How Ukraine Can Avoid Russia's Cold War Trap

Earlier this week I wrote about why Russia might invade Ukraine to precipitate a new Cold War, with long-term economic concerns driving Vladimir Putin's actions. Now, Russia is moving an aid convoy, consisting of 280 trucks, toward Kiev with the ostensible goal of providing humanitarian relief to pro-Russian separatists who are under attack by Ukrainian forces. At the same time, reports indicate that Russia has amassed nearly 45,000 troops and heavy military equipment near its border with Ukraine, a menacing sign of a potential invasion.

For its part, Ukraine has said it will refuse entry for the Russian aid convoy unless it is led by the Red Cross (which it is not) and that it would consider the entry of the convoy an act of aggression. While this might seem like the right move, it is actually the exact opportunity that Putin is waiting for in order to escalate hostilities in the region, and is a trap that Ukraine should avoid.

It is not impossible that regardless of whether the convoy is permitted in or not, Russia would still invade Ukraine, as NATO has pointed out, but it is still more likely that Putin will wait for some type of pretext in order to justify his action, and the denial of humanitarian aid would give him just such an excuse. This is especially true if the convoy itself is genuinely conveying food, water, and medicines.

Even though the U.S. and several European countries have explicitly forbidden Russia from sending such a unilateral mission to Ukraine, it would still be difficult for them to justify their position if Kiev turns away the Russians given the rapidly worsening conditions faced by the rebels. The international community may be able to see through Russia's pretensions but seeing through them is one thing, proving and therefore acting on them is another.

If Putin is smart (and so far he has been), the convoy will be legitimate. The Ukrainians, of course, are entitled to and should confirm that before letting the vehicles through the border, but that is about all they can do at this stage. The unpleasant fact is that if Russia really intends to invade the region, it will do so with overwhelming might regardless of whether Ukraine allows its mission into Kiev, and the Trojan Horse aspect is all but irrelevant. The only thing that refusal will accomplish will be to enable Putin to expedite his Cold War scheme and use Ukraine's intransigence on the humanitarian issue as a moral justification for an incursion.

Another thing to recognize is that Putin's constituency on this issue is not just the international community but the Russian public as well.

As it stands, the Russian people are in favor of their motherland coming to the humanitarian aid of the rebels in Ukraine although they may not be quite as favorably disposed to an outright invasion. That is precisely why Putin has sent this convoy. If it is allowed in and Russia decides not to invade, the Russian Premier still looks good to his people. If, on the other hand, Ukraine refuses to let Russia provide food supplies and medical relief to the rebels, Putin will have an easier time re-casting an invasion as a "humane necessity" rather than as an imperialistic move.

That is why Ukraine's reaction to this convoy is loaded and critical. That is also why the U.S. should encourage the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, to play ball with the Russians (at least for now) and take away the most potent weapon that Putin has in his arsenal -- moral justification.

Sanjay Sanghoee is a political and business commentator. He is also the author of two thriller novels, available at www.sanghoee.com. Follow him on Twitter @sanghoee.