A Hurricane in the East: are rebels getting BM-27 ‘Uragan’ Rocket Systems?

UraganUS intelligence sources are claiming that Russia has actually stepped up its material support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine, including heavier rocket systems. I suspect these may the BM-27 Uragan (‘Hurricane’) systems, the very kind that Moscow has been criticising Kyiv for using in recent days. This is a truck-mounted multiple-tube rocket launcher system akin to the previously-used BM-21 Grad on steroids, able to ripple-fire its 16 220mm rockets in 20 seconds. As such, it represents a substantial upgrade to rebel firepower.

A few quick observations.

1. OK, so maybe Putin won’t be backing away from the rebels…but it may be the storm before the calm. A willingness to supply heavy hardware, coupled with the uncompromising rhetoric from the Kremlin, does suggest that Putin has chosen not to back away from his adventure in eastern Ukraine. However, it’s not impossible that the hope is that allowing the rebels to give Kyiv’s forces a bloody nose will allow Moscow to negotiate some terms for a ‘peace with honour’ extrication from the mess on stronger terms, given that at present, between the seizure of Slovyansk and the moral charge provided by MH17, the Ukrainian government is in unyielding mood. This can be disastrous (witness Russia clinging on in WW1 in the hope that “next battle” would provide one such victory), but can work.

2. The government forces outnumber the rebels, but their key advantages are airpower and long-range artillery. With systems such as the now-infamous Buk and the BM-27, Moscow is clearly trying to neutralise them (the BM-27 is a useful counterbattery weapon, able to silence Ukrainian guns). The idea is presumably to put Kyiv into the situation of facing a nasty–and higher-casualty–old-fashioned close-quarters battle in Donetsk if it wants to wipe out the rebels, hoping that Poroshenko won’t be willing to accept the costs. (Though I suspect he would, if need be.)

3. This would make the rebels more dependent on Moscow. Larger, higher-tech kit like the BM-27 needs maintenance, spare parts, etc. They also need ample ammunition to be effective, and unlike assault rifle rounds, these aren’t widely available in looted stockpiles and the black market. This gives Moscow more potential authority over the rebels, and also embeds the Russians more deeply in the fight.

Blowback’s a bitch: MH17 and the east Ukraine campaign’s long-term costs for Russia

MH17Policy makers, especially policy makers who have never seen action, are often seduced by covert operations. They see them as the perfect policy instrument: cheap, deniable, effective. Yes, there can be tremendously effective covert or at least non-conventional operations and campaigns, but just as all intelligence operations must come to terms with the fundamental truth that nothing is guaranteed to stay secret for ever, so too these sneaky campaigns can very easily either fail or, even more likely, have unexpected consequences that may overshadow the intended outcome. After all, while Al-Qaeda and the rise of Osama Bin Laden cannot entirely be charted back to the US campaign to support Islamist rebels fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan–had the social, political and intellectual climate not been ready for the message of jihad then they would have remained on the fringes–nonetheless there is a strong connection.

Courtesy of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, Putin is now coming to terms with the blowback from his Ukrainian adventure, a hybrid non-linear political-military campaign fought largely through local proxies, and this is something that will dog him for as long as he is in power. I plan to look at these in more detail at a later date, but in summary, the consequences are:

1. You don’t have control over events on the ground but (rightly) get blamed when bad stuff happens. The MH17 shootdown is generating an unprecedented level of anger.Even if ultimately it is unable to muster the unity, determination and moral courage to act resolutely–although I hope they do–I do not believe the West will look at Putin the same way again. Furthermore, the pliant choir of “useful idiots” arguing the Russian case, whether out of self-interest or because of a naive and perverse disillusion with their own society, will find their lives harder and their audiences less tolerant.

2. You inject yourself into the negotiations, but can’t deliver on a deal. At this stage, Kyiv will be looking for more from Moscow than “we won’t send any more people or weapons in to join the fight” but it is questionable whether the Russians can do more than extract those elements of the rebellion which really are direct covert operatives and try to persuade the rest. Given that Moscow doesn’t really care about the east Ukrainians but is instead using them to put pressure on Kyiv, it is unlikely to put a great premium on looking after them and their interests–but it must then sell them the consequent peace terms.

