Russia: Fast Forward to Epic Fail

April 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

 Every step forward in Ukraine will only hasten Russia’s demise.

Russia, despite exhortations and warnings to cease and desist, continues its aggressive march forward in Ukraine. Major troop movements a stone’s throw from the border, armed insurgents acting in the open and saboteurs, subversives and propagandistas too numerous to mention, are actively pursuing Russia’s strategy of destabilization in Ukraine.

Russia itself, and her apologists, claim that this is a natural reaction to western encroaches in its natural and historic sphere of influence. It is easy to be swayed by that rhetoric. After all, would not the US vehemently and perhaps forcefully oppose an alignment between Mexico and Russia? Would not the West look askance at a Russian deployment in Switzerland? These examples are of course far-fetched, but serve to illustrate the hurt and fear that Russia feels by a Ukraine aligning itself with the EU and possibly, eventually, joining hands with NATO. It’s a sensitive issue for sure.

Nevertheless, whatever fear and hurt Russia may feel caused by the advance of such odious concepts as freedom of press, fair and open elections, civic transparency and respect for universally recognized human values – cannot justify denial of these concepts to Ukraine, or to any country within or without its sphere of influence (such as Russia herself). These concepts and values are part and parcel of the advance of mankind. They blossom despite oppression – they are in fact enabled by it. Fighting against them is as futile as trying to stop the drift of a continental shelf. Russia too will feel the warmth of democracy, the taste of real freedom, the safety of brotherly love, eventually.

”Never interrupt your enemy when he’s busy making a mistake” – Napoleon Bonaparte

I submit that the clammy fear of invasion, hardly assuaged but fuelled by Russian assurances to the contrary while YouTube plays a never-ending stream of Russian columns approaching the border, is, however, baseless. Russia wants to grip Ukraine with fear, but it does not want to embark on a wholly unpredictable war. Russia is irate and afraid of progress, but it is not suicidal to the point of challenging the entire western world in a game of financial endurance.

Released from the threat of a Russian invasion, Ukraine will shrug off its fears and proceed, however painfully, to hold a free and fair election. It will elect a new government and a new president, and, hopefully, rid itself of the bad old ways of corruption and graft. Ukraine will cast away its old Russian shackles and emerge, free and vibrant, as a legitimate democracy.

In the unlikely case that Russia does invade Ukraine, it will only hasten its own demise.

Western sanctions – a fresh batch to be levied today – and western capital flight is taking an increasingly heavy toll on the Russian economy. Anders Åslund, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, argues that Russia is in no way capable of fighting a war, based on purely financial factors. In light of rampant corruption, stagnating oil revenues and a dysfunctional domestic market, Russia is barely capable of sustaining itself in times of peace. Imagine the kind of pressure the Russian economy would have to endure if its aggression led to sectoral blockade, to a crippling cut-off from the dollar economy, to a complete halt in imports. It would be devastating. The ”war” would be over in a matter of weeks.

If Russia sustains its covert war through pseudo-intermediates, i.e. pro-Russian separatists, it runs the risk of being branded as a state that sponsors terrorism. That would put Russia in the league of Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria, and open up for very considerable sanctions. The current situation in Sloviansk, Luhansk and elsewhere in eastern Ukraine is putting a considerable strain on the definition already. Given more of the same the international community will not hesitate in heating the branding iron. A petition to brand Russia as such is already open for domestic and international signatories, and while it is unlikely to gain full traction, or pass legislation, it is nevertheless a serious indication.

If Russia were to invade Ukraine – on ANY pretext – and attempt to draw a new border along the Dniepr, or to attempt the construction of a Novorussia out of its south and eastern districts, international condemnation would instantly halt such efforts. Russia would become the pariah of the world – except for a few hardy hostages to Russia’s weapons exports. A revived and exceptionally capable NATO – owing its resurgence entirely to Mr Putin’s aggression – will stand guard at Russia’s border until she voluntarily withdraws and relinquishes her ill-gotten gains. That alone will put a huge burden on Russia’s economy, the trade and currency blockade notwithstanding.

Russia cannot afford to distance itself from the rest of the world and its economy – it is dependent on international investment capital, on access to international customers for its exports and on imports of goods to satisfy its industry and its domestic consumers. An invasion will inevitably lead to massive sanctions that will quickly affect everyday life in Russia.

Putin’s effort to destabilize Ukraine is mandated on the one hand by the need to stop western expansion, and on the other to defuse domestic dissent and destabilization fuelled by injustice and corruption in Russia. If he succeeds in Ukraine, repercussions of international condemnation and sanction will have the opposite effect: it will serve to energize domestic dissent. And if he fails to achieve his goal in Ukraine, even former supporters of his aggression will turn on him when they realize the true cost of his failure, and the emptiness and the futility of his machinations. A failure will inevitably cause his strategy to backfire and cause widespread dissent – perhaps even to the point of sparking a new Russian revolution.

Putin is hostage to his own strategy. If he wins in Ukraine, he loses against the world. If he loses, well, then he loses both against the world and against his own people.


