Sunday, 20 July 2014

Putin’s Next Move

Ukraine has been thrust into the center of world media attention by the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. This atrocity may have finally forced the international community to take the threat of Russia’s actions in the east of Ukraine seriously. Predictably, after the incident, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine went into overdrive, pumping out incredible nonsense such as Ukraine’s government ordering the shooting down of the aircraft in the mistaken belief that it was the Russian presidential plane carrying Russian President Vladimir Putin back to Moscow from Brazil. This and other equally bizarre conspiracy theories have since been lapped up by pro-Russian useful idiots and regurgitated all over the Internet. So the first thing to do, in speculating about what the Russian leader's next move might be, is to return to the real world and review what we know with reasonable certainty.

MH17 was shot down by a powerful ground-to-air missile system, and the aircraft broke up in the air, as we know from the large debris field of four to six square miles (at least). The only other likely cause of such destruction would have been a bomb on the aircraft, and there is no indication that there was one. In contrast, there is every indication that it was indeed a missile that shot down the plane – this was the early view of the Ukrainian authorities, who identified the weapon as a Buk-M or “Gadfly” anti-aircraft missile system, which was later corroborated by U.S. intelligence sources, who identified the trajectory and impact point of the missile using satellite date.

The Russian-led insurgents certainly had a Buk-M missile system (there are recent photos and videos of such systems in insurgent-held territory, and phone intercepts of insurgents discussing its deployment with their Russian handlers.) The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) also released damning phone intercepts of the insurgents reporting to their Russian superiors, in shock, that they had mistakenly shot down a civilian airliner. The SBU later released video it said showed the Buk-M system, on a trailer and minus one missile, being towed out of the area in the direction of Russia in the early hours of July 18, the morning after the shooting down of MH17.

It is also a fact that the Russian-led insurgents have been shooting down aircraft regularly – they may also have used the Buk-M system to down a Ukrainian air force An-26 transport aircraft a few days before the MH17 atrocity. From the initial reports by the insurgents, it is clear that they believed they had shot down another An-26 – the Russian insurgent commander Igor Girkin bragged about it in a blog post soon after the attack - the post was removed when it became clear that a civilian airliner had in fact been downed. The insurgents also removed a picture of a Buk-M tweeted a few days earlier from Twitter.

Thus, from the best evidence we have so far, it seems MH17 was shot down by a Buk-M system, probably supplied by Russia (the Ukrainians insist they had full account of all their missiles, and any systems captured by the insurgents were unusable, their warheads having been disabled in March.) There is mounting evidence that Russia is directly involved in supporting the insurgency in eastern Ukraine, and is ultimately responsible for the shooting down of MH17.

Given all that, what is Putin’s next move likely to be? Here are some possible options:

1) End all support for insurgency, pull Russian mercenaries, weapons, tanks, artillery, rocket systems out of Ukraine, and prevent any flow of more mercenaries and supplies into eastern Ukraine.

Effect: Without continual resupply and reinforcement from Russia, the insurgents will be unable to resist the Ukrainian military, and the insurgency will start to collapse. The insurgents will put up a desperate fight in their last strongholds, and civilian casualties and destruction of infrastructure are unfortunately inevitable before they are defeated. Ukraine will, however, eventually regain control of all of Luhansk and Donetsk, including the border region, and further Russian attempts to destabilize the area will be much harder to implement.

Why he’d do it: This would immediately take Western pressure of Putin, and he’d be able to cast himself in the role of peacemaker, with the chance of rehabilitating his image internationally, and warding off the threat of further sanctions that actually hurt Russia’s economy.

Why he wouldn’t:  It would be seen in Russia as a serious defeat for Putin – a humiliation, and Putin does not like to be humiliated. Also, everything Putin has done so far indicates he does not much care about his international image – he’s much more concerned about his domestic image, and he wants to look strong and resolute, not weak, humiliated and defeated. In addition, ending the east Ukraine escapade might let Crimea slip back onto the agenda, and Putin himself might face more emboldened opposition in Russia itself.

2) Ignore all Western pressure and threats of sanctions, and go for an all-out invasion of eastern Ukraine, carrying out some false-flag operations as an excuse to send in first a large peacekeeping force, and then later push in regular troops to take over an area encompassing at least, Zaporizhia, Kherson, Mykolayiv and Odesa oblasts, and possibly Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk oblasts as well.

