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Russia Turns South


Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko cancelled a trip to Turkey and announced mandatory conscription as more Russian troops and vehicles crossed the border into Ukraine’s embattled province of Donetsk. Rather than heading straight towards the regional capital, these forces fired Grad rockets at the lightly armed border guards before turning towards Novoazovsk, the first town on the Sea of Azov on the road to Mariupol. The latter is an important port and a key city should Russia , excuse me – the Democratic Republic of Donetsk – seek to open a land corridor to the recently, though illegally annexed Crimea.


These events come in the wake of the failed talks in Minsk. Mr. Putin did indeed meet with Mr. Poroshenko, but while the Ukrainian leader reported Mr. Putin as being “open” to peace negotiations, Mr. Putin’s statement re-emphasized the previous Russian line that it was all an “internal matter” for Ukraine and none of Russia’s business. Which seems to fly in the face of the continuous border crossings by companies of motor rifle and paratroopers.


Mr. Poroshenko’s national call-up is a cry of desperation to the West and perhaps an effort to show how critical the situation has become for his country. In practical terms, the call up will achieve little: while the Ukrainian army certainly does need an injection of additional manpower, it needs trained troops, not fat civilians in uniform. Training troops to be more dangerous to the enemy than to themselves and their friends takes time, and Ukraine may not have the 3 or 4 months that are the minimum to put rifles in people’s hands. What is more, even when those conscripts are ready, just sending them to their new units is not enough. They need equipment with which to fight, and not just rifles: tanks, APC’s, artillery, man-portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. Unfortunately, that equipment is simply not available. Ukraine is today a victim of the scandalously kleptocratic political elite that has robbed the state blind since independence. The military was underfunded to an unthinkable degree and even the equipment they do have is almost unserviceable due to lack of parts and maintenance.

In response, Ukraine has been scouring the second-hand market for surplus Soviet-era equipment they can put in the field immediately. Hungary seems to have responded by selling 58 “almost new” T-72’s to a Czech middleman while essentially washing its hands of what happens afterwards. That is no doubt a shot in the arm for the Ukrainians, but the secondary market is not going to help them too much: mainly because Ukraine is bankrupt and these are not the sorts of people who take credit cards.

The only practical sources for the equipment the Ukrainians need are in Eastern Europe and these nations aren’t keen to weaken their own military’s precisely at the same time that the Russian Army is flexing its own muscles. I presented my view that the West should create a modern Lend Lease program for Ukraine where the US and Western Europe agree to modernize the armed forces of the Eastern European NATO allies while absorbing part of the cost of this modernization; and then the former Warsaw Pact states would agree to release their Soviet-era stocks to Ukraine at “generous credit terms” – essentially for free or on such long-terms that it they are indistinguishable. If Mr. Putin wishes to wage a proxy war in Ukraine in order to avoid the full costs of a direct intervention, the West should take the similar approach of arming the Ukrainians. Better to stop the Russians at the Dnieper River than at the Prut and Vistula.

That is likely not going to be enough; the odious “Putin Doctrine” – supporting ethnic Russians wherever they may be found – is indistinguishable from the identical racist ideology that Hitler used to justify the Anschluss, the intervention in the Sudetenland and the invasion of Poland. All of these interventions were also justified by popular plebescites as a fig leaf for naked military aggression. The Western Allies never had a clear commitment to support Austria or Czechoslovakia, and by the time Hitler got around to Poland, he was too strong to stop. Russia may not be the Third Reich, but if Mr. Putin is allowed to have his way in the Ukraine, what is to stop him from an “anschluss” with Belarus? and then agitation in the Baltic States, which we ARE obligated to defend. By then, it will also be too late for the West.

We don’t know what Mr. Putin’s intentions are, nor even if the situation in Ukraine is part of a “grand plan” or not. But even if it is not, we can be sure that supine Western inaction and lack of preparation will only feed Russia’s appetite and ambition. History will see Ukraine as the point either where Mr. Putin’s ambitions to forcibly change the map in Russia’s favor were either foiled or given wings. I’m sure Messrs. Chamberlain and Daladier had reasons sufficient to justify to themselves their policies of military drawdown and complacency during Hitler’s rise, but today they are both yoked with the odious name of “appeasers”.

How is this to be done? First, the West must take this threat seriously: Russia’s behavior can no longer be dismissed as circumstantial or a “question of personalities” as the 2008 Georgian War was framed by some apologists. Georgia, Crimea, Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh…do we really need more examples to understand Mr. Putin’s game? He is a man who understands and values only power, who weighs it on the scales of his ambition very finely, and to whom international norms and agreements are observed only so long as they suit him.

Neither Europe nor America are in a position to bring to bear their economic power against Russia. The US simply doesn’t have enough commerce with Russia to gain leverage; and while Europe does, for them to use it would be to cut their own throats. But that doesn’t mean that economic sanctions cannot be usefully applied to damage Russia’s economy in the long term.