Putin’s Last Resort Before Full Intervention

April 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’m hesitant to write this because I don’t want to give Russia any ideas of how it can continue its path of destabilization in Ukraine. Then again, I don’t credit myself with being more inventive than Russia when it comes to state terrorism. Consider this as a warning plain and simple.

Russia, having failed to bring Ukraine to heel with threats, sabotage and subversion, and, having failed to rally enough people to provide a fig leaf excuse for ”peace-keeping” intervention, must surely now be considering what else it can do to further its agenda.

It seems to me, as diagnosed in previous posts on this blog, that Russia is unlkely to launch WWIII. That’s the good news. This is based on the pitiful state of the Russian economy and the bleak outlook of yet further sanction – up to and including a debilitating blockade of its trade, currency, travel and infrastructure. Furthermore, Russia’s vaunted military might is not all it’s been cracked up to be. My opinion is that Russia’s armed force is incapable of sustaining anything more than a very limited territorial grab. The best it can hope for is to remain a very powerful bargaining chip.

Thus, with a weak economy, an impotent military whose use is anyway counter-productive to Russia’s political goal, and with the failure of its bluntly subversive actions in Ukraine, what else can Russia do to stop Ukraine from holding its May 25 election, thereby legitimizing its stature as a free and sovereign state?

It can resort to outright terrorism.

Russia can leverage an anonymous war on Ukraine with all the means available to international terrorism: car bombing, suicice bombing, IED’s, suicidal hostage-taking, kidnapping, hi-jacking, random rocket attacks and general frightfulness ranging from house fires to beheadings.

Following a campaign of quasi-anonymous extremism Russia might have a more believable cause to intervene in Ukraine. The world, however, will know who the real scoundrels are, and will swiftly move to ostracize Russia and hasten its demise.

If such a strategy is chosen, and I hope to all things sacred that this irrevocable journey into the realm of barbarity is not embarked upon, there can be no return of Russia into the league of nations as long as Mr Putin and his cohort is at the helm.

Swedish Cellular Safety Network controlled by Russian Oligarch

April 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

The following blogpost is a translation of an article posted by Emanuel Sidea in the Swedish business magazine Veckans Affärer on Wednesday April 23.

BREAKING The Swedish cellular network, used by police, rescue services, coast guard, nuclear and electricity grid surveillance network, is controlled by an oligarch with ties to Russia’s presiden Vladimir Putin. Emanuel Sidea at Swedish business magazine Veckans Affärer reveal how Sweden’s strategically important infrastructure network fell in foreign hands.

It has a high degree of reliability and covers virtually all of Sweden. This is why the majority of Sweden’s key civil functions and organisations such as police, search and rescue, and electricity and nuclear monitoring services use the old 450-MHz cellular band for its mobile communication.

However, unknown to most, Sweden’s most critically important base network is owned and controlled by Leonard Blavatnik, a Russian oligarch with ties to Russia’s presiden Vladimir Putin.

Here is how oligarchs and a Russian minister scrambled over the license for the Swedish so-called ”safety network”. In the beginning of 2005 investors were invited to bid for a licence to operate in the 450-MHz band of the Swedish cellular network. Telia, the state-owned cellular operator, was in the process of shutting down the analog network by the end of 2007 and was looking for alternate operators to take over the entire 450-MHz band. Bids from five companies were received by the state-controlled Post and Telecom Authority (PTS) managing the auction. Marianne Treschow who was the Director-General at the time recall board discussions about the owners behind the bidding companies.

”I remember that there were discussions, but that all companies were approved”, she states today.

The highest bid turned out to amount to a whopping 86 MSEK (USD 13,000,000) offered by Nordisk Mobiltelefon (NMT). The year previous the same company had acquired the licence to operate the Norwegian 450-MHz band.

NMT is backed by a true veteran in the business – Arnfinn Röste, who has worked for Ericsson in China and has subsequently started several different companies in the cellular business. NMT is his latest project and plans for the company are geared toward further Nordic expansion, as implied by the company name. NMT’s plan is to digitize the 450-MHz band to 3G standard. At this time the major cellular operators are busy developing their 3G networks, however they are working in the high frequency band of 2,100 MHz as the low frequency bands are already at full capacity with GSM (2G) and its precursor, NMT.

The high frequency band has certain advantages: its capacity is greater. One mast can handle many calls and a lot of simultaneous data although short range is drawback. Many base stations, each costing approximately SEK 1,000,000, are required to cover a small area.

Signals emitted in the lower frequency band cover larger areas. The 450-MHz band has the potential to cover over 90 % of Sweden’s area with fewer than 500 base stations. 3G networks in the 2,100-MHz band comprise all of 8,000 to 9,000 base stations and only manage to cover up to 50 % of the land mass. In addition to this the 450-MHz band is highly reliable and is therefore used by core civil functions, chief among them the Swedish police, Swedish nuclear plants, coast guard and search and rescue services.

Vattenfall, owner and operator of the national power grid, uses it to remotely control its installations.