3. You create chaos on your border. Even if Kyiv is able to win a military victory or else is willing and able to arrange some kind of peace deal (which is all the harder now), eastern Ukraine will be suffering from the effects of this nasty conflict for years to come. Bad blood between communities, civilians angry at either the separatists or government after being caught in the crossfire, a haemorrhage of weapons which will arm gangsters, terrorists and random lunatics for years to come… Considering the close ethnic and economic connections across the border, that will inevitably have an impact on Russia.

4. You disappoint people you previously counted as fervent supporters. It’s not just Strelkov who expressed disappointment at Russia’s stance. There are already concerns within the ultra-nationalist wing in Russia, people who previously saw Putin as the ideal ruler, not least given his recent shift towards a messianic Russian exceptionalism and a commitment to asserting Russia’s rights to protect Russians abroad. This is very much a fringe movement, and poses no serious threat to Putin, but it does mean that he no longer can rely on their active support.

5. You undermine your persona as the infallible tsar. Of course the Russian media will spin whatever decision he chooses to make, but we shouldn’t presume that the Russian population are wholly clueless. If he has to accept the crushing of the insurrection and, even more alarming, a further Ukrainian drift towards Europe without having been given some grounds to claim”Mission Accomplished”, then he will look bad. (To that end, if the aim is an early end to hostilities, it would make sense for Kyiv to ponder what face-saving package it can give that it is willing to give: simply a nicely package assertion of things already said, such as the protection of Russia’s status as a state language; as well as what is a practical inevitability, such as ruling out NATO membership for at least 8 years, might be enough.)

6. You look weak before your other neighbours, undermining claims to regional hegemony. Just as the 2008 Georgian War was as much–if not mainly–about asserting Moscow’s will and capacity to punish those Near Abroad states challenging its regional hegemony, a perceived failure in Ukraine cannot but embolden those other nations. Let’s face it, Moscow has in the main relatively little positive soft power: no one especially likes Russia or looks up to it as a model. Instead, there are some countries who regard it as either too useful or too dangerous to flout. That pragmatic arithmetic may shift.

7. You are held accountable for your actions (maybe). We’ll have to see quite how robust the further Western response will be. The current sanctions regime and diplomatic chill is a little irksome but entirely bearable, but if we start seeing more concrete measures, whether the cancellation of contracts (can Paris really still deliver modern assault carriers to Russia with good conscience?), expanded travel bans or even sectoral sanctions, then this will hit Russia and Russians. Short-term bravado will give way to longer-term concerns in this case. Either way, those voices in the West who warned that Putin’s Russia was that dangerous thing, a compound of the aggressive and erratic, have been proven right, and NATO now looks more relevant than at any time since not even 1991, but arguably since Gorbachev’s accession to power.

One way or the other, while the concept of non-linear war is still entirely valid and will be a crucial factor in 21st century statecraft, in this case it has gone very wrong. Bad luck for Moscow, to a degree, but handing powerful weapons to undertrained, undisciplined and gung-ho rebels is in many ways an invitation to such bad luck. And ultimately Putin has no one to blame but himself (although I’m sure he’ll find someone.)

The ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ and Russian Non-Linear War

But what happens when the bear looks like a stray dog, or a cute little kitten?

But what happens when the bear looks like a stray dog, or a cute little kitten?

Call it non-linear war (which I prefer), or hybrid war, or special war, Russia’s operations first in Crimea and then eastern Ukraine have demonstrated that Moscow is increasingly focusing on new forms of politically-focused operations in the future. In many ways this is an extension of what elsewhere I’ve called Russia’s ‘guerrilla geopolitics,’ an appreciation of the fact that in a world shaped by an international order the Kremlin finds increasingly irksome and facing powers and alliances with greater raw military, political and economic power, new tactics are needed which focus on the enemy’s weaknesses and avoid direct and overt confrontations. To be blunt, these are tactics that NATO–still, in the final analysis, an alliance designed to deter and resist a mass, tank-led Soviet invasion–finds hard to know how to handle. (Indeed, a case could be made that it is not NATO’s job, but that’s something to consider elsewhere.)

