With western sanctions in place and Ukrainian government forces nearing Donetsk, Vladimir Putin’s grand Ukrainian game seemed to be unraveling. German Chancellor Merkel offered him a way out – to meet next week in order to hammer out a deal. There is room to bargain, so it was not unreasonable to expect that Mr. Putin might want to take this option.
But apparently, he does not want to bargain from weakness. Or that is how I would interpret the news from yesterday and today that (1) a Russian “humanitarian” assistance convoy has entered Ukraine over the objections of Ukraine and NATO and (2) Russian military units have entered Ukraine and are firing on Ukrainian forces.
This may be a gambit to get the Ukrainian forces to hold back from destroying the separatist stronghold in Donetsk long enough to get a broader deal hammered out. Indeed, that is the most likely interpretation of events. If so, we might still hope for a deal.
But what if no deal emerges? Putin will have crossed yet another red line. He will have forced western governments to impose yet more sanctions. And his cover story that Russian forces are not actually in Ukraine will be exposed as a fabrication.
Mr. Putin is playing with fire.