Robert Lindmark is responsible for public relations at Vattenfall’s power grid department. ”The advantage of the 450 network is that it covers areas where no one else has cellular coverage. This ensures that we can get in touch with our staff in the field and that we can download series of data from installations, such as the distribution of electricity and at which voltage and ampere it flows”, says Robert Lindmark.

In mid-2006, following the Government Supreme Court’s judging in favour of NMT in the license auction, NMT’s operation kicks into high gear and major investments are laid down. NMT’s low frequency band now covers almost all of Sweden ­– making it the sole operator to handle traffic in 90 % of the land mass and all of its coastline. NMT cooperates with the state-owned network operator Teracom in using their masts to build its cellular network.

Johan Jobér, who operated NMT together with Arnfinn Röste, states that a company named Access Industries expressed interest in acquiring NMT by the turn of 2007-2008. ”They made an indicative offer, but subsequently retracted it”, says Johan Jobér.

By the end of 2007 NMT closes its books with debts amounting to SEK 0,5 Bn. Losses amount to almost SEK 103 million whereas the turnover only reaches SEK 41 million. In the spring of 2008 the company’s accountant determines in his assessment of the annual report for 2007 that the future operation of the company is uncertain as it requires funding.

A few months later, in September 2008, the investment bank Lehman Brothers is declared bankrupt, triggering a global financial crisis. This causes a crash in the Nordic credit market and widespread panic. Banks do not trust each other even for overnight loans. Companies promised credits see these withdrawn. In November 2008 NMT is finally forced to cancel payments and the company files for reconstruction. The following month, in December 2008, a firm called AINMT Holdings AB (Incorporated) is created as a subsidiary to Delaware-registered Access Industries.

Johan Jobér, who participated in the discussions, describes a situation with several interested parties joining the negotiations. ”Teracom threatened with shutting down the network unless it became Access Industries. I suppose Teracom saw them as financially strong”, says Johan Jobér.

Teracom’s CFO Inge Lindberg is actively driving the negotiations and sources claim him to have stated that ”it is just as well to let NMT go bankrupt”. Inge Lindberg has declined to be interviewed by Veckans Affärer, citing as reason that he is no longer an employee of Teracom. In February 2009 NMT’s Norwegian company duly files for bankrupcy, shortly followed by NMT’s Swedish company.

Teracom now enters to protect the 37,000 customers’ use of the network. Teracom manages the operation of the 450-MHz network for two weeks. In February 2009 the Norwegian assets are acquired from the remains of Nordisk Mobiltelefon AS. This business is concluded in fifteen minutes. Shortly thereafter, in March 2009, AINMT also acquires the Swedish assets from the bancrupt NMT’s estate. This transaction is concluded in two weeks. The new owner demand PTS to transfer the cellular licence won by NMT to AINMT Holdings AB, owned by Access Industries. Access Industries is an investment company founded by Leonard Blavatnik. PTS accepts the license transfer.

Who is the new owner?

Leonard Blavatnik was born in Odessa in the former Soviet Union and studied at the Moscow Institute for transportation engineers. The family emigrated to the United States in the 1970’s and became American citizens. In 1986, at age 29, Len Blavatnik, as he chooses to call himself, creates his investment company Access Industries. He graduates from Harvard three years later. The Soviet Union is dissolving and awash in business opportunities. Victor Vekselberg, an old friend of his from the Moscow Institute, entices Leonard Blavatnik back to Russia. Access Industries cooperates with Victor Vekselberg in the creation of a conglomerate called Renova Group. The year is 1990.

They invest in aluminium and in other raw materials companies in the process of privatization, via a coupon system.

Pjotr Aven, Boris Jeltsin’s first foreign trade minister, has described parts of the pivatization process as ”pure theft of Russian property”. Few seem to know how Leonard Blavatnik collected his initial seed capital for purchase of shares during this time. Anders Åslund, a high-profile economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington DC, is well acquainted with both Vekselberg and Blavatnik. He knows Vekselberg very well. Anders Åslund too does not know where Blavatnik found his seed capital. ”Profits from trade in raw materials was a likely source, but I cannot tell for sure”, says Anders Åslund.

U.S. magazine The New Yorker tried to chart the elusive Leonard Blavatnik earlier this year. It too was unable to ascertain the origin of his seed capital. The magazine did however establish his efforts to reposition himself as anything but an oil and raw materials oligarch, chief among them donations to Harvard, The Bill Clinton Foundation and through the purchase of Warner Music. Access Industries presents itself as an American company registered in the low-tax state of Delaware.

The truth is that the company has been involved in major business deals in Russia over a long period of time. Leonard Blavatnik and Victor Vekselberg have made a name for themselves by creating a consortium called AAR together with oligarch Michail Fridman’s Alfa Group. They and oil giant BP created the jointly owned TNK-BP which was acquired by Rosneft in 2013.