Hindsight, as ever a sneakily snarky knowitall, eagerly points out that we could have expected this in light of an at-the-time unremarked article by Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. In fairness, it was in Voenno-promyshlennyi kur’er, the Military-Industrial Courier, which is few people’s fun read of choice. Nonetheless, it represents the best and most authoritative statement yet of what we could, at least as a placeholder, call the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ (not that it necessarily was his confection). I and everyone interested in these developments are indebted to Rob Coalson of RFE/RL, who noted and circulated this article, and the following translation is his (thanks to Rob for his permission to use it), with my various comments and interpolations.


 

Military-Industrial Kurier, February 27, 2013

(My comments are indented and italicised and in red, and the bold emphases are also mine)

THE VALUE OF SCIENCE IN PREDICTION 

General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation

In the 21st century we have seen a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace. Wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template.

The experience of military conflicts — including those connected with the so-called coloured revolutions in north Africa and the Middle East — confirm that a perfectly thriving state can, in a matter of months and even days, be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict, become a victim of foreign intervention, and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war.

There is an old Soviet-era rhetorical device that a ‘warning’ or a ‘lesson’ from some other situation is used to outline intent and plan. The way that what purports to be an after-action take on the Arab Spring so closely maps across to what was done in Ukraine is striking. Presenting the Arab Spring–wrongly–as the results of covert Western operations allows Gerasimov the freedom to talk about what he wants to talk about: how Russia can subvert and destroy states without direct, overt and large-scale military intervention.

The Lessons of the ‘Arab Spring’

Of course, it would be easiest of all to say that the events of the “Arab Spring” are not war and so there are no lessons for us — military men — to learn. But maybe the opposite is true — that precisely these events are typical of warfare in the 21st century.

In terms of the scale of the casualties and destruction, the catastrophic social, economic, and political consequences, such new-type conflicts are comparable with the consequences of any real war.

The very “rules of war” have changed. The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.

For me, this is probably the most important line in the whole piece, so allow me to repeat it: The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness. In other words, this is an explicit recognition not only that all conflicts are actually means to political ends–the actual forces used are irrelevant–but that in the modern realities, Russia must look to non-military instruments increasingly.

The focus of applied methods of conflict has altered in the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures — applied in coordination with the protest potential of the population.

All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed character, including carrying out actions of informational conflict and the actions of special-operations forces. The open use of forces — often under the guise of peacekeeping and crisis regulation — is resorted to only at a certain stage, primarily for the achievement of final success in the conflict.

This is, after all, exactly what happened in Crimea, when the insignia-less “little green men” were duly unmasked as–surprise, surprise–Russian special forces and Naval Infantry only once the annexation was actually done.

From this proceed logical questions: What is modern war? What should the army be prepared for? How should it be armed? Only after answering these questions can we determine the directions of the construction and development of the armed forces over the long term. To do this, it is essential to have a clear understanding of the forms and methods of the use of the application of force.

What Gerasimov is signalling here, and it may prove an important point, is that the Russian military needs to be tooled appropriately. This may mean a re-opening of the traditional hostilities with the politically more powerful defence industries (that want to pump out more tanks and the other things they produce) over quite what kind of kit the military gets. When former defence minister Serdyukov announced a moratorium on buying new tanks, Putin slapped him down and restated the order. Shoigu and Gerasimov will have to be more savvy if they want to make progress on this one.

These days, together with traditional devices, nonstandard ones are being developed. The role of mobile, mixed-type groups of forces, acting in a single intelligence-information space because of the use of the new possibilities of command-and-control systems has been strengthened. Military actions are becoming more dynamic, active, and fruitful. Tactical and operational pauses that the enemy could exploit are disappearing. New information technologies have enabled significant reductions in the spatial, temporal, and informational gaps between forces and control organs. Frontal engagements of large formations of forces at the strategic and operational level are gradually becoming a thing of the past. Long-distance, contactless actions against the enemy are becoming the main means of achieving combat and operational goals. The defeat of the enemy’s objects is conducted throughout the entire depth of his territory. The differences between strategic, operational, and tactical levels, as well as between offensive and defensive operations, are being erased. The application of high-precision weaponry is taking on a mass character. Weapons based on new physical principals and automatized systems are being actively incorporated into military activity.

