The Lull before the Storm
March 20, 2015 § Leave a comment
Current developments: Ukraine has largely disappeared from the media radar save for very brief summaries in newscasts and assorted op-eds. Putin’s 10-day absence, the Russian ”treaty” with South Ossetia, facts emerging from the MH17 investigation, ongoing Russian snap drills and continued disrespect for courtesy and safety in international air traffic; not-so-subtle Russian nuclear threats, the deployment of Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad and NATO exercises in the Baltic States has diverted interest from the critical vector: Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
There is currently some trepidation concerning Russia’s ability to open up a second or even a third front against Finland and the Baltic States, concurrent with its commitment to Ukraine. Although I’m no expert on Russian capability, this fear does seem exaggerated: Russia will most likely need ALL of its available manpower to continue its offensive in Ukraine and can not spend its ready reserves in a simultaneous two-front or even three-front war with NATO as one opponent.
Meanwhile, Russian ”(r)aid convoys” and twice-daily trainloads to Debaltseve and Ilovaisk keep pouring in; Russian drones buzz over Mariupol ”like it was Kennedy airport” according to Phillip Karber at the Potomac Foundation who have recently returned from a fact-finding mission in Ukraine.
On the north end of the ”LPR/DPR” bulge in Donbas, Russian troops are attempting to cross the Seversky Donets river, infiltrating small teams to try and establish platoon-size strongpoints in preparation for a coming, larger, offensive.
Further north still, there have been reports of Russian troop concentration and preparation in the Belgorod area aimed at Kharkiv, heralded by numerous reports of sabotage, weapons caches, bombings and paid protestors in and around Kharkiv proper. Likewise, there are recurring reports of sabotage against railroad targets and bridges in the near and deep rear of the Ukrainian positions.
All of this adds up to one thing: a major Russian offensive is about to be unleashed. Phillip Karber mentions a few unsettling facts: The Ukrainian army is fully committed to holding the established front line and is being steadily whittled down – batallions are reduced to companies, companies are reduced to platoon strength. There is virtually nothing left in the cupboard behind the front: Ukraine has suffered crippling losses in materiel; is running short of artillery ammunition; has precious few effective anti-tank measures and is, perhaps most crippling of all, fighting in a jammed environment where Russia has complete supremacy in electronic warfare.
When will Russia attack? When the steppes are sufficiently dry, sometime around mid-April or early May – maybe sooner – and after a minimum of 1-2 weeks of unremitting artillery preparation that will grind down the Ukrainians to the point of surrender. At the moment Russian guns are ”reasonably” silent: ATO HQ typically report 20-30 attacks per day of which a handful are made with artillery and mortars. Expect this number to increase to 50-80 attacks per day, with the majority being tube and MLRS fire rather than from small arms and RPGs. Once through the thin Ukrainian crust on two or three easterly and northeasterly vectors, there is nothing but rolling steppes until you hit the Dniepr.
Standard procedure would be to bypass large obstacles such as Mariupol and Izyum in order to envelop and defeat surrounded forces piecemeal. A northern prong from Luhansk through Starobilsk is likely, concurrent with a strong drive toward Sloviansk and/or Krasnoarmiisk, as is a southern prong through Volnovahka to Kuibysheve and beyond.
Russia’s spring offensive is likely to coincide, or to be preceded by, with fresh rounds of scare tactics such as we have become accustomed to recently: incidents and territorial trespassing by aircraft and marine units against the Baltic States, Sweden and Great Britain; more nuclear threats, possibly by show of submarine force on the US eastern seaboard; another major ”snap drill” in the Western or Northern MD; large-scale deployment of IL-76 transport aircraft and attack helicopters to the Belgorod or Rostov sectors, and so on. All of this, and more antics in UN and media by Lavrov, Churkin and assorted characters, will serve to dissuade the West from reinforcing Ukraine at the critical juncture – although this juncture is already well passed.
What needs to be done, now
NATO and the EU must immediately commit to arming Ukraine with lethal weapons, primarily anti-tank missiles such as Javelin or TOW2 systems together with APCs to carry them. Sophisticated EW gear, counter-artillery equipment, laser designators, night vision devices and personal protection gear is also of the essence.
The mere promise and preparation to convey said goods to Ukraine will act as a powerful signal to Russia that may yet convice it to back down, or at the least delay its offensive – although this action may well also act as a trigger, forcing Russia to attack prematurely before the goods arrive. Should Russia do so, the West must immediately shut down Russia’s access to SWIFT and dispatch all necessary gear to Ukraine post haste.
In addition to pertinent gear, troop and command training, Ukraine’s economy requires further backup to withstand Russia’s economic pressure. Most of all, Ukraine needs practical and moral support from a determined US and EU leadership. The Western world must stand up to its values and show that it is committed to backing Ukraine to the hilt, through continued and yet harsher sanctions, and through all kinds of pressure on Russia to cease and desist.
Sadly, critical time has been lost by painfully interminable negotiations with a Russia that has no intent whatsoever to fulfil any agreement or promise. Russia is happy to waste everyone’s time and wait for the EU in particular to shatter along pre-arranged fault lines. The long slog through various political offices and abdication of responsibility from prominent world leaders has done nothing for Ukraine and all for Russia. Even if Ukraine were to receive lethal military help right this very instant, it may well be too late, by a few measly months worth of instruction, training and forward deployment. That however is no justification for holding off yet longer – the West must arm Ukraine, now, or pay the ultimate and historical cost for its failure.