Victor Vekselberg is now based in Switzerland while Leonard Blavatnik operates out of New York and London. They are not heavily engaged in Russia these days, according to Anders Åslund. ”TNK was their last joint project”, says Anders Åslund. Here it is prudent to mention that Vladimir Putin brought a commerce delegation led by Victor Vekselberg during his state visit to Stockholm in April 2011. The following year Putin himself wrote an article in state-owned Russian paper Rossijskaja Gazeta, in which he personally thanked TNK. Blavatnik, Vekselberg and Fridman had in 2002 – prior to the partnership with BP – contributed funds for the restoration of a military base on the Kamchatka peninsula.

For Lars Nicander, head of Centre for Asymmetric Threats and Studies of Terrorism at the Swedish National Defence College (SNDC), the information that oligarch Leonard Blavatnik owns the 450-MHz network comes as a surprise. “One should assume that a risk assessment has been made, although this can not be taken for granted. Decisions often cross each other, you begin by finding the lowest bidder and make a security assessment at a later phase”, says Lars Nicander. At Net1, AINMT’s commercial brand name for its cellular services, Vattenfall is presented as a reference client. Here, a Vattenfall executive testifies: “We were presented with the choice of building our own system, which is very costly, or turn to the commercial actors on the market.

Robert Lindmark, communications executive for power distribution at Vattenfall, states that the company owns its own broadband network, but that the company uses the 450-MHz network in remote, sparsely populated areas and in the archipelago.

What about the risks of allowing subcontractors access to Vattenfall’s management of the power grid?

“Safety is an important matter to us and we want to be absolutely sure that no one can enter our systems and manipulate stations”, says Robert Lindmark. “We make enormously high demands and write substantial secrecy agreements for power distribution that goes far beyond other industries.”

The Swedish Security Service (SÄPO) recently warned about the risks associated with government agencies outsourcing its services to third parties, something that Lars Nicander at the SNDC also warns against. “Naivety regarding security issues has been rife. We have seen something of an awakening lately”, says Lars Nicander.

In March 2013 the US published a list of sanctions aimed at Russian individuals close to Vladimir Putin. Neither Leonard Blavatnik nor Victor Vekselberg was listed, however, US FM John Kerry has threatened with further sanctions down the line. According to British newspaper The Guardian, Blavatnik, Vekselberg and Fridman, along with nine other oligarchs, are at risk to be included in the next round of sanctions. However, Anders Åslund, an acquaintance of Viktor Vekselberg and Len Blavatnik, indicate that they are not particularly close to president Putin. “They are the finest and most honest among oligarchs and have the least contact with Putin and his cohorts”, he says.

Not the only Russian bidder

The oligarch Leonard Blavatnik, now in control of the company who owns the Swedish security network, was not the only Russian among the bidders battling for the frequency licence. The second highest bidder was Green Network. It is represented by Claus Abildström, attorney for Jeffrey Galmond, also an attorney, from Denmark, and major shareholder in the Russian cellular company Megafon. Green Network initially appeals the license ruling to the County Administrative Court, then on to the Administrative Court of Appeal and finally all the way up to Sweden’s Supreme Administrative Court.

At this juncture there is a major brouhaha in Russia among shareholders of the Russian cellular operator Megafon in which Jeffrey Galmond is engaged. The Danish business press files stories about how the ”jetset lawyer” Jeffrey Galmond have been investing in Russia since the early 1990’s. Many pointed questions are raised about how an attorney from Denmark in but a decade, acting through his Bermada-registered company IPOC, have collected shares in telcos worth several tens of billions of Danish Kroner. An accountant from PWC notes, in a court case in Switzerland in 2004, that there exists an intricate network of IPOC companies which have been engaged in money laundering. German prosecutors also investigates Jeffrey Galmond and his companies on the same allegations.

The Russian oligarch Michail Fridman, another major shareholder in Megafon, provides an explanation to the Dane’s fortune – he suggests that Jeffrey Galmond’s share in Megafon is actually owned by the Russian Minister for telecommunications, Leonid Reiman. In Zurich in May 2006 an international arbitration tribunal rules that Leonid Reiman ”was the de facto owner of IPOC and that he had committed criminal acts according to Russian law”.

Leonid Reiman was one of the closest to president Vladimir Putin’s since their time together in S:t Petersburg in the early 1990’s.

The Reiman and Putin families were so close that Putin’s wife Ljudmila worked at a telecom company in S:t Petersburg from 1988 until Reiman became Minister of Telecommunications in 1999. There exists ”overwhelming evidence” that shows that Minister Leonid Reiman is the actual owner of IPOC in Bermuda, a company that owns shares in telcos that his own department regulates, writes a chief prosecutor on the British Virgin Islands to the American Justice Department in 2007.

This is the Jeffrey Galmond, alleged middleman for Leonid Reiman, who is behind Green Network in Sweden. Green Network has set its sight on the licence to operate a cellular network in the 450-MHz band. The Supreme Administrative Court verdict arrives in June 2006 – NMT gets to keep its license. NMT has now won the final round against Green Network, although at a steep legal cost and with a considerable delay in developing the service.

Another of the companies that placed bids on the Swedish 450-MHz band was Cubio Network Sweden AB. The bid stated that the company was owned by Complus Holding via the Finnish subsidiary Cubio Communications. It has later transpired that Leonid Reiman was behind Luxembourg-based Complus Holdings, via Telecominvest.