All worthy enough, but in fairness nothing we haven’t heard before.

Asymmetrical actions have come into widespread use, enabling the nullification of an enemy’s advantages in armed conflict. Among such actions are the use of special-operations forces and internal opposition to create a permanently operating front through the entire territory of the enemy state, as well as informational actions, devices, and means that are constantly being perfected.

This, on the other hand, does show something of a different nuance, with the renewed emphasis on “internal opposition”, something which harkens back to Soviet-era playbooks rather than post-Soviet military doctrine, which was largely cleared of such language except in some specific contexts such as counter-insurgency.

These ongoing changes are reflected in the doctrinal views of the world’s leading states and are being used in military conflicts.

Already in 1991, during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, the U.S. military realized the concept of “global sweep, global power” and “air-ground operations.” In 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom, military operations were conducted in accordance with the so-called Single Perspective 2020.

Now, the concepts of “global strike” and “global missile defense” have been worked out, which foresee the defeat of enemy objects and forces in a matter of hours from almost any point on the globe, while at the same time ensuring the prevention of unacceptable harm from an enemy counterstrike. The United States is also enacting the principles of the doctrine of global integration of operations aimed at creating in a very short time highly mobile, mixed-type groups of forces.

In recent conflicts, new means of conducting military operations have appeared that cannot be considered purely military. An example of this is the operation in Libya, where a no-fly zone was created, a sea blockade imposed, private military contractors were widely used in close interaction with armed formations of the opposition.

Yes, these were all used in Libya, but whether they were that new is open to question. The key point for Gerasimov, I believe, is that actions such as the no-fly zone that were presented as (and have traditionally been) the preserve of humanitarian interventions were really used to favour one side in the conflict, the rebels. Combined with the use of mercenaries to support them, this makes Libya a convenient synecdoche for the kinds of operations the Russians are really contemplating, in which the mask of humanitarian intervention and peacekeeping can shield aggressive actions.

We must acknowledge that, while we understand the essence of traditional military actions carried out by regular armed forces, we have only a superficial understanding of asymmetrical forms and means. In this connection, the importance of military science — which must create a comprehensive theory of such actions — is growing. The work and research of the Academy of Military Science can help with this.

The Tasks of Military Science

In the main, I will comment less on this section, because often it really doesn’t connect so clearly with the first half. However, taken together it is worth noting that it presents a pretty scathing picture of modern Russian military thinking. I can’t help but wonder whether Colonel General Sergei Makarov, head of the General Staff Academy since only last year, must be feeling a little anxious about his prospects.

In a discussion of the forms and means of military conflict, we must not forget about our own experience. I mean the use of partisan units during the Great Patriotic War and the fight against irregular formations in Afghanistan and the North Caucasus.

These are interesting examples, not least because they omit other, equally or even more appropriate examples, such as the Soviet experiences fighting the basmachi rebels in 1920s Central Asia and supporting anti-colonial insurgencies in Africa, Asia and Latin America during the Cold War. In the latter, for instance, the Soviets tended to use military assistance, handfuls of specialists and trainers, third-party agents and extensive propaganda, influence and subversion operations to achieve political goals, ideally with as little direct conflict as possible and without letting Moscow’s hand be too obvious. Sound familiar?

I would emphasize that during the Afghanistan War specific forms and means of conducting military operations were worked out. At their heart lay speed, quick movements, the smart use of tactical paratroops and encircling forces which all together enable the interruption of the enemy’s plans and brought him significant losses.

Another factor influencing the essence of modern means of armed conflict is the use of modern automated complexes of military equipment and research in the area of artificial intelligence. While today we have flying drones, tomorrow’s battlefields will be filled with walking, crawling, jumping, and flying robots. In the near future it is possible a fully robotized unit will be created, capable of independently conducting military operations.

