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Ukraine: A Game of Chicken

It is quite possible for soldiers to cross a frontier “by accident on an unmarked section,” and that is how Moscow explains the capture of a group of Russian paratroopers on Ukrainian territory last weekend. Poor lambs, they just wandered across the border by mistake. When they get home, they’ll have to be sent on a refresher course in cross-country navigation.

The flaw in this story is that the ten captured Russian soldiers, from the 331st Regiment of the 98th Guards Airborne Division, were caught in a group of unmarked vehicles THIRTEEN MILES inside Ukraine. That’s a third of the way from the Russian border to the besieged rebel city of Donetsk, and it’s really hard to explain away as a navigational error.

Besides, there is plenty of other evidence (though no other video interviews with captured Russian troops) to show that there is now a three-pronged Russian offensive underway in eastern Ukraine. There are probably fewer than a thousand Russian regular army troops on Ukrainian territory at the moment, but their purpose is clearly to stop the collapse of the pro-Russian rebels and reverse the momentum in the ground war.

Last week the Ukrainian forces finally cut the last remaining road from Russia to the besieged city of Luhansk, shortly after a large convoy of Russian trucks violated Ukrainian sovereignty and drove up that road to deliver “humanitarian” aid to the city. The rebel forces have now launched a counter-offensive to reopen the road, and Russian self-propelled artillery units have entered Ukraine in the Krasnodon area to support their attacks.

Another Russian force, including tanks, crossed the border on 24 August thirty mi. south of Donetsk, the capital of the other rebel province, and is trying to open a corridor to that city. (The captured paratroopers were part of that force, which is currently stalled near Ilovaisk.) And on 25 August a column of Russian armour crossed into Ukraine well to the south, heading west along the coast of the Sea of Azov towards the port city of Mariupol.

This last incursion, presumably an attempt to open a third front and relieve the pressure on the two besieged cities, has now occupied Novoazovsk, about twenty km. east of Mariupol. The Ukrainian forces say they destroyed a dozen armoured infantry carriers there, but in the end they were driven out. Russian helicopter gunships also killed four Ukrainian border guards and wounded three others in an attack on a border post east of Luhansk on Tuesday.

It’s not yet all-out war between Russia and Ukraine, but there is no doubt that Ukrainian forces are now in direct combat with Russian troops on several fronts. Russia still officially denies all this, of course, but its denials are not meant to be believed. Rather than see the separatist forces that Moscow has sponsored in the two eastern Ukrainian provinces simply collapse, Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to escalate the conflict.

The message is that Russia will do whatever is necessary militarily to keep the rebellion alive. But is that really true? Putin is now just one step short of a full Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, and Russia is already suffering serious economic sanctions. Take that last step, and it’s back to the Cold War – a war that Russia would ultimately lose, and it wouldn’t take forty years this time either.

Today’s Russia has only half the population of the old Soviet Union, and it is no longer a major industrial power. Without its oil and gas exports, its citizens would be as poor as Ukrainians. If NATO started to take the “Russian threat” really seriously and re-armed itself accordingly, Russia simply couldn’t keep up militarily – and even trying would wreck its fragile economy. In the end, that would probably bring Putin down.

Putin presumably understands this at some level, but his pride, and his desire to restore Russian power, won’t let him just accept defeat. So the current escalation is best seen as his next move in a game of chicken: can he frighten the West into making a deal that saves his face and turns Ukraine back into a political and economic dependency of Russia? The answer is: probably not.

Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, certainly does not intend to go back to the old days. When he called a parliamentary election last week, he was effectively declaring that Ukraine will continue to be a sovereign and centralised state, not the neutered and decentralised state that Moscow wants – and that it will keep its options open on joining the European Union and even NATO (though neither of those options is currently on offer).

The problem with games of chicken is that each player must demonstrate his willingness to go all the way, even though going all the way is crazy. The first one to give way to an attack of sanity loses. The only way to avoid a disastrous smash-up and still not lose is for both players to go sane at exactly the same time. That is what diplomacy is for, but so far it isn’t working.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9.  (“This…Tuesday”; and “Today’s…down”)

Ukraine End Game?

