March 31, 2014 § Leave a comment
As Russia has already experienced by the breakup of the Soviet Union into a hodge-podge of federal states, federalization is a political nightmare. For Ukraine, it is tantamount to political suicide. To be sure, certain nations, such as the United States of America, are hard-coded as federations while others, such as the Russian Federation, its territories wildly heterogenous in terms of culture, economy, language and religion, can only be kept together as a federation. In comparison, a comparably small nation such as France, Germany or Ukraine, is sufficiently homogenous to exist as a unified, sovereign, state. Ironically, Vladimir Putin is on a crusade to re-forge his crumbling federation into the super-nation of his childhood, the Soviet Union, while arguing the opposite for Ukraine.
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander
Federalization of Ukraine, as suggested by Russia, cannot be regarded as anything but a desperate attempt to salvage something from the debacle of the Yanukovich ousting and the desperate gamble of Russia’s Crimean invasion. This suggestion is the last bargaining chip, however, it is a conspiciously weak one. The decision to remodel Ukraine as a federation cannot be made by other states over the heads of the Ukrainian people – it has to be voted through by the Ukrainian parliament on the heels of a nation-wide referendum, which must be presented the case by the Ukrainian government, which, as you may recall, Russia does not acknowledge. To be precise, Russia has already stolen a vital part of Ukraine, Crimea, that needs to be returned to Ukraine before a referendum and federalization process can even begin. The vessel just does not hold water.
Federalization as a long-term strategy for conquest
It is obvious even to the casual observer that federalization of Ukraine would give Russia the opportunity to create a buffer zone of puppet states, through time-honoured manipulation, subversion and ”brotherly” trade agreements, against the inevitable march of western democracy. If such a thing were to pass, it is conceivable that the Russian-speaking minority of the eastern and south-eastern provinces of Ukraine would be strengthened, and other minorities subtly suggested to migrate, over a period of 10-20 years, so as to provide the bedrock of an eventual return to Russia proper by dint of referendums.
Image borrowed from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ukraine_ElectionsMap_Nov2004.png
March 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
In an article in the Daily Beast, former NYT columnist and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie H. Gelb, argues for the US to take a hard line against Russia’s undeclared war against Ukraine. Yep. Concur. He then goes on to slam president Obama for doing too little or nothing at all, reiterating how Obama has failed to enforce red lines in Syria, Korea and elsewhere, as a preliminary to suggesting that the US deploy a mass of 50-60 F-22 Raptors, unquantified Patriot anti-missile defense units and ”appropriate ground support and protection”. In addition to this, Mr Gelb suggests the US deploy, as a deterrent, instructors and materiél to support Ukranian partisans.
While the assessment that Putin will only be intimidated by actual force or the very credible threat thereof is beyond reproof, there are a number of holes in the hardware department. The chief problem is that 50-60 F-22 fighters comprises nearly half of the total combat-coded inventory, a number which, were they to be deployed, would be an ”all-in” move and leave the US utterly denuded elsewhere. Those 50-60 F-22’s represent the most advanced, and a most signifcant, part of the United States’ combat aircraft capability. They are not to be wantonly played with in a game of chicken on foreign soil. Furthermore, you don’t move such bulk of materiél and personnel on a moment’s notice. Yes, you can deploy a fighting team of four aircraft in just a day or two, but to get the ground services and command intelligence of a full deployment together, you will need a week at the least. It is an altogether unrealistic suggestion.
What then might a credible response look like? We’ll come back to that in a moment but let us first look at the most important factor: time. You may not have noticed it, but time is fast running out, on both sides of the fence. That fact alone governs much of the subsequent drama.
The Russian troops have been at a high state of readiness ever since the start of the Crimean campaign. Lack of action, a heightened sense of anticipation and weeks of unrelenting ”Ukrainians are fascist”-propaganda to keep them on their toes means that the average Russian grunt is now likely to suffer a measure of fatigue. Given a few more days the Russian troops will deteriorate further: physically, mentally and in terms of combat efficiency. Many of them are but conscript boys at the end of their term: they will be itching to get home as much as some of them will be itching for a fight, the kind of fight they’ve trained for and have come to expect as inevitable.