How shall we fight under such conditions? What forms and means should be used against a robotized enemy? What sort of robots do we need and how can they be developed? Already today our military minds must be thinking about these questions.

The most important set of problems, requiring intense attention, is connected with perfecting the forms and means of applying groups of forces. It is necessary to rethink the content of the strategic activities of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Already now questions are arising: Is such a number of strategic operations necessary? Which ones and how many of them will we need in the future? So far, there are no answers.

There are also other problems that we are encountering in our daily activities.

We are currently in the final phase of the formation of a system of air-space defense (VKO). Because of this, the question of the development of forms and means of action using VKO forces and tools has become actual. The General Staff is already working on this. I propose that the Academy of Military Science also take active part.

The information space opens wide asymmetrical possibilities for reducing the fighting potential of the enemy. In north Africa, we witnessed the use of technologies for influencing state structures and the population with the help of information networks. It is necessary to perfect activities in the information space, including the defense of our own objects.

The operation to force Georgia to peace exposed the absence of unified approaches to the use of formations of the Armed Forces outside of the Russian Federation. The September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi , the activization of piracy activities, the recent hostage taking in Algeria all confirm the importance of creating a system of armed defense of the interests of the state outside the borders of its territory.

Although the additions to the federal law “On Defense” adopted in 2009 allow the operational use of the Armed Forces of Russia outside of its borders, the forms and means of their activity are not defined. In addition, matters of facilitating their operational use have not been settled on the interministerial level. This includes simplifying the procedure for crossing state borders, the use of the airspace and territorial waters of foreign states, the procedures for interacting with the authorities of the state of destination, and so on.

It is necessary to convene the joint work of the research organizations of the pertinent ministries and agencies on such matters.

One of the forms of the use of military force outside the country is peacekeeping. In addition to traditional tasks, their activity could include more specific tasks such as specialized, humanitarian, rescue, evacuation, sanitation, and other tasks. At present, their classification, essence, and content have not been defined.

Moreover, the complex and multifarious tasks of peacekeeping which, possibly, regular troops will have to carry out, presume the creation of a fundamentally new system for preparing them. After all, the task of a peacekeeping force is to disengage conflicting sides, protect and save the civilian population, cooperate in reducing potential violence and reestablish peaceful life. All this demands academic preparation.

Controlling Territory

It is becoming increasingly important in modern conflicts to be capable of defending one’s population, objects, and communications from the activity of special-operations forces, in view of their increasing use. Resolving this problem envisions the organization and introduction of territorial defense.

Before 2008, when the army at war time numbered more than 4.5 million men, these tasks were handled exclusively by the armed forces. But conditions have changed. Now, countering diversionary-reconnaissance and terroristic forces can only be organized by the complex involvement of all the security and law-enforcement forces of the country.

The General Staff has begun this work. It is based on defining the approaches to the organization of territorial defense that were reflected in the changes to the federal law “On Defense.” Since the adoption of that law, it is necessary to define the system of managing territorial defense and to legally enforce the role and location in it of other forces, military formations, and the organs of other state structures.

We need well-grounded recommendations on the use of interagency forces and means for the fulfillment of territorial defense, methods for combatting the terrorist and diversionary forces of the enemy under modern conditions.

Again, here defence is used in Aesopian terms to address issues of offence. I don’t dispute there is a genuine need for this kind of coordination, and it may reflect the confidence of a recently re-empowered General Staff in trying to reassert some kind of supreme authority over national defence after years in which the security agencies have been dominant. But primarily I read into this a recognition of the importance for the close coordination of military, intelligence and information operations in this new way of war. If we take Ukraine as the example, the GRU (military intelligence) took point over Crimea, supported by regular military units. In eastern Ukraine, the Federal Security Service (FSB), which had thoroughly penetrated the Ukrainian security apparatus, has encouraged defections and monitored Kyiv’s plans, the Interior Ministry (MVD) has used its contacts with its Ukrainian counterparts to identify potential agents and sources, the military has been used to rattle sabres loudly on the border–and may be used more aggressively yet–while the GRU not only handled the flow of volunteers and materiel into the east but probably marshalled the Vostok Battalion, arguably the toughest unit in the Donbas. Meanwhile, Russian media and diplomatic sources have kept up an incessant campaign to characterise the ‘Banderite’ government in Kyiv as illegitimate and brutal, while even cyberspace is not immune, as ‘patriotic hackers’ attack Ukrainian banks and government websites. The essence of this non-linear war is, as Gerasimov says, that the war is everywhere.