That there were connections between Green Network and Cubio is confirmed by a press statement sent by the Finnish company Cubio on September 2, 2004, in which the board member Claus Abildström reveals that Cubio stands ready to invest EUR 40 million in the Finnish CDMA network. The same Claus Abildström subsequently represented Jeffrey Galmond’s Green Network in the license auction concerning the Swedish 450-MHz band. In other words, the same few individuals appear time and again in license bids and in investigations about corruption and money laundering where intricate company constructs shield the real owners from view.

In May 2008, the Russian Minister for Telecommunications Leonid Reiman is deposed. American embassy officials in Moscow compile a report as of May 22, 2008, a report subsequently revealed by Wikileaks, stating that many analysts consider the cause of Leonid Reiman’s fall from grace his questionable business deals in the telecom sector. A few months later a new attempt is made to take ownership of the Swedish 450-MHz band.

Translation by Johan Kylander

The Honest Russians’ Appeal to the People of Ukraine

April 19, 2014 § 1 Comment

Reblogged from
Translated by George Pinchuk

Dear sisters and brothers,

In this horrible moment of time, we would like to address you with much pain in our hearts.

The ruling regime of Russia has crossed the last line in its progressing immorality. Without declaring war, it has started military operations in Ukraine. In the beginning of this past March, the Russian army occupied Crimea, and now it is attempting to seize the southeastern part of your country. During these operations, the special operations paratroopers from Russia hide their nationality and their faces, acting as the “little green men.” This is a shame for any combat troops. It is a shame for Russia and her Armed Forces. Never before did Russian soldiers hide behind a human shield. Even today no Russian soldier would do that, but the regime forces him to commit crimes against his brothers and against his own honor and dignity.

In order to occupy Ukrainian land and to annex a part of Ukraine, the Russian authorities use absolutely false slogans, crying about alleged “cruel oppression” of the Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine by the government in Kyiv. They also spread a lie that this past February, the power in Ukraine was usurped by Fascists and radical Banderite nationalists. We clearly understand that the former president of Ukraine Yanukovych, himself being a native of Eastern Ukraine, would never “oppress” his fellow Russian-speaking Eastern Ukrainians more than the people in the Western part of your country. He and his inner circle oppressed all Ukrainian citizens equally, by embezzling enormous sums of their money and turning the country that potentially was the richest in Europe into the country of paupers with no rights, sometimes forcing them to leave Ukraine and to look for a piece of bread abroad. We also very clearly realize that the government of today’s Ukraine in Kyiv, which was recognized by almost every country in the world, is not Fascist or ultra-Nationalist. This government started to manage Ukraine using a constant, ongoing dialogue with its citizens. It strives to make Ukraine a stable, democratic state.

We also very clearly realize that Ukraine, as one of the independent countries that formed after the collapse of the USSR, never, not even once, seized even an inch of land outside of the borders established by international treaties and inherited from the USSR. The present-day Russian Federation by no means is the sole heir of the country that used to be our common country. The land of Crimea (including the city of Sevastopol), the land of Donbas and any piece of the historical Russia is generously watered by the sweat and the blood of all ethnicities who lived in that historical Russia. All of them worked on it and all of them defended it. The statement of Mr. Putin that Crimea is now “re-united” with Russia is merely a false slogan. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan might also, by this logic, become “re-united” with Russia because they were, indeed, regions within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic until 1936. And then Finland and Poland might be “re-united,” because they were parts of the Russian Empire until 1917!

We believe that the agreement of December 8, 1991 about the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States must be respected and followed. The fifth article of this agreement says that “the honorable partners of the Commonwealth recognize and respect each other’s territorial integrity and the existing borders.” The same principle is documented by the second article of the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between the Russian Federation and Ukraine, signed on May 31, 1997. Finally, this same principle features in the articles third and fourth of the concluding document of the Helsinki summit of the Organization for Security of the countries of the European Union.

Today, treacherously breaking these, and a number of other international treaties, trampling her own signature under them, the Russian Federation, or, more precisely, the regime that seized power in it, carries out an in-your-face aggression against you, Ukrainians, with an outrageous cynicism. You are close to us, we – you and us Russians – should be brothers. But our rulers despise you and lecture you about your social order, your Constitution, your laws, urging you to change all these the way they, the Russian rulers, want. The current Russian regime, however, forgets that its legitimacy even over Russia is very dubious, because in Russia today, there are no open and fair elections at every level, including the presidential elections. Instead, all results of all elections are routinely falsified. So how can Russia push her will down another sovereign country’s throat?

We are disgusted by these actions of our authorities. We suffer from the shame in which they drag our country in front of the entire world community. We realize that we are becoming a rogue state, which has all the terrible economic and political consequences.

That’s why we want to declare to you, our dear Ukrainian sisters and brothers, with all possible strength: by standing up for your freedom, for your country’s integrity, – you also stand up for our country, Russia, for the freedom of our nation.
In this just fight – we are with you!