Russia has amassed thousands of soldiers and a lot of materiél close to the borders. This force will have to be used shortly, or it will start to break down. If inactive for more than two weeks, its morale and fighting capacity begins to erode. The ”grace” period is all but over. The spring is loaded. The troops must either attack or return to base. You don’t keep that kind of bargaining chip in the field for weeks and months on end.
This leaves Ukraine’s defense forces either precious little time for further preparation, or a lot of time. If there is little time available, the west should not do anything at all, inside Ukraine that is – because whatever it attempts will be too little, too late. Besides, NATO will not cross into Ukraine under any circumstance, as it is barred from acting outside its mandate and because there is nothing to be gained from a direct confrontation with Russia. Whatever message NATO wants to send is more conveniently communicated outside Ukraine’s borders than within. If there is a lot of time available, diplomacy may yet work and a military show of strength may not be required at all.
Now, back to the credible response. I believe NATO has delivered a substantial message already or Russia would be all over Ukraine like flies on shit.
That response includes deployment of a number of E-3 AWACS aircraft to the region, 12 F-16 fighters and 300 support personnel and a number of additional F-15 Strike Eagle air superiority fighters to patrol NATO airspace. Further significant signals have been communicated via the USS Truxtun, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer currently participating in joint exercises with Bulgaria and Romania in the Black Sea. Beyond this there have been reports about Polish reservists being called back to the colours – whether this is “routine” as professed or a subtle propaganda signal to the Russians is anyone’s guess.
Outside of these well-publicized deployments, it would be fair to guess that a number of other measures, overt and covert, have been employed in sending messages of substance to Russia. Such measures include increased signals monitoring, rerouting of satellites, radar lock-on’s, mobilization of JTAC assets, the appearance of ground observers and the deployment of passive monitoring devices at strategic junctions. Further covert measures are also likely, but I won’t speculate further.
The big question now is what leverage Russia will have behind her claim to maintain hold over Crimea once she is compelled to pull back her ground forces. The UN and world at large have condemned the invasion and annexation as illegal, and no squirming on Russia’s part is likely to change that position.
March 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
The Russian president Vladimir Putin, FM Sergei Lavrov and the defence minister Sergei Shoigu have all recently said that ”Russia will not invade Ukraine” and ”have no intention to cross the border into Ukraine”. However, Russia have already done so, in Crimea, on the Strilkove spit north of Crimea and with covert elements in the eastern provinces of Ukraine. Whatever these three say, you can pretty much file it as an outright lie.
However you look at it, Ukraine is at war with Russia. It is hard to label the loss of Crimea to Russian subterfuge and aggression as anything but an act of war, albeit without a lot of shooting and casualties. Still, it’s a war, and it’s not over yet. Not until Crimea is returned to Ukraine or Russia completes the conquest of Ukraine. That few actually label this event as war is mind-boggling. It’s not just an annexation – it’s WAR.
Russia is currently attempting to win time, by more lying, stalling and flim-flam, so that she may complete her preparations for the final conquest before the world wakes up and takes appropriate counter-measures. The swift and easy theft of Crimea probably surprised the Russian leadership as much as it did the world, and it is likely so that Russian plans did not envisage quite such a rapid victory. The rear echelons are pedalling hard to keep up. In the mean time, Russia’s stalling is working very well indeed.
The logistics of a full-on assault on Ukraine proper are daunting, and Russia does not like to launch into such an adventure without a guarantee for success – no sane military commander will roll the dice without loading it heavily in his favour. This is why we are hearing reports of up to 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders. The defender can muster perhaps one tenth as much, and those are the kinds of odds Russia wants.
Even so, the bulk of those 100,000 troops are not needed for combat purposes. They are only there for intimidation: their pure presence is enough to twist anyone’s knickers. They don’t need to fight, and they are probably not expected to.