Effect: The modern state of Ukraine would cease to exist – it would consist only of a landlocked rump state of western and central Ukraine, severely weakened, and no longer a “threat” to Russia. (Indeed, after a period Russia might start to meddle with the affairs of the remaining independent part of Ukraine.) Russia would gain control of one or more likely two vassal statelets (the Donbas Republic of Luhansk and Donetsk – and maybe Kharkiv – oblasts, and the state of Novorossiya, consisting of Zaporizhia, Kherson, Mykolayiv and Odesa oblasts, and possibly Dnipropetrovsk oblast as well.

Why he’d do it: This would be a spectacular win for Putin, ticking some great big strategic and domestic policy boxes. Russia would effectively expand its borders to the Dniester River in the west, and would gain a vital land border with Crimea. A new scale would have to be devised to measure Putin’s public popularity at home, the West would suffer a humiliating defeat that could even cause serious strains in Nato (especially when the Baltic states started to bay for iron-tight security guarantees). Moreover, Putin would have a free hand to turn his attention to other land-grab projects in Central Asia and perhaps even Belarus.

Why he wouldn’t: The Russian people themselves appear to be against a full invasion of Ukraine, although for the Kremlin propagandists and opinion managers this is not a huge problem. A bigger problem is the reaction of the West, which would definitely be against it. Putin could probably count on dithering and hot air from the EU in the face of a full invasion of Ukraine, but the U.S. reaction would be much firmer and more dangerous. The new state of Western Ukraine would de facto become another U.S. ally on the borders of “Russian land,” which would no doubt be well supplied with enough weapons to ward off further Russian expansion. Western Ukraine could even opt to conduct a partisan war in an attempt to regain its lost territory (as it would be entitled to do under international law.) The situation in the conquered territories could end up being as much of a mess as the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics are now, except over a vastly broader area. Russian soldiers would regularly return to the Motherland in “200’ convoys.

3) After waiting for a bit for the media frenzy to die down and the West to get distracted by some other big news, continue support for insurgency, with more regular Russian troops and military equipment, beat back Kyiv’s advance, move in a long-prepared peace-keeping force (which seems to have been part of the original plan). Attempt to gain control of most of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts.

Effect: Kyiv will probably be forced to accept a ceasefire on terms better for Russia and the insurgents. Ukraine will lose control of most of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, which will merge and turn into a quasi-statelet on the lines of Transdniestria or Abkhazia. A long-term “frozen conflict” will be up and running, causing headaches for Kyiv and acting as a useful lever of influence for Russia.

Why he’d do it: This would be the repeat of a tried-and-tested plan for the Kremlin, which has worked well for the Russians in Moldova and Georgia. Ukraine will be weakened over the long-term, Crimea will be safe, and eventually it will be back to business as usual with the West. It would be nothing but a win for the Kremlin, and Putin personally. To deal with the immediate problem of the airliner atrocity, Russia will try to obfuscate the investigation into the airliner atrocity in every way it can, float absurd conspiracy theories, and lay a smokescreen so thick that the shooting down of MH17 becomes a favorite topic of conspiracy theorists for decades to come.

Why he wouldn’t: There’s no certainty the media frenzy will die down, as more and more evidence of direct Russian involvement in the shooting down of MH17 comes to light. While there’s no danger of Putin himself being sent to The Hague, captured insurgents or Russians being put on trial in the International Court would not look good for Russia, and by extension, Putin himself, and he doesn’t want anything to undermine his support at home.

Option 3 is probably the one Putin would go for. That’s why it’s absolutely vital for the West to keep up the pressure on Russia, push for a proper investigation into the shooting down of MH17, with the trial (even in absentia) of those responsible for firing the missile, and realistic threats of painful sanctions if the Russians don’t cooperate – at the very least the Mistral helicopter carrier deal with France should be scrapped. Determined Western pressure could force Putin to take option 1, which would be the best outcome for Ukraine and the rest of the world, and, ultimately, the best for Russia.

Putin is on the hook now. The West must not allow him to wriggle off it.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Russia tried to invade Ukraine last weekend, and we didn't even notice

The fog of war is notorious for obscuring our view of military operations, but it must be rare in the annals of human conflict for a nuclear-armed superpower to attempt to invade a large European country without anyone apparently noticing.

But that's apparently what happened on the night of July 12-13, if the Ukrainian authorities are to be believed (and they are generally a rather more reliable source than their counterparts in Moscow.)