Signed: Lyudmila Alekseeva, Andrei Zubov, Mikhail Kasianov, Georgiy Satarov, Lilia Shevtsova

Ukraine: The Shoestring War

April 19, 2014 § Leave a comment


The Russian ”slow-motion invasion” of Ukraine, waged primarily by asymmetric means, suggests that the mighty Russian army could be but a mirage. Some commentators, such as Anne Applebaum, writing for Slate Magazine, describes the ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine as a ”new kind of war”: ”There is no “shock and awe” bombing campaign, just systematic, organized attacks on police stations, city councils, airports.”

This description gives Russia undue credit: in reality, this underhanded ”strategy” is born out of poverty and necessity rather than from a position of strength. That said, because the strategy is apparently working, it transforms weakness into strength. Seen from another perspective, Russia’s strategy is strengthened by the lacklustre response from a divided and corrupt Western society.

What’s an army good for anyway?
War, in Carl von Clausewitz words, is simply ”the continuation of politics by other means”. In war as in politics, the Machiavellian ”Prince” seeks to achieve an outcome by the cheapest possible means. The creation, outfitting, training and fielding of a conventional army is without a doubt the most expensive endevour imaginable. As we have seen in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that kind of army is not present other than as a final confirmation of an already established fact. The deployment and use of a conventional army is not needed, indeed, it is counterproductive to and the absolute reverse of the strategy of insidious conquest.

The only use of a conventional army today is to act as a threat and a bargaining card. It is sufficient to field a bare minimum of combat-ready troops and materiél acting as a façade, a Potemkin village, a ”marketing tool” to further the nation’s political agenda. This is how Russia has accomplished its goals in Ukraine.


Russia’s soldiers: Drunk, Hungry and Unfit for action
Facts on the ground points to Russia’s military as lacking in almost every respect. In an uncorroborated story told by Andrei Bulgarov, a well-known smuggler went over the border at night and, perplexed by the lack of perimeter guards, bumped into a Russian tank unit deployed there. According to the smuggler, the Russian army near the Ukrainian border is a second-rate rabble. After more than a month of mind-blowing inactivity in the field, the conscript soldiers are bored out of their skulls, half-starved and, not surprisingly, constantly drunk. Food was only supplied for the duration of the scheduled exercises. Since then the soldiers have been reduced to scavenging, begging and stealing food and other supplies in the surrounding villages. Their combat vehicles are ill-serviced and quite unfit for action.

Opposite to this bleak picture, the vanguard Russian troops seen in Crimea and eastern Ukraine belong to highly specialized airborne formations (VDV) and Special Operations units (Spetsnaz). These troops are well trained and well equipped with the latest weapons and protective gear. Others have been spotted wearing the new “Ratnik” combat gear, a suite comprising uniform, comms and protection equpiment that Western armies have fielded for decades. This kind of materiél is only just being introduced to Russian specialist units, in a very limited edition. This suggests that the remainder of the Russian units, lacking such equipment, are unfit for the modern battlefield.

The specialist troopers are but a minority of the force deployed to the Russo-Ukraine border regions. The majority of Russia’s military assets currently believed to be in the area, amounting to approximately 40,000 men, are “standard issue” units trained for conventional battlefield tasks. It is quite unlikely that this exceptionally blunt force will be called on to execute such offensive tasks as they are trained and equipped to perform, especially if their readiness and quality is such as described by the “smuggler” recounted above. They are a temporary occupation force at best, and at worst, a considerable liability.

Thus, the overt military threat to Ukraine is extraordinarily small. The bulk of Russian units are only for show and will never be used in their designed capacity. Therefore it is safe to say that Russia is waging a poor man’s war against Ukraine – and that this war can and should be opposed by comparatively cheap means: vigilant border guards, diligent enforcement of Ukrainian airspace, standard police work in public areas, and active counter-terrorist measures by special operations forces.

That said, a strong conventional army is of course a vital guarantee for the state’s existence. Without it and its latent potential for destruction, belligerent conquest is a foregone conclusion.

Russian Roulette in Ukraine

April 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

The on-going crisis in Ukraine highlights a critical disconnect between Russia’s political aims and its military’s capability to achieve said objective.

Acknowledging that Ukraine’s former status as a suitably mismanaged Russian puppet state is irrevocably lost, Russia’s only remaining option, short of outright armed conquest, is to ”divide and conquer” in classic Machiavellian style: to create a pro-Russian buffer zone of compliant states in eastern Ukraine as bulwark against further NATO encroachment. This is pretty obvious to any observer. It is less obvious that Russia’s army, and its vanguard clandestine forces, despite the perceived threat, does not pack enough punch to achieve the political aim through military means.

The Crimean Waltz
Russia is currently engaged in a ”war by other means” in Ukraine. The occupation and annexation of Crimea was a showcase of how a rejuvenated Russian army, inserted covertly and acting ”softly” by mere presence, could coax and bully Ukraine’s incredulous peacetime armed forces into near-bloodless surrender. Preceded by ”civilian” thugs and self-proclaimed ”people’s militias” to create instability and insecurity, the Russian army could walk in without a fight.