The real fighting – if it needs to come to that – will be done by a small contingent of paratroopers, airlanding troops and forward elements of elite armoured formations. All that is required is the very smallest of a pretext, such as a harried minority or a hostage situation involving Russian personnel. I’m sure you can imagine a few pretexts by yourself. From here on, it is all speculation:
Shortly before dawn on Monday, March 31, transport aircraft carrying paratroopers will race in and seize Kyiv Zhulyany airport and Kyiv Boryspil International airport. Any defending units there will have been neutralized beforehand by nefarious means or ”masked gunmen”. The troop-carriers are preceded by fighter sweeps and attack helicopters, cordoning off the airspace and delivering surgical strikes against radar installations and SAM-sites protecting the capital. Once the airports are secure, airlanding brigades carrying elite infantry will reinforce the paras and begin the short advance to their secondary objectives.
With the airports secure, huge load-bearing aircraft and heavy helicopters will start bringing in armoured personnel carriers and other heavy equipment. By this time, the Ukranian parliament, TV-stations and other key installations are in Russian hands. All this takes place in the space of a few hours and is complete by noon.
Meanwhile, an armoured contingent rolls out from the “partisan woods” around Churovichi, Klimov and Novozybkov in Bryansk oblast and makes their way along E95 toward Chernihiv. There, an airlanding brigade has secured three vital river crossings against very light opposition. The defenders, occupying shallow holes in the ground and armed with nothing heavier than a BTR’s heavy machine-gun put up no more than token resistance as Russian helicopters approach with maximum shock and awe. Once the Chernihiv crossings are secure, Russian armour speed unhindered to Kyiv to bolster the already imposing presence there.
All of this is achieved with very little bloodshed. The speed and massive appearance of the Russian force stuns the defenders, and the world. In just a few short hours, Putin has overturned the table and created a new, terrifyingly convincing, bargaining position. What’s to stop him? The ridiculous Ukranian army, deployed at the borders which are now well to the rear and a complete non-factor? The 20,000 volunteer militia? Some try to make a fight of it but most of them melt away, some to become partisans, others to sullen diaspora and most to whatever they were doing before all this started.
By noon on Monday Ukraine is without leadership and without practical means to communicate, either with the world or with elements of its army busy defending the borders in the Kherson, Luchansk and Kharkiv oblasts. The Russian military expedition is subsequently expanded to these areas as well, but only after the Ukranian defenders have become totally demoralized by the lack of direction and the obvious loss of the capital. There is nothing left to fight for. The borders capitulate without a fight, within the space of a week, just as planned.
NATO can only watch and take notes. They have no formal right to intervene, and, while Russia dispenses with protocol in its invasion, NATO is not going to be dragged into a fight for which it has not prepared. It will be another week before NATO musters enough hardware and warm bodies to do anything more than act out a pantomime of frontier security for the benefit of Ukraine’s immediate neighbours. By then the diplomatic and military situation has shifted again, and Ukraine’s new borders have been established – along the Dniepr.
What if nothing of this transpires? What if the world wakes up to Russia’s flim-flam and take appropriate measures to pre-empt or forestall entirely Russia’s next move? Can the West do anything without being branded provocateur by Russia and condemned by the rest of the world? Keeping in mind that Russia has already initiated a WAR against Ukraine, it seems like ”appropriate countermeasures” is not only diplomatically kosher, but legal and recommended too. Problem is, it is probably altogether too late in the day already.
March 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
For Vladimir Putin, a short and victorious ”small war” in Ukraine is not enough. Putin needs a credible narrative to emerge as the saviour of the world, not merely as the conqueror of Ukraine.
The spectre of fascism, with all its historical connotations, is being invoked to establish a sufficiently plausible image, however rickety, of Ukraine and other former Soviet satellite states as a hotbed of aggressive nazism. The ostentatious rise of nazism gives Putin the historic right to intervene at his leisure. Who can argue against the corpses of 25 million Russian dead in the Great Patriotic War and the 6 million jews slaughtered by Hitler? This backdrop gives Putin the nonassailable right, nay, it provides him the imperative obligation, to act decisively. He is free to prosecute Russia’s Second Great Patriotic War.
