Stratfor notes that Russia's actions could be for the purpose of invasion or negotiation. Their model suggests while military action will happen eventually, that no invasion is likely this year:
Whatever the truth in the reports, it is obvious that the Russians are establishing a justification for taking action against Ukraine. Our model predicts that the Russians will eventually move to change the situation in Ukraine, militarily if necessary. Ukraine is too important to them strategically to accept anything less than a neutral government in Kiev. A pro-Western government with close ties to the U.S. and other militaries can evolve dangerously from the Russian point of view. Therefore, we expect the Russians to take some significant action – diplomatically, economically and/or militarily....
However, our view is that for the moment the military option is likely off the table. Ukraine is a very large country and just occupying it against minimal resistance would require a force that Russia didn’t have a year ago.
I agree that Russia can't conquer and expect to pacify all of Ukraine. I thought they lacked that capacity in early 2014.
And Ukraine is a harder target now.
But as long as Ukraine resists the Donbas campaign, Europe especially is shamed to keep sanctions on Russia for their invasion of Ukraine.
Russia surely notes that the conquest of Georgian territory didn't lead to sanctions. But Russia achieved their limited territorial objective. And Europe got over the invasion fast.
Russia surely notes that when the West speaks of Russian aggression against Ukraine, they mostly speak of the Donbas where Russia has failed to seize all their objectives rather than including Crimea which has been annexed in its entirety.
So the problem for Russia is that when Russia falls short of their objective, the West can't make excuses to accept the new status quo and move on. Sanctions-wise, Russia would have done better to not open the Donbas offensive and just settle for the Crimea victory.
But Russia is in Donbas. And they can't retreat from it. So the only solution is to go forward, complete a conquest, and give Ukraine the incentive to agree to end the fighting on a new, rational ceasefire line.
If Ukraine can be made to agree since Russia has all the objectives and Ukraine can't hope to free them, Europe will cave on sanctions. Even if we don't, that will be enough of a break in the chain to satisfy Russia.
Add in that we are in an election campaign and our president is unlikely to do anything decisive out of temperament and because it is bad form to enter a war that your successor would have to fight.
And entering a war might harm your party's candidate in that election.
Add in the slowdown in Russian involvement in Syria after giving their ally Assad some breathing space. Russia's limited military projection capability might be freed up for a Ukraine mission while Syria is in better shape (and as America makes gains against the Assad enemy ISIL to keep more pressure off of Assad).
Then consider that Putin really seems to like to time invasions with Olympics games (Georgia in 2008 while the Peking summer Olympics were going and Ukraine in 2014 following the Sochi, Russia, Olympics).
Also, Russia has parliamentary elections in September. And Putin has bolstered his authority with personnel moves, including naming Anton Vaino as his new right-hand man:
[Vaino] will now take up a powerful post that involves drafting laws for the president to submit to parliament, monitoring the enforcement of those laws, and conducting analyses of domestic and foreign affairs for the president.
Putin reshuffled several top regional officials in July in a move experts suggested was calculated to boost the Kremlin's chances ahead of parliamentary elections in September.
Russia is set to hold its next presidential election in 2018. Putin is widely expected to run for a fourth term.
Firing Ivanov takes out a potential rival who has the stature to rule Russia.
Would Putin like to start a war before the mid-September Russian parliamentary election to bolster his allies with nationalistic fervor (and before things could go wrong)?
Might this prepare the ground for another term in office for Putin by hook or crook?
Putin does have a personally loyal National Guard, dominated by former Interior Ministry troops, that could be used to pacify newly conquered areas of Ukraine; and to break up any demonstrations by the small minority in Russia that might openly oppose a renewed war of conquest.
And then consider that this fall America will likely be either on the cusp of supporting an Iraqi offensive in Iraq to take Mosul or be in the midst of it. Will we really be eager to risk a second conflict in Europe if Russia goes after Ukraine?
If I had to bet, I'd say that Russia renews their invasion of Ukraine this year. If I was playing a board game, that's what I'd do. Between the end of the Olympics and Russia's parliamentary elections.
The real question is what Russia tries to achieve.
The Russians would obviously like all of Ukraine. But as I judged when Russia went into Crimea, Russia doesn't have enough good troops to pull that off, let alone pacify the country. Even if Russian casualties to achieve victory are no obstacle.
The Russians could seek a land bridged to Crimea along the coast. That is within their capabilities to achieve from forward positions in Donbas and Crimea, plus control of the Black Sea. But it could falter if Ukraine is good enough. And it would face Ukrainian resistance after the conquest. This might just create another incomplete conquest that inspires European opposition and continued sanctions. And if the sole purpose is road access, a bridge across the Kerch Strait is preferable to the uncertainties of a military campaign.
Russia could try to add in Odessa and reach Romania's border. But that is even more of a stretch than the land bridge option; and it would raise alarm bells all across NATO as Russia rolls up to a NATO member's border.
Russia could complete the conquest of the Donbas region. That might finally get Ukraine to call it quits. But I'm not sure what that would add territory-wise that would really pressure Ukraine to agree to cede the lost territory.
If I was calling the shots, I'd want a drive from the north inside Russia to take Kharkov and an advance from Russian-occupied Donbas north to pinch off Ukraine's territory. Russian-supported Donbas puppet forces could be used to expand the Russian control in the Donbas region.
The end result would be to take a major city and largely control the Donbas. By pinching off a Ukraine salient north of Donbas, Russia's frontline from Kharkov to the Sea of Azov wouldn't be that much longer than the current Donbas frontline.
Ideally, Ukraine would feel the pain of losing a major city and recoil from continuing the war with Russian units potentially in range of an offensive aimed at Dnipropetrovsk on the Dnieper River.
And then Russia could look forward to prying apart Europe to weaken the sanctions that won't eject Russia from their conquests. Assert that he has no more territorial ambitions in Europe and plenty of Europeans will weep with joy and send trade delegations to Moscow.
Like I said, if this was a game, that's what I'd do. We'll find out soon if the Stratfor model is better than my gut feeling of how I'd approach the situation.