The experience of conducting military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq has shown the necessity of working out — together with the research bodies of other ministries and agencies of the Russian Federation — the role and extent of participation of the armed forces in postconflict regulation, working out the priority of tasks, the methods for activation of forces, and establishing the limits of the use of armed force.

[…]

You Can’t Generate Ideas On Command

The state of Russian military science today cannot be compared with the flowering of military-theoretical thought in our country on the eve of World War II.

Of course, there are objective and subjective reasons for this and it is not possible to blame anyone in particular for it. I am not the one who said it is not possible to generate ideas on command.

I agree with that, but I also must acknowledge something else: at that time, there were no people with higher degrees and there were no academic schools or departments. There were extraordinary personalities with brilliant ideas. I would call them fanatics in the best sense of the word. Maybe we just don’t have enough people like that today.

Ouch. Who is he slapping here?

People like, for instance, Georgy Isserson, who, despite the views he formed in the prewar years, published the book “New Forms Of Combat.” In it, this Soviet military theoretician predicted: “War in general is not declared. It simply begins with already developed military forces. Mobilization and concentration is not part of the period after the onset of the state of war as was the case in 1914 but rather, unnoticed, proceeds long before that.” The fate of this “prophet of the Fatherland” unfolded tragically. Our country paid in great quantities of blood for not listening to the conclusions of this professor of the General Staff Academy.

What can we conclude from this? A scornful attitude toward new ideas, to nonstandard approaches, to other points of view is unacceptable in military science. And it is even more unacceptable for practitioners to have this attitude toward science.

In conclusion, I would like to say that no matter what forces the enemy has, no matter how well-developed his forces and means of armed conflict may be, forms and methods for overcoming them can be found. He will always have vulnerabilities and that means that adequate means of opposing him exist.

This is an obvious, if necessarily veiled allusion to Russia’s relative weakness compared with the West today and, probably, China tomorrow. The answer is not to not have conflicts, but rather to ensure they are fought in the ways that best suit your needs.

We must not copy foreign experience and chase after leading countries, but we must outstrip them and occupy leading positions ourselves. This is where military science takes on a crucial role.

The outstanding Soviet military scholar Aleksandr Svechin wrote: “It is extraordinarily hard to predict the conditions of war. For each war it is necessary to work out a particular line for its strategic conduct. Each war is a unique case, demanding the establishment of a particular logic and not the application of some template.”

This approach continues to be correct. Each war does present itself as a unique case, demanding the comprehension of its particular logic, its uniqueness. That is why the character of a war that Russia or its allies might be drawn into is very hard to predict. Nonetheless, we must. Any academic pronouncements in military science are worthless if military theory is not backed by the function of prediction.

[…]

Those Mysterious Tanks in Ukraine

UkraineRussianTanksThe appearance of three mystery tanks in east Ukraine may be a serious escalation of the conflict (as Russia throws extra military hardware into the fray) or another one of those desperate attempts to prove a Russian presence. I honestly don’t know, but until we have more solid data, I hope people will be cautious about accepting the “they must be Russian tanks” line uncritically. I hope, but don;’t expect: even if some caution ends up buried in the text, the headlines are already taking it at face value that Russian tanks have rolled into Ukraine. But:

1. We’ve been here before. Remember the “Russian lieutenant colonel“? There have been many hurried assertions of direct Russian roles that ended up having to be retracted. Just for the record: of course there is a serious Russian role, both direct and indirect, but with the possible exception of the initial insertion of Vostok (which has since started “Ukrainianification”), it tends to be in the form of facilitating, arming, supporting, not directly intervening.