If the West does not recognize this imperative it is because they are blind to the threat of nazism, or even rotted to the core by nazism already. Indeed, the failure to act against nazism is an act of aggression in itself!
Armed with this logic, and bolstered by the circular argument that Ukraine is non-governed by an illegal junta that Russia does not recognize, Putin is free, in his own mind, to roll over Ukraine with all the might of holy Russia.
However, Putin is not so dumb as to believe his own propaganda. It is only that, propaganda to lead the world to believe and accept the Russian version. If he can get the world to waver for just a day or two the millions of dollars and untold man hours of propaganda has been worth it, for by then Ukraine will be his.
No, Putin will not smash, burn and pillage Ukraine – not more than necessary. He wants its infrastructure and its serfs intact. He wants the pipelines to keep pumping gas into Europe once the western weaklings overcome the shock of assault and return to craving cheap Russian energy. He wants to tread carefully so that the world is not overly offended by war crimes but has sufficient reason to hail him as the liberator of Ukraine, liberator of the west!
Putin doesn’t want to kill too many Ukranians in the process – preferably none at all. He will want them to lay down their arms against Russia and induce them to scour their own ranks of purported nazi collaborators, such as is already happening in Maidan Kyiv. The West is of course sensitive to fascism and can easily be diverted to this purpose, spilling time, obfuscating the real issue, helping Putin. The hunt for real and imagined nazis can be prolonged ad infinitum. Putin’s goal, common with every Machiavellian ruler, is to divide and conquer.
Putin’s biggest asset in the Second Great Patriotic War is the brush and paint bucket. Paid thugs and Russian special forces operators have been busy daubing swastikas for cameras to record. By this token the stupid brutes of the Ukranian Right Sector unwittingly play straight into Putin’ hand by stampeding through Kyiv and by their bullying appearance in general.
War against Nazism is Putin’s bid, not only as an excuse for annexing Ukraine under the nose of impotent Western powers but as a vehicle for re-establishing the former Soviet Union (and more) as the vaunted Eurasian empire. Anyone who disagrees with that is a hitlerite apologist and outright opponent.
How can the West stop this rotten excuse from permeating? Looking inward and trying to rid Ukraine and the West from any and all evidence of fascist/neo-nazi presence is nigh impossible and only serves to support Kremlin’s game plan. Denouncing and combating the rise of fascism at home and abroad has been a Western mandate since the 1930’s, yet it will never be enough to satisfy Putin.
Exposing the Russian and Ukranian thugs engaged in neo-nazi maskirovka ops, exposing the Russian homeland neo-nazis and Putin’s alleged ties to neo-nazi organisations has proven inconclusive. Such exposures have drowned in Russian propaganda, Russian cointelpro and in the vortex of unfolding events on the ground.
Painting Putin as the new Hitler – Putler – is counter-productive as the claim cannot be proved any more than Putin can prove that Ukraine and the West is ridden by nazis above and below. The spectre of nazism and associated accusations is utterly useless except for mud-slinging. It cannot be used to stave off impending assault in Ukraine on the same token as it cannot be used as a justification for aggression or pre-emptive measures.
There is but one thing that can stop Putin from extending his vision and that is to speak the only language he understands – the language of power, expressed as military might, on the ground, where it matters. There is no way around it. There will be blood.
March 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
If, by some miracle, Ukraine is not invaded by Russia, now or sometime in the near future, it is not because Putin is buckling under western sanctions but because the price of keeping Ukraine may be steeper than that of letting it go.
Vladimir Putin hates to see a former Soviet territory go bonkers with democracy. Not because he hates democracy, to the contrary, democracy is what has made him and his pals rich, but because democracy is only good when it stays at arms’ length from Russia. And a democratic Ukraine is too close to home.