According to Kyiv, a large column of Russian armor (estimates ranging from 100 to 200 vehicles) was halted by Ukrainian air strikes as it attempted to cross from Russia into Ukraine's Luhansk oblast, the southern portion of which is still under the control of the Russian-led insurgent forces. The Ukrainian authorities say part of the column was destroyed, and the rest abandoned its attempt to enter Ukraine. Moreover, the Ukrainian armed forces said that this column was just one of several Russian attack groups that were moving on Ukraine, openly, under the Russian flag. It added that Ukrainian forces were attacked from Russian territory by artillery and Grad multiple rocket launchers. The Russian actions were deemed by the Ukrainian military as a military invasion of the territory of Ukraine.

Yet there has been not a peep about this dramatic escalation of the war in Ukraine in the Western media, probably because of the difficulty of independently verifying such reports, given the complex, confused, and frankly dangerous situation in eastern Ukraine.

Nevertheless, there had been warning signs for a number of days prior to this incident that the Russians might be planning an invasion.

British-Ukrainian journalist Askold Krushelnysky reported on July 9 in an article entitled "A Dreadful Inexorability" in the National Review Online that "serious sources" in the Russian government had informed him that Russian President Vladimir Putin was planning a peacekeeping intervention in Ukraine in "the next few days." We might have witnessed (or rather failed to witness) precisely that over the weekend, though luckily the attempt appears to have been thwarted by Ukraine's military. Krushelnysky also claimed that senior Russian diplomats had informed the German government that Russia would press on with its plans to intervene in Ukraine even if the EU did finally decide to impose its third wave of sanctions. In addition, Krushelnysky said Russian military vehicles with peacekeeping markings have been stationed close to Russia's border with Ukraine, and that MPs from Russia's lower house of parliament, the Duma, have been ordered to stay in the vicinity of Moscow.

These claims have been backed up by Dmitry Tymchuk, of the Information Resistance group in Ukraine, who has connections with the Ukrainian military and who had proved to be a reasonably reliable source in the past. Tymchuk, in a posting made on the morning of July 14, said that Ukraine was effectively being invaded by Russia. He also warned that he had it from several sources that Russian special forces were planning to insert themselves in the insurgency zone in Ukraine on July 15, although the Ukrainian defense authorities said they had no information confirming this.

Together with the multiple reports of Russian armored columns with peacekeeping markings, and the recent well-documented incidents of Russian tanks, APCs and artillery pieces being allowed through the border by Russia into the insurgency zone in Ukraine, this appears to be the continuation of Putin's "frog-in-a-pot" strategy of gradually turning up the heat on the hapless and unwary frog (Ukraine), until it is cooked (invaded, dismembered).

And over the weekend we may have seen Putin give another tweak to the burner – Russia claimed that Ukraine had shelled a town across the border in Russia itself, killing a man and seriously injuring two women. Ukraine denied being responsible, and claimed that the Russian-led insurgents had engineered the incident themselves to provide justification for Russia to stage an open invasion.

Given the covert nature of Russia's military operations against Ukraine, and the previously mentioned difficulty of establishing the truth or falsehood of claimed incidents in the war zone, it's impossible to say for certain who was responsible for shelling Russian territory. But as Ukrainian forces close in on the insurgents' strongholds of Luhansk and Donetsk, it's highly probable that we will hear of more such incidents - any of which, the Ukrainian authorities worry, could be used by Moscow as the pretext for an open invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

It's to be hoped that in the future, with the benefit of hindsight, Ukraine and the rest of the world will not ruefully have to admit that "all the signs were there – we should have seen it coming, but we didn't notice."

Thursday, 3 July 2014

How to Win the War

There is no weapon of war that is not vulnerable to another type of weapon: artillery, while devastating against mass concentrations of infantry, is vulnerable to attack from the air. Tanks and armor, which can punch through a front and encircle enemy forces quickly, can still be destroyed by a single soldier armed with a modern anti-tank weapon. Aircraft, which can engage a range of targets on the ground and in the air, can themselves come under fire from enemy fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, or, again, a single soldier equipped with a portable anti-aircraft missile system.

Entire armies too have their vulnerabilities: the German army was unprepared for the Russian climate. The English at Bannockburn were defeated by their own arrogance and overconfidence, and the French army was defeated in a few weeks in 1940 by its own decrepit, incompetent and defeatist generals.

