What Would A Russian Invasion Of Ukraine Look Like?

Will the Russians stop?

Will the Russians stop?

I’ve been asked this question a lot, and had the chance to expound on it at a recent event in Parliament sponsored by the Henry Jackson Society, so thought I’d briefly outline my thoughts here. That said, though, I should stress that the more time passes, the less likely I think such an attack becomes, because of the shifting political situation and also–as Kyiv moves forces east and mobilises reserves and volunteers–the military calculus. However, it cannot be excluded, so it is worth still considering, not least as the preparatory phases I outline below have all been carried out; the Russian General Staff may well not yet know if it is going to be invading, but it has made sure that if the word does come down from the Kremlin, it will be ready.

In brief, the aim would be a blitzkrieg that, before Ukraine has the chance properly to muster its forces and, perhaps more to the point, the West can meaningfully react, allows the Russians to draw a new front line and assert their own ground truth, much as happened in Crimea (though this would be much more bloody and contested). This would not be a bid to conquer the whole country (the real question is whether they’d seek to push as far as Odessa, taking more risks and extending their supply lines, but also essentially depriving Ukraine of a coastline) but instead quickly to take those areas where there are potentially supportive local political elites and Russophone populations, and consequently pretexts (however flimsy) to portray invasion as ‘liberation.’

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Putin 3.0

A man alone

A man alone

I don’t, alas, have time to give it a proper consideration, but my initial response from watching Putin’s Crimea speech is that this is another of those watershed moments. To me, we are seeing in foreign as well as domestic politics, a new Putin, let’s call him Putin 3.0, an idea I first developed in the most recent Power Vertical podcast. Putin 1.0, in his first terms in office, was characterised by assertive, sometimes ruthless, but essentially pragmatic policy. Putin was no fan of the West and its ideals, but nor did he regard himself as being at odds with it in any fundamental way, only when it tried to impede his own ambitions. Putin 2.0, after the “castling”, his return to office and the unexpected rise of the “non-system opposition”, was increasingly interested in foreign policy precisely as a way of assuaging or diverting domestic pressure. He genuinely seemed — and seems — to lack any real sense of how to build legitimacy in a time of increasing economic trouble, except through well-trumpeted triumphs, from Syria to Sochi. Even so, despite often-bruising rhetoric and such acts as the wilful persecution of US ambassador Mike McFaul (a man whose transparent well-meaning commitment to building bridges and spreading amity was akin to a “kick me” sign on his back in these days of bare-knuckled Moscow), anti-Westernism was a tool, a means to an end, deployed when useful, ignored when not.

Now, though, I can’t help but feel we have Putin 3.0, a man casting aside cerebral notions for a more gut sense of where next to go. A man whose self-image of himself as Russia’s saviour, as well as a growing belief in what we could call Russian exceptionalism, a belief that Russian civilisation has a distinctive and unique place in the world and must be protected from homogenising Western influence, have come to the forefront. From being a means to an end, anti-Westernism becomes an end in itself as is is just the flip side–to him–of preserving and exalting Russian civilisation. The way the usual litany of grievances now seems to have even sharper edge, the sense that Russia must act the way it acts not because it is right but because others did it wrong, a commitment to “re”taking Crimea in absolute contradiction to common sense and, to be blunt, Russia’s real best interests (as Ben Aris has pointed out, even before any sanctions, this crisis has already cost Russian over $400 B, or 8 Sochis…), all of these show a real change.

No, it’s not madness. It’s not even a global danger (remember, Russian civilisation, like the Russian Orthodox Church that buttresses it, is not an aggressively and pan-ethnically evangelistic religion). But as he signs the decree annexing Crimea, it does begin to recast Russia’s relations with the outside world, in a way that will be hard to manage, tough for Russia’s neighbours and also, I suspect, ultimately disastrous for this regime.

Poor Dmytro (Firtash)?