Following the unprecedented and wholly surprising success in Crimea, Russia has attempted to create similar conditions in south and eastern Ukraine according to the same script. So far the process has gone somewhat according to plan, however, developments have not matured enough to trigger the next phase: actual military presence on mainland Ukraine.

The reasons for this partial failure are manifold: some of it is attributable to Ukraine’s military scramble, to international diplomatic pressure and to NATO deployments and preparations. Other factors include Russia’s inability to muster enough ”popular support” in Ukraine to create a sufficiently valid pretext for invasion, as well as vigilance and efficacy of Ukraine’s security forces and border defences. If not for these factors Russian soldiers would be patrolling the streets of Kharkiv, Luchansk and Donetsk already.

Russia is not apt to give in just yet however. While the vanguard titushki and Spetsnaz troopers may have failed in producing favourable conditions for a ”Crimean Waltz”, Russia may still consider armed incursion a viable option, indeed the only remaining option. The big question is, can it succeed?

A Russian Market-Garden
The attempts at establishing separatist bridgeheads in the eastern provinces are still active and as long as they remain so the threat of relief from Russian troops must be considered acute. The separatists’ occupation of state administration buildings in Luchansk and Donetsk are akin to the Allied operation Market-Garden in Holland, September 1944. There, as in Ukraine, an advance guard of paratroopers (now: pro-Russian separatists) set up shop behind enemy lines while a sizeable relief force attempted to open a narrow corridor through to Arnhem (now: Luchansk, Donetsk). The attempt came close but ultimately failed. It will fail this time too. Here’s why:

To drive a corridor to Donetsk, Russian forces must travel a minimum of 120 km from the Matveev Kurgan area in Rostov oblast or a minimum of 220 km from the Shakty area, and/or a minimum of 220 km via Luchansk from the Kamensk-Shaktinsky area. This distance can be covered in 3-4 hours by a mechanized force travelling, solely on good roads, at an uninterrupted pace of 50 km/h. A conservative guesstimate of the available Russian forces in this sector puts them at around the 10-12,000 mark, or about two brigades worth of manpower. Of these, no more than half is likely to be committed to actual combat: the other half is kept in reserve. However, even the slightest intervention by roadblocks, ambushes and rear-guard actions delivered by Ukrainian forces, may cause the advance to take several days or even stop it altogether. Opposed by active defence, Russian forces must resort to a very messy, very time-consuming and highly conspicuous all-arms assault. It will not be your easy Crimean stroll. It will be full-on war.

A high-risk endeavour
Diplomatic and international military intervention scenarios aside, a Russian military advance into Ukraine must be classified as a high-risk endeavour. For any such opposed military advance to succeed, Russian planners must deploy a substantially stronger force than hitherto reported as amassed at the border, AND support its advance by massive destruction delivered by self-propelled artillery, missile launch systems and airborne fires. Such an advance will produce destruction and casualties that A) defeats the guise of a “humanitarian protection mission”, B) opens a Pandora’s box of partisan resistance and C) reveals the true, insufficient, combat ability of the Russian forces. This third revelation is potentially the most devastating, as Russia is dependent on her ability to wield a credible threat to any nation. If that threat is seen as a drunken, toothless sham, Russia’s diplomatic power evaporates.

The military threat to Ukraine is indeed a “Russian Roulette” inasmuch the hammer must not be allowed to strike for fear of hitting an empty chamber. It must remain poised as a threat but the trigger must not be drawn. The consequences of Russian military failure in Ukraine are as heavy, indeed heavier, as the consequences of military success.

Calling Putin’s Bluff

April 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

All things considered, I now believe that Russia will not attack Ukraine. Make no mistake, Putin would probably like nothing more than to give Ukraine a bloody nose – and has the popular support at home to do so – but facts on the ground points elsewhere.

Putin clearly wish to call the shots. He wants Ukraine and the west to buckle under his threat and restore status que ante bellum – meaning the instalment of a suitably Russo-friendly regime and a hard cold shoulder to NATO. Once this is accomplished he can generously return Crimea to its rightful owner. In return he will win regional respect and an indefinite lease of Crimean ports and military bases. That’s the plan. His leverage, his one and only leverage beyond the threat of choking gas delivery, is the Russian military – the threat of yet more invasion.

I believe that the threat of invasion, albeit implied rather than stated, is a complete bluff. I believe that Russia, by far the strongest contender to the world heavyweight title, does not have the oomph to conquer Ukraine by military means. Here’s why:

1. Ukraine, even if the assault is limited to a lightning coup at the capital, will be no walk in the park as in Crimea. This time, Ukraine’s military is mustered and ready. They are locked and loaded. They are dug in. They have orders to shoot. This time, they will fight, no matter the odds.

2. While Russia’s arsenal is pound for pound significantly more capable than Ukraine’s, it is virtually unthinkable that Ukraine would be totally unable to inflict casualties on an aggressor. To the contrary, Russia would have to expect very heavy casualties, and a great amount of friction, in any armed incursion. This too increases the odds against a Russian invasion.