There are of course plenty of other reasons why Putin prefers to keep Ukraine in a warm embrace, such as gas export gateway issues, Ukraine’s vitally strategic location, critical military-industrial factors and for embezzling purposes, but democracy and Putin’s loathe of same is at the heart of the conflict.
Now, let’s make a thought-experiment and play with the idea that Russia does invade Ukraine in the first weeks of April. Armoured columns supported by paratroopers and airlanding brigades race across the old stomping grounds of Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Kryvyi Rih and Kyiv, to end up frothing by the borders of Poland, Moldova, Hungary and Slovakia. The threadbare troopers of the Ukranian army are crushed in a last-ditch stand on the Russian borders, thousands of civilians and hastily assembled militias are swept aside on the streets of the capital, and millions of refugees swamp the roads in a frantic end-run to a life in exile.
At the close of the Russian blitzkrieg Ukraine lies gutted. Its factories thrashed and scorched to the earth, its gas pipelines shattered, its bountiful fields trampled and deserted, and its cities captive to troops and roving bands of vengeful ultras, Ukraine is a shambles that must be rebuilt from the ground up before it can yield any sort of return. And Ukraine, its economy systematically plundered by the ancien régime, was pretty much in ruins even before war began.
Rebuilding a war-torn Ukraine will cost hundreds of billions that Russia cannot easily part with, or even earn in the first place, in the face of a full-on blockade erected by the civilized world as response to bare-faced military aggression.
A Ukraine defeated does not cease to be belligerent. Ukraine has a long track record of popular and partisan resistance to any occupying nation, be it Russia, Germany or Poland. While a superficial military victory is likely, long term victory is far from assured in a country decked with woods, swamps and urban centres capable of hosting all kinds of organized resistance. The Chechen wars will look like kindergarten in comparison – and this in a piece of territory right on Europe’s doorstep, not in some remote Caucasian hellhole.
What of NATO? Well, in his keynote address to the EU on March 26, president Obama virtually handed Putin a carte blance to do as he pleases in Ukraine. He said, essentially, that NATO is concerned and the EU prepared to impose further and more severe sanctions should Russia stay its course, and that NATO stands firm in its pledge to its member states. Which, of course, Ukraine is not.
Thus, with a NATO constrained by presidential order to stand at arms along its member states’ borders but otherwise impotent to oppose Russian armed aggression, Russia can have its way albeit at a high cost in sanctions up to and including a western blockade. By his word, repeated more than once for emphasis, the US and NATO have relinquished its military hold on Russia and rendered the superlative capability of Abrams tanks, stealth bombers and drone-delivered munitions null and void. I’m sure Kremlin sabred a lot of Crimean champagne that evening, although the brew will prove to be more sour than heady.
Russia Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Should Putin elect to conquer Ukraine, and a lot of factors are pointing in that direction, he will be saddled with a ruined land, a belligerent population, a debilitating blockade, billions of forfeited income and prospects of a besieged position from which there can be no escape. He cannot re-instal a fresh puppet regime for fear of a repetition of what has just transpired and must perforce keep his own heavy hand firmly in place, nor can he count on the NATO ever to back down from its defensive commitments. It may not lead to WWIII, but he will put Russia, and the world, right on the doorstep to just that. That is the plague.
While Russia may seem to have won the battle of Ukraine, it will not be long before the Russian population tire of living under warlike conditions, tire of having no access to western luxuries such as hamburgers, smartphones and internet, tire of attending funerals of sons lost to Ukranian rebels and tire of repression that makes North Korea look like a Sunday outing.
On the other hand, should Putin choose cholera and allow Ukraine to somehow muddle through its current plight and move toward a European-style democracy, with or without support from the EU and with or without Russian interference, he will have signalled his own complete impotence to the world, and more significantly, to the Russian population. Therefore the battle of Ukraine, however it is fought, is not a battle for or against Ukraine but a battle for Russia. And that is the one battle he must not lose.
Further reading. George Friedman: Ukraine on the Edge of Empires