Firtash may be caught by the throat, but most other oligarchs are feeding merrily still

Firtash may be caught by the throat, but most other oligarchs are feeding merrily still

Can one feel sorry for a multi-millionaire ($673M according to some, $2.3B according to alternative accounts, and $3.8B to others) suspected of bribery, who reportedly admitted consorting with wanted gangsters and once boasted of his close ties to Yanukovych? If so, then spare a thought for Ukrainian gas and titanium tycoon Dmytro Firtash, arrested in Vienna on a US warrant on bribery and organised crime charges. Why on earth might one feel any sympathy for him? Not for the philanthropy, not even for the massive donations to my alma mater at Cambridge to endow Ukrainian studies. Rather than Firtash would seem to be a businessman of the regular Ukrainian oligarchic variety. What does that mean? It means certainly not clean by Western standards, but nor, in any meaningful sense, an organised crime figure himself. So what might he have been?

When he first started building his energy empire, bringing Russian gas into Ukraine, the infamous financial crime lord Semen Mogilevich was a shadowy but indispensable fixer and broker. His  involvement was pretty much essential to make any Russo-Ukrainian gas deals work. So, of course, I was entirely unsurprised when the accounts (subsequently denied) of an admitted connection arose. If nothing else, there had been widespread rumours beforehand. Furthermore, Mogilevich–who has an interestingly unique role as, in effect, the boutique personal banker of choice to post-Soviet crooks of every stripe–would conceivably also have been a useful contact and service provider for subsequent sub rosa activities such as moving money abroad discreetly, evading taxes or doing any of the other patriotic parlour games at which post-Soviet plutocrats excel. Read the full post »

Putin: Afghanistan Redux, by Dick Krickus

In the main, I use this blog for my own ruminations, but from time to time I am delighted to be able to use it as a platform for interesting and authoritative guest posts, such as this one from Dick Krickus, Professor Emeritus at the University of Mary Washington.

While Western officials have condemned Vladimir Putin for his invasion of Ukraine, they have cautioned the new government in Kiev not to fall into the trap that Georgian President Mikhail Sakashvilli did in 2008 and respond to Moscow’s provocation with force. Given the advantages that the Russian Army enjoys over its Ukrainian counterparts in terms of soldiers, air craft, tanks, artillery and other instruments of war, any violent showdown with Russia would end badly for the Ukrainians. No objective military analyst would challenge that assessment. But it rests on the judgment that the war will be fought along conventional lines and if this is Putin’s assumption, he is badly mistaken.

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The risk of a gangster “Transdnestrianisation” of the Crimea

Now, does he look like a gangster to you?

Now, does he look like a gangster to you?

Just a quick note to the effect that over at Russia! magazine I have a piece looking at the allegations that de facto Crimean premier Sergei Aksenov was in the 1990s a gangster known as ‘Goblin’ in one of the two main gangs in Simferopol. I go on to consider, regardless of the truth of these allegations, the risk that an annexed or even maximally-autonomous Crimea might become a criminalised pseudo-state like the ‘Transdnestr Moldovan Republic’, just distinctly larger and more closely linked to Russia.

Will ‘Goblin’ Make Crimea a “Free Crime Zone”?

The claims that Crimean premier Sergei Aksenov was once a gangster with the underworld nickname of ‘Goblin,’ has at once been a gift to headline-writers and also a potentially alarming portent for the peninsula’s future.

Aksenov, head of the Russian Unity party, was installed as Crimea’s new premier despite his being elected to the regional parliament in 2010 with only 4% of the vote. His role appears to be the face of Russian interests in the peninsula, but he faces claims that he is also the front man for regional organized crime.

Read the rest here.

Why Kyiv Must Break The Stalemate

Is there a way through?

Is there a way through?

So it looks as if Putin is, I’m glad to say, not a raving and unreasoning imperialist after all. OK, so he may be a careful and calculating imperialist of sorts, but his performance at his press conference on the Ukrainian crisis, while not closing out any options, clearly indicated that Russia was not eagerly after the annexation of Crimea. I’m reassured that my early instincts, which I confess I did begin to question (not least under a heavy barrage of Russoskeptics, ably assisted by lunatic Kremlin I-hope-not-always-mouthpiece Sergei Markov) seem to have been right. Moscow’s aim is to influence Ukrainian policy, not territorial conquest (yes, I know Crimea’s parliament just voted to hold a referendum on this; I’ll take this as serious when it’s the Russian Duma saying this, instead). To be sure, I suspect that the first instinct was a combination of anger, outrage and over-reaction after Yanukovych fell, but there has been time for some consideration. And, even if Angela Merkel does believe that Putin is “in another world” (not something that unusual for leaders, especially those who have been in office long enough to surround themselves with yes-men), his Kremlin still seems able to shape this one, too.