As the Russian-backed rebels abandoned almost all their positions in eastern Ukraine apart from the two regional capital cities, Donetsk and Luhansk, the various players made predictable statements.

Newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said cautiously that this could be “the beginning of the turning point in the fight against militants.” Don’t make promises that you are not sure you can keep.

The new defence minister, Lieutenant-General Valeriy Heletey, boldly promised the Ukrainian parliament that “There will be a victory parade… in Ukraine’s Sevastopol.” But that would require the Ukraine to take back the southern province of Crimea, which Russia seized and annexed in March, so it is a promise that will never be kept. Crimea is gone.

Pavel Gubarev, the self-proclaimed governor of the Donetsk People’s Republic, told a rally in the city that “We will begin a real partisan war around the whole perimeter of Donetsk. We will drown these wretches (the Ukrainian army) in blood.” That is standard morale-raising rhetoric in the wake of a military collapse – or, as the rebels prefer to call it, a “tactical retreat.”

But Igor Strelkov, the military commander of the rebels in Donetsk province, made a truly revealing comment. Pleading for Russian military intervention on 3 July, five days before his paramilitary forces abandoned Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and other rebel strongholds in the north of the province, Strelkov warned Moscow that his troops were “losing the will to fight.”

A military commander will never admit such a thing in public unless his situation is truly desperate. How desperate became clear on Tuesday when Strelkov’s troops all headed south for the relative safety of Donetsk city.

The Ukrainian army had been shelling them in Sloviansk, but there was no major Ukrainian offensive. The rebel fighters just started pulling out of the city, and those in other rebel-held northern towns followed suit. Strelkov (who is actually a Russian citizen named Igor Girkin) was left scrambling to explain what was happening in terms that made military sense, and he did the best he could.

This may be telling President Poroshenko what he most wants to know, which is whether or not this week’s events really constitute a “turning point” in the military conflict in eastern Ukraine. The answer appears to be “yes”: the morale of Strelkov’s troops (many of whom are Russian “volunteers”) is cracking as they realise that the motherland is really not going to send its own army into eastern Ukraine to help them out.

There never was mass support for the pro-Russian “revolution” in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in April. Most people there speak Russian, and they were worried about where the real revolution in Kiev was taking the country even before Russian propaganda started telling them that “fascists” had seized control of the country and wanted to kill them. But they didn’t actually want to join Russia.

When the real revolution began in Kiev late last year, huge crowds of unarmed civilians stayed on Independence Square day and night for months. Only in the final few days did former president Viktor Yanukovych order his police to start shooting, and only then did firearms also appear in the crowd. Things happened very differently in the east.

There were no huge crowds when pro-Russian rebels seized power in the east, no lengthy occupations of public squares by unarmed civilians, certainly no violence by government forces. Heavily armed groups of masked men just appeared in the streets and took over, declaring that they were creating revolutionary regimes to save the people from the “fascists” in Kiev.

Civilians in the east were sufficiently worried about the intentions of the new government in Kiev that they did not come out in the streets to oppose this armed take-over, but they never came out in large numbers to support it either. This was more evident than ever on Wednesday, when Pavel Gubarev was promising to defend the “whole perimeter” of the city and drown the Ukrainian army in blood.

Donetsk has almost two million inhabitants. The crowd at Gubarev’s rally was a couple of thousand at most. Donetsk will not become a new Stalingrad.

So, at the risk of tempting fate, a prediction: the fighting in eastern Ukraine will not go on for months more, and there will be no heroic rebel last stand in Donetsk or Luhansk. The Ukrainian army is already encircling both cities, but it will not launch a major assault on them either. It will just keep the pressure up, and the rebel forces will quickly melt away.

The Russian “volunteers” will be allowed to go home, and local men who fought alongside them will be amnestied unless they committed some horrendous crime. Civilian refugees (no more than 3 percent of the local population) will be back in their homes quite soon.

Western countries will repair their relations with Moscow as fast as possible, since they do not want a new Cold War. But Ukrainians will not forget that Russia seized Crimea and sponsored an armed separatist rebellion in their eastern provinces. President Vladimir Putin has managed to turn Russia’s biggest European neighbour into a permanent enemy.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 10 and 15. (“The new…gone”; “When…April”; and “The Russian…soon”)

A Federal Ukraine?