Moreover, all modern armies share a weakness that will cause their defeat if an enemy can exploit it: they are vulnerable to the disruption of their logistics and lines of supply. Without a constant flow of ammunition, food, weapons, equipment and reinforcements, any conventional fighting force will soon grind to a halt. Even if command and control – another prime target for disruption by an enemy – are still fully functional, there is not much a soldier who has no bullets for his gun can do but surrender, no matter what his orders are, once he is encircled by an enemy who has an ample supply of ammunition.

Perhaps the most famous example of the failure to achieve such an encirclement in the history of modern warfare occurred in June 1940 in northern France and Belgium. The Panzer divisions of Nazi Germany punched through the allied (at that time Britain and France) lines in the hilly and forested Ardennes region, which the allies had wrongly thought impassible to a large armored force, and swept headlong west and then north to cut off the French and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). The allies, who had expected the Germans to take their traditional invasion route through Flanders, moved forward, as according to their plans and expectations, to meet a more conventional and slow moving force (Army Goup B under Colonel-General Fedor von Bock), which was advancing through the Low Countries and was intended by the Germans to draw the allies forward into a pocket that would be closed by the Panzer divisions of Army Group A, commanded by Colonel-General Gerd von Rundstedt, which was already racing around the allies' rear. For a reason that puzzles historians to this day, Adolf Hitler gave the order (or rather confirmed an order given by Rundstedt) to halt the advance of his Panzers at this crucial time (perhaps wanting to give them time to rest and refit before turning south to attack the heart of France, or perhaps to give Hermann Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe, the chance of glory in destroying the allied armies from the air). This gave the British the chance to evacuate the bulk of the BEF (almost 340,000 soldiers) from the port and beaches of Dunkirk, although 35,000 French who were left behind guarding the British retreat were captured. Had the BEF been encircled and trapped in France, the British would have faced a disaster, with no army left from which to rebuild, and Churchill would have been forced to come to terms with Nazi Germany. If that had happened, the world would be a very much different place today.

Looking at a map of the present conflict zone in eastern Ukraine, the rebel forces, as the Allies did in 1940, appear ripe for encirclement. Rebel-held territory extends like a fat thumb into the middle of the Donbas in southern Luhansk and northern Donetsk oblasts, with the base of the thumb being a short stretch of the Ukrainian border with Russia in the east. It is through this border that the rebels have been supplied, for several weeks now, with men and mat̩riel Рup to and including armored personnel carriers and even tanks.

The task facing the Ukrainian forces is thus to push along the border, north from Donetsk and south from Luhansk, to sever this thumb from the hand that sustains it. Once cut off from their supplies, the rebel force will start to wither. Ukrainian troops can continue to squeeze the pocket in which the rebels will have been trapped, forcing them to expend ammunition and lives, or they can simply wait for the force to collapse in on itself, and move in to mop up.

It's really that simple. The only conceivable reason that Ukraine has not yet done this is that it lacked a sufficient number of men. But Ukrainian forces are now becoming stronger, while the rebels are weakening. The task of closing the pocket along the border should be given to the regular army, while the volunteer battalions that have been raised since the beginning of the hostilities in the east should be given the job of holding the perimeter around the rebel territory, and perhaps advancing opportunistically as the rebels withdraw and consolidate (as they inevitably will have to as their supplies and manpower run low).

There is one important nuance: Ukraine should also impose a no-fly zone over the rebel-held zone. This might seem counter-intuitive, given the fact that the Ukrainians have access to air-power and the rebels do not, (and air-power has already granted a significant advantage to Ukrainian forces in several engagements), but once encircled the rebels will only have the option of being supplied by air. If Ukraine declares a no-fly zone, it will gain a number of other advantages in return. First, its weakened air forces will be less exposed to attack and losses, and Ukraine will have to maintain as strong an air force as possible given the threat of a more open attack by Russia. Second, if the air force is not operating over rebel areas, it will be harder for the rebels and Russia to claim attacks on civilian areas are being made by Ukraine from the air (some sort of monitoring of the no-fly zone, perhaps by the OSCE, will also be required). Third: any flights made by Russian military aircraft or even civilian helicopters intended to supply the rebels will be open to attack by Ukraine – if it's in the air, shoot it down. Ukraine's own forces in the area can be supplied by road and rail rather than by air.

The last, but perhaps the most important point is this: to achieve a military victory, the one thing Ukraine must not do is agree to another ceasefire. That would simply allow the rebels to regroup, resupply and reinforce. That would be a disastrous mistake, comparable to Rundstedt's in 1940, which ultimately led to defeat.