Yet what Mr. Putin really fears, and the one reason the Russian invasion is still – just barely – covert, is NATO rearmament. Moral cowardice is more easily excused when it can be decently shrugged off as an inability to act, but cowardice it remains and the preceding weakness finds no other scapegoat than ourselves. It is clear that Western Europe is too distant, too comfortable and too old to seriously contemplate rearmament on the scale called for; which is why I have often recommended the creation of a European Defense Fund that would act like the highly successful Inter-regional Development Fund, and pay for the hardware and training the countries of Eastern Europe need but cannot afford. They are willing to answer the call; we must only put the tools in their hands.

As for the US, we must return to Europe. It is no coincidence that Mr. Putin’s adventurism has grown since the last of the US “heavy” brigades departed for home. Now, they must cone back: as many as are needed to provide an adequate deterrent. And they should be stationed in Poland and Romania, not in Germany. If Mr. Putin points out that we promised not to permanently station troops in Eastern Europe, we might remind him of his promises not to invade his neighbors.

That means ending the foolish and self-destructive sequester and refunding our military; which in turn means some sensible agreements on tax reform and budgeting priorities. With the men of the 1950’s and 1960’s who guided us, sometimes well sometimes less well, through the Cold War, I am confident this could be achieved. With the current crop of radicalized and uncompromising politicians, I am not. We need statesmen, but we have John Boenher.

It is time for the West to wake up. The wolf is at the door and his paw is on the latch. Even for those who still hope for a negotiated solution, the best way to achieve it is through a position of strength. Vis pacem, para bellum.


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2 Responses to “Russia Turns South”

  1. While in most of your post I like your wit point of view, in case of Ukraine it is not first time to agree with you.
    My disagreements are :
    – Attack in directopn to Mariupol is not to create a land strip to connect to Crimea. It is more simple, they are creating a new front to divert Kiev’s Ukranian troops and alleviaty pressure on Luh’ansk and Donetks. To me, it is unclear if they really want to take Mariupol, because, while its port strategically important to convert Azov in a Russian lake, its population is divided and a important part will not accept being ‘russified’.

    – To mark Dnipro (using its Ukranian name) a kind of border to mark where pro-russian can reach is a lot more than they optimistically can take. Until now it has been show how they do not have support outside Donetks and Luh’anks. Neither on Kharkiv region, where I though they could in some areas.

    Posted by Manel Sanchez Ruiz | September 3, 2014, 09:22
    • Dear Mr. Sánchez,

      Just to be clear, I use the Dnieper, Vistula and Prut in a very figurative sense. I don’t mean that those are the actual lines of control that anyone should strive for; they are evocative rather.

      Perhaps I was also too expansive regarding the Russian advance on Mariupol. I did not mean to imply that it was part of a grand master plan of Mr. Putin’s to divide Ukraine in two and establish a land corridor to Crimea. That would take far larger Russian forces than the one or two Motor Rifle battalions that are currently fighting in Ukraine. You are perfectly correct to point out that the current Russian drive along the Sea of Azov is a move to force the already stretched Ukrainian army to stretch even further and perhaps break.

      Having said all of that, let me also say that I consider it entirely possible (n.b. “possible”, not “certain”) that Russian ambitions might grow in parallel with Russian successes. The fact that Mariupol is not “pro-Russian” is not going to matter very much: there are significant “anti-Russian” elements in Crimea as well, and they are either shutting up and putting up, going to jail, or leaving the peninsula. There is no reason that Russia will hesitate to apply the same policy on a larger scale in Eastern Ukraine, or have their sympathizers do it for them. If the Ukrainians persist in fighting, Mr. Putin will, I think, continue to raise the bar for them. For example, he might want to take Kharkiv and Mariupol merely as bargaining chips, but might keep them if the opportunity presents itself. By “take” I mean evict the Ukrainian military and government; not garrison with Russian troops or annex.

      Finally, much is going to depend on the attitude of the Ukrainians and the West. If Ukraine persists, even after the October election, in its efforts to join the EU and NATO, and if the West shows even the slightest hesitation over rejecting said applications, then Mr. Putin might very well decide that he needs as much strategic space in Ukraine as possible. If he gives up “Western Ukraine” as a lost cause, he is going to make damn sure that “Eastern Ukraine” is as big as possible, and that includes many areas that are not necessarily “pro-Russian”. How much he decides to incorporate into the new People’s Republic is, of course, impossible to say, but he would certainly be interested in: 1. establishing a land corridor to Crimea; 2. ensuring that the new People’s Republic is contiguous with Russia’s current border with Ukraine; 3. establishing a land corridor to Moldova, where the Russians already have a battalion of troops permanently stationed.

      I’m not saying he can or will get all of this, only that these will be strategic considerations on his mind if he decides that he really can’t keep all of Ukraine out of NATO and the EU.

      Kind regards,

      Fernando Betancor

      Posted by fdbetancor | September 4, 2014, 09:31

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