2 April 2014

A Federal Ukraine?

Two things were clear after US Secretary of State John Kerry’s four hours of talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris last Sunday. One was that the United States accepts that nothing can be done about Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Kerry continues to describe Russia’s action as “illegal and illegitimate”, but Crimea was not even mentioned in the communique released to the public.

The other is that the transformation of Ukraine into a neutral, federal state is now firmly on the table. Kerry repeatedly voiced the mantra that there must be “no decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine,” but he also agreed with Lavrov that the subjects that need to be discussed include rights for national minorities, language rights, the disarmament of irregular forces and a constitutional reform that would make Ukraine a federal state.

By “rights for national minorities” and “language rights” he meant a special political status for Ukraine’s 17 percent ethnic Russian minority and maybe even for the much larger number of Ukrainians – probably 40-45 percent – who speak Russian on a daily basis. Moscow is asserting its right to intervene in Ukraine’s internal affairs to “protect” these minorities, and Kerry is at least willing to talk about it.

By “disarmament of irregular forces” Lavrov had meant the armed right-wing groups that played a small part in the revolution and still make occasional appearances on Independence Square and elsewhere in Kiev. These groups are Moscow’s pretext for claiming that there has been a “fascist coup” in Kiev, from which it says that it has a duty to protect Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine.

Kerry may also have had in mind the armed pro-Moscow militias that occasionally appear in eastern Ukrainian cities, but he didn’t say so. Nor did he mention the fact that the Kiev government is already moving to disarm, break up and arrest the right-wing groups in western Ukrainian cities.

By talking about “federalising” Ukraine, Kerry was implicitly accepting that the Russian demand for a radical decentralisation of the country (which could give pro-Russian governments in some eastern Ukrainian provinces a veto on decisions in Kiev) is a legitimate topic for negotiation.

It’s no wonder that a satisfied Sergei Lavrov called the talks “very very constructive”, or that the Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesperson said Russia was demanding “Ukraine’s full capitulation, its split and the destruction of Ukrainian statehood.” And although Kerry promises “no decisions without Ukraine,” Kiev might not be able to reject American pressure to accept these concessions in its current gravely weakened state.

If all this makes John Kerry sound like a latter-day Neville Chamberlain appeasing Moscow, well, maybe he is. But that’s not clear yet.

Maybe the United States is getting ready to sell Ukraine down the river, or maybe Kerry is just giving sweet reason a try before the gloves come off. Likewise, maybe the Russians are really planning to turn Ukraine into a satellite – or maybe they just want to make it formally neutral. And how awful would that be?

There is nothing wrong with trying to stop this thing from turning into a new Cold War. Since NATO has no intention of offering Ukraine membership, formal neutrality could be a sensible way out of the current crisis so long as it does not preclude closer trade and travel ties with the European Union. But the Russians are also pushing hard for a “federalised” Ukraine.

“Given the proportion of native Russians in Ukraine,” said Lavrov, “we propose this and we are sure there is no other way.” That could be a deal-killer, especially since Moscow is starting to insist that the constitutional changes and a referendum on them be completed BEFORE the national election in Ukraine that is currently scheduled for 25 May.

These changes would be decided not by the Ukrainian government, but by a “nationwide dialogue” in which all regions would have an equal voice – including the eastern regions where there are many Russians, and 40,000 Russian troops poised just across the border. And, said Lavrov, the regions should have more power over, among other things, foreign trade, cultural ties abroad, and relations with neighbouring states, including Russia.

It is a programme, in other words, for the effective dismantling of the Ukrainian state, and it’s hard to see how even John Kerry and President Barack Obama can support that. Meanwhile, the level of panic is rising in the eastern European members of NATO, and especially in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which also have Russian minorities and border directly on the Russian Federation.