2. The evidence presented so far has been pretty thin. For example, NATO has released imagery with a strong implication that it points towards Russian involvement (as it contributes to the “effort to ensure Russia remains publicly accountable for its actions”), but the suggestions are based on:

i. That there were some Russian tanks near the border beforehand. OK, fair enough and I wouldn’t discount this, but apparently all the wizardry of NATO image interpretation still can’t say if they are the same T-64 tanks we’ve seen inside Ukraine. After all, given that the T-64 has actually been phased out of Russian service, that would be a big deal if they fielded some. If NATO can show that they were T-64s, then that to me really would be as close to real proof as we can get from such imagery.

ii. The tanks we’ve seen do not have Ukrainian markings. Sure, had they just defected or been stolen they’s presumably have markings, but that presumably was not the case. To add, as NATO does, that “this is consistent with Russian vehicles and equipment that were deployed to Crimea” is rather circumstantial.

iii. There are no Ukrainian armoured units in the east. The State Department spokesperson said “no Ukrainian tank units have been operating in that area.” OK, but not only do Ukrainian mechanised units also include tanks, there certainly are reserve stocks and depots for tanks awaiting modernisation or scrap. (The Malyshev Tank Works, for example, which produced T-64s, and now offers conversions, is in Kharkiv, north-eastern Ukraine.)

3. Why just three? If Moscow is wiling to up the ante–which it might well–then why in such a minimalist fashion, enough to alarm the West and give Poroshenko more leverage, but not enough to have a significant impact on the conflict? It is not that they lack stored weapons? Why not thirty? Or, better yet, why not artillery? Had the Ukrainian forces been on the ball, after all, they could have caught those tanks on the road with their Mi-24 helicopter gunships or, better yet, Su-25 ground attack aircraft and destroyed them in one raid: tanks can be phenomenally powerful used in the right way, but they are also strikingly fragile in other ways.

I am, I must stress, not stating definitively that these are not tanks the Russians dragged out of their reserve stocks and sent into Ukraine. All I am doing is issuing a plaintive and no doubt fruitless appeal that in these days of hyperspeed 24/7 news cycles, we should not assume that a press release from the White House (or the Kremlin) represents definitive proof…

PS: Testing the Waters? In the comments below, Malcolm Davis makes a valid point that the Russians could just be seeing what (if any) Western response the first intrusion draws. Maybe. But my sense is that Putin/the Russians actually tend to work the other way, to act fast and decisively (when they are going to act) in order to define the truths on the ground and then sit back and present the outside world with a fait accompli. Indeed, this predates Putin: think of the 1999 “Pristina Dash.” Dribbling in a few tanks here and maybe a few more there actually allows the West (and Kyiv) to be able to construct some kind of meaningful response. And as I say above, three tanks accompanied by a single truck-mounted anti-aircraft gun (with no radar guidance or the like) and a truck or two of troops actually could have been very vulnerable. I think the Russians think like Heinz Guderian, whose rule of thumb was Nicht Kleckern sondern Klotzen! (Boot’ em, don’t spatter’ em!)…

Is Putin Trying To Regain Control In Eastern Ukraine?

Vostok Battalion 2.0

Vostok Battalion 2.0

It seems contradictory: on the one hand Moscow is moderating its rhetoric on Ukraine and calling for talks with newly-elected President Petro Poroshenko, on the other we have reports that a large contingent of heavily-armed Chechens, the ‘Vostok Battalion,’ is now in eastern Ukraine, something that could not have happened without Russian acquiescence–and which probably was arranged by them. However, I think that they actually fit together to suggest that the Kremlin is looking to position itself for potential talks with the new presidency in Kyiv, something that requires reversing not just the rhetorical trend towards hyperbole but also the slide towards warlordism on the ground. After all, for Moscow meaningfully to make a deal, it must be able to offer more than just a willingness not to destabilise the east any more, it must be able to deliver at least a partial peace on the ground.

(more…)

BTRs, Banners and Blizzards: the practice for the 2014 Victory Day parade in Moscow

A random selection of inexpert pictures from this morning’s practice for Friday’s Victory Day parade, before the unseasonal snow all but obscured the hardware.

All photos (c) Mark Galeotti 2014

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