But now that the Crimea is firmly and unquestionably under Russian control (we can safely dismiss those bizarre claims that it is “volunteer self-defence forces” who are wandering around in Russian uniforms, with Russian guns, in Russian vehicles), the conflict seems to have settled into a stalemate. Russia has actually stood down some of its forces along the Ukrainian border; it is clear there will be no imminent blitzkrieg. The West hints at sanctions, talks of consequences, suspends the kind of cooperation that has some political but no practical impact (so NATO won’t let the Russian navy help escort Syrian chemical weapons to destruction; I doubt Putin will lose any sleep over that). So how to break the stalemate?

This is not something that is going to be thrashed out by Kerry and Lavrov. Not even that world-bestriding colossus William Hague will sort this one. The terrible, unfair, difficult but inescapable answer is that it is now down to Kyiv actively to find some way to move things forward. Prime Minister Yatsenyuk has made encouraging noises about the need for a “win-win game where both Ukrainian and Russian interests are considered” and further autonomy for Crimea. However, beyond that, I feel that at the very least Kyiv needs to make certain other commitments:

1. To maintain the current status and agreement of the Black Sea Fleet Did Tymoshenka call for it to be withdrawn? I’ve only so far seen that claimed on Russian news sites and it would be a very unhelpful populist demand if so, but given provenance, I’m willing for the moment to assume the agreement isn’t being challenged.

2. Conclusively to rule out any change to the dual-language status. Trying to impose Ukrainian on the Russian-speaking areas is an obvious and unnecessary irritant.

3. To extend the autonomy status offer to other parts of Ukraine, notably the east. I can understand why Kyiv does not want to grant greater powers to areas questioning its writ and legitimacy, but it needs to take the long view. Ultimately, Ukraine’s future lies westward and eventually ethnic Russians (who even now are not in the main seeking to become part of Russia) will become reconciled to the nation’s tectonic shift. But as a measure to reassure Moscow that it will have allies and agents within the Ukrainian body politic (as well as to provide implicit protection for dirty local elites who may fear a with-hunt), this would be invaluable.

4. Formally ruling out NATO membership. Seriously, it wouldn’t happen for the foreseeable future anyway, so just explicitly take it off the table, even if only to deprive alarmists in Russia of this card.

5. Either ruling out signing the EU Trade Agreement or committing to trying to join that and Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union. OK, Ukraine would largely like the former, and combining the two might be impossible. But all things change and in any case Ukraine would not be able to join the EU any time soon. There are other ways of allowing closer EU-Ukrainian economic ties that don’t hit Putin’s sore spots and Ukraine has to trade with Russia anyway. (Edit: yes, I know you can’t actually, formally join both, I mean trying to find some way of bridging the gap rather than letting it be an either/or “who’s my bestest friend?” choice.)

Is it fair to ask Kyiv to make concessions to a country which has invaded part of its country on specious grounds? Of course not. But sadly fairness is not an especially powerful geopolitical force.

It’s a time for pragmatism, for a deal that provides enough reassurance that Putin can feel he has not “lost” Ukraine just because of Yanukovych’s ouster and can claim “peace with honour”–but without undermining the territorial and political integrity of Ukraine. This is not “letting Putin” win, not least because issues such as autonomy for the east and language rights are being pushed also by Ukrainians. Russia’s efforts to assert and maintain regional hegemony may look successful, but are ultimately doomed. History is not marching that way. It would behove Kyiv, in my opinion, to accept that long-term comfort and for the moment to do what it can to de-escalate the conflict.

Of course, that presupposes that the new government feels it can make concessions, that it does not fear the Maidan more than the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade. My greatest fear is that Moscow, the West and Kyiv alike are locked into positions from which they cannot reach far enough to find common ground.


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