Vladimir Putin, fresh from his Crimean victory, is seriously overplaying his hand. Poland and the three Baltic states are now pushing for permanent NATO military bases on their territory, something the alliance has avoided since they joined in order not to antagonise Moscow. A confidential NATO paper leaked to Der Spiegel even talks about boosting military cooperation with Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan, all former Soviet republics.

And Moscow is now accusing Ukrainians of plotting terrorist attacks on Russian territory.  The odds on a new Cold War have gone up quite a lot in the past week.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“By disarmament…cities”)

Ukraine: Putin’s Choice

Crimea is going to be part of Russia, and there is nothing anybody else can do about it. The petty sanctions that the United States and the European Union are currently imposing have been discounted in advance by Moscow, and even much more serious sanctions would not move it to reconsider its actions. But Vladimir Putin still has to decide what he does next.

 One option, of course, is to do nothing more. He has his little local triumph in Crimea, which is of considerable emotional value to most Russians, and he has erased the loss of face he suffered when he mishandled the crisis in Kyiv so badly. If he just stops now, those sanctions will be quietly removed in a year or two, and it will be business as usual between Moscow and the West.

If it’s that easy to get past the present difficulties in Moscow’s relations with the U.S. and the EU, why would Putin consider doing anything else? Because he may genuinely believe that he is the victim of a Western political offensive in Eastern Europe.

Paranoids sometimes have real enemies. NATO’s behaviour since the collapse of the Soviet Union, viewed from Moscow, has been treacherous and aggressive, and it doesn’t require a huge leap of the imagination to see the European Union’s recent policy in Ukraine as a continuation of that policy.

After non-violent revolutions swept the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe from power in 1989, the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, made a historic deal with U.S. president George H.W. Bush. It was unquestionably the most important diplomatic agreement of the late 20th century.

Gorbachev agreed to bring all the Soviet garrisons home from the former satellites, and even to allow the reunification of Germany—a very difficult concession when the generation of Russians that had suffered so greatly at Germany’s hands was still alive.

In return, the elder President Bush promised that the countries that had previously served the Soviet Union as a buffer zone between it and Germany—Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria – would not be swept up into an expanding NATO. They would be free, but NATO’s tanks and aircraft would not move a 1,000 kilometres to Moscow.

It was a wise deal between two men who understood the burden of history, but they were both gone from power by the end of 1992—and Gorbachev had neglected to get the promise written into a binding treaty. So it was broken, and all those countries were in NATO by 2004—together with three other countries, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, that had actually been part of the Soviet Union itself.

NATO’s eastern frontier is now only 120 kilometres from Russia’s second city, St. Petersburg. The Russians were burned again when NATO encouraged the secession of Kosovo from Serbia (a handy precedent for Crimea’s secession from Ukraine), and once more when NATO got Moscow’s agreement to an emergency military intervention in Libya to stop a massacre, and expanded it into a campaign to overthrow the ruler, Moammar Gadhafi.

To Russian eyes, what has been happening in Ukraine is more of the same. If Putin believes that, then he thinks he is already in a new Cold War, and he might as well go ahead and improve his position for the coming struggle as much as possible. Specifically, he should grab as much of Ukraine as he can, because otherwise the western part will be turned into a NATO base to be used against him.

Crimea is irrelevant in this context: the Russian naval bases there are nostalgic relics from another era, of no real strategic value in the 21st century. What Putin does need, if another Cold War is coming, is control of the parts of Ukraine where Russian speakers are a majority or nearly so: not just the east, but also the Black Sea coast. But he shouldn’t occupy western Ukraine, because he would face a prolonged guerilla war if he did.

This is all extremely paranoid thinking, and perhaps it never passes through Putin’s mind at all. But if it does, then he knows that he has just over two months to make up his mind.

If Putin allows Ukraine to hold the scheduled national election on May 25, then even the preposterous pretext he has been using for the past month to justify his meddling—that he is intervening to protect Russian-speakers from a “fascist junta” in Kiev—will vanish. So we should know fairly soon which way he is going to jump.

My money says that Putin will stop with Crimea, because he’s not that paranoid, and because he understands how weak Russia is economically and how quickly it would lose a new Cold War. He has already saved his face; why run further risks? But I have been wrong in the past, once or twice.