3. The Ukrainian army is far more numerous and far better prepared than most news reports will have you believe. Conversely, the Russian forces are less numerous and less capable than media have cracked them up to be. A recent study published by the Royal Unites Services Institute (RUSI) provides ample background and reasoning for the serious student of conflict.

4. Certain technical imbalances aside, the opposing sides are equipped with largely identical equipment – and they have trained along similar syllabuses. They know each other, their tactics, their respective strengths and weaknesses. This is a factor that works in the defender’s favour. Furthermore there is no precedent to the situation in Ukraine: virtually all conflicts since WWII have been asymmetrical or with one belligerent completely outclassing the other. We simply do not yet know how a similar-capability battle will pan out. This great uncertainty must surely bother Kremlin’s planners a whole lot.

5. Traditional military theory acknowledges that terrain and occupation of prepared positions affords the defender an advantage on the order of at least 4:1. The attacker, saddled with the onus of movement in the open, invites destruction by the defender who has the option to remain in cover until the most propitious moment to open fire arrives. Russia simply cannot produce that ratio without completely denuding other strategic areas.

6. While Russia fields a more potent army with regard to tank design, munitions, fixed and rotary wing aircraft, electronic countermeasures, command and control systems, artillery and logistics, the individual factors, however superior to the Ukrainian counterparts, are not enough to produce a decisive outcome. The great unknowns of battle, friction, fog of war, morale, timing and chance, are a guarantee against a bloodless victory.

A study authored by Dr Igor Sutiyagin, a Russian Studies Research Fellow at RUSI, describes how the Russian army, for all its perceived might, is hard pressed to bring sufficient firepower to bear against a defender. Due to a relatively weak organic artillery component, lack of coordination between the manoeuver element and its supporting units, and due to shortage of precision-guided munitions, Russian artillery and attack helicopter fires can only deliver ”area suppression” that is largely ineffective against a dug-in, dispersed defender. For these reasons, ”a fully prepared Russian motorised rifle brigade would be unable to carry out effective offensive operations against the prepared defences of any unit larger than a company”, writes Dr Sutiyagin. The disparity is striking considering that a motorized rifle brigade comprises approximately 4,000 fighting men, 120 fighting vehicles and 60-70 artillery tubes, while a company fields no more than some 120 men.

7. As per above and other factors described in the study, the Russian forces at readiness, comprising approximately one reinforced mechanized brigade per primary vector, are simply not enough to force a strategic decision. They may be able to attain a local or even regional objective, but strategic manoeuvre is out of the question. The troops now concentrated represent approximately one fifth of the sum total of the revamped army available for active duty – any more than that would bite into the strategic reserve and the forces deployed to cover other sectors of the vast Russian Federation.

8. An all-out attack on Ukraine would have to follow the script established by the second Gulf War and the enforcement of a no-fly zone in Libya. This compels the assaulting force to establish and maintain air superiority, a process that requires several days if not weeks of high intensive preparation by air assets, guided missiles and artillery. Given that the terrain is much different from the relatively featureless Iraq desert, and the defenders vastly more capable than Saddam’s army, Russian air superiority is not a foregone conclusion. And without air superiority, no army can hope to be successful.

9. There are most likely EU and NATO personnel on the ground already. We know that some 100 OSCE observers are in the country and that up to 500 will be deployed in the coming weeks. NATO personnel both uniformed and clandestine probably match those numbers. Russia does not want to hurt these people for fear of the most severe repercussions.

10. The element of surprise is partially lost. The Russian troop concentration is an open secret. Their assets and capabilities are well known. The only surprise remaining is the actual jump-off moment. With NATO satellites watching and analysing every detail down to centimetre resolution, and with infrared capability to detect heat radiating off individual soldiers and equipment, there is nothing the Russians can do that NATO does not immediately pick up. NATO will most likely provide streaming real-time satellite data to the Ukrainian operational headquarters within minutes of detecting something untoward at the borders.

11. An airborne coup against the government in Kyiv is doable. However, it is likely to incur horrific casualties, and unlikely to be duly reinforced by units advancing from the borders, for reasons enumerated above. Because a coup is unlikely to ”stick” it must be regarded as a waste and can thus be struck from the list of potential threats.

The same goes for a coup de main in Odessa: the Transnistrian force is too small, the risks of a marine or airborne invasion much too high, and the overland route from Crimea to Odessa is bisected by waterways and natural obstacles.

12. Last but not least, the bulk of Russian ”special war” enterprises in the border regions have been foiled by the Ukrainian secret service (SBU), by vigilant border guards and local police work apprehending saboteurs and titushki. There is no popular uprising in Ukraine that Putin can use as pretext for invasion, no persecution of Russians in Ukraine and no other pet cause to prompt Russia’s intervention.

In summary: I believe Russia is too weak to launch a full-scale assault on Ukraine; that Putin is unlikely to gamble his prized military asset in a venture where success is not 100% guaranteed; and that Putin is afraid to expose the real combat capability of his military.

Where Am I?

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