the south and east of the country are actually Russian special forces, sent in by Moscow to cleave off Ukraine’s richer half. This is corroborated by lots of other sources, too, including U.S. intelligence. That means that Ukrainian territory has once again been seized by the military of another country and the Ukrainian government hasn’t really fired a shot. Even in the last two days, despite the images of Ukrainian armored personnel carriers snaking toward the east, there has been nothing doing: The Ukrainians managed to retake one airfield—and lose six APCs to the rebels. 

So why is a twice-invaded Ukraine not shooting?

The primary reason is that no one wants to go to war with nuclear-armed—and increasingly unhinged—Russia, but it's much more complex than that. 

  • Georgia. Remember August 2008, when Mikheil Saakashvili, then president of Georgia, responded to Russian provocation in the region (like handing out Russian passports to residents of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia) by firing? Within days, Russian tanks were bearing down on Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, and the corpses began to pile up. By the time the dust had settled, Georgia had lost 20 percent of its territory. It hadn't been much of a fight at all.
  • Chechnya. And yet, Georgia is not the example that comes to mind in Kiev. Here, everyone remembers not Georgia, but Chechnya. They remember well what happened there when a small band of separatists declared Chechnya's independence from Russia. Moscow bombarded them in the capital city, Grozny, and discovered what lots of big armies are surprised by: urban warfare is horrible and sticky. Russia eventually defeated the Chechens, but it took nearly a decade, thousands of casualties, a devastated Chechnya, and unspeakable atrocities. Kiev is facing armed separatists holed up in buildings. Can it smoke them out without opening a Chechnya-like vortex?
  • The risk of creating a civil war. Though the protests in the south and east of Ukraine don't seem to be widespread or even popular, this provisional government is seen as western Ukrainian and therefore is regarded with some suspicion by eastern Ukrainians. Furthermore, since the Russian commandos in places like Slaviansk are also surrounded by pro-Russian locals, what would happen if the government in Kiev shot at their own citizens? Some observers fear that this could trigger a war even though, just a month ago, no one would have imagined Ukraine to be a country on the brink of civil war.
  • Loyalty. Or lack thereof. The problem with provisional governments is that they often don't inspire much loyalty, especially from their own armed forces. There were reports, for example, that Ukrainian troops handed over those APCs over to the rebels themselves, planting Russian flags on them.
  • Who would do the shooting? After the massacre on the Maidan in February, the new government in Kiev disbanded the Berkut, the Ukrainian special police who shot at protesters. Many were then publicly humiliated across Ukraine, having to apologize from city stages on their knees. This has created three problems. First, there are rumors that some of the former Berkut fighters, feeling betrayed and embittered—and unlikely to see this government as legitimate—fled to Russia, were outfitted by Moscow, and sent back to fight. Second, in disbanding Berkut, Kiev lost some of its best fighters, then ones that could potentially flush city buildings of special forces. Third, the move created uncertainty in the ranks of the rest of the Ukrainian police and armed forces: if they obey orders to fire now, will they be thrown under the bus later?
  • Can anyone shoot? The nuclear disarmament of Ukraine in 1994 set the stage of a further demilitarization, one that has only accelerated in the last few years. Compared to the Russian army, the Ukrainian army is outnumbered and under-equipped.
  • The Americans. In statement after statement, call after official call, the White House, State Department, and Department of Defense have been praising the Ukrainians for their "restraint." Several U.S. sources, both in the states and abroad, have said that American officials are urging restraint, too, even as they express understanding of the increasingly untenable situation in the east. And the Russians understand this. In his most recent phone call with Obama, Putin asked the U.S. "to use every opportunity available to the American side to prevent violence and bloodshed."

It's quite a rich dilemma soup, and none of these factors will go away any time soon. In the meantime, Russian forces remain poised on the Ukrainian border, waiting for any pretext to go in and "protect" "Russian-speakers." Prediction: this weird, slow-moving, non-invasion/non-war will drag on for a while. Until Putin finally calls off the hounds.