Why Is Donetsk Airport So Important?

Still image taken from handout aerial footage shot by drone shows outline o airplane in the snow at the Sergey Prokofiev International Airport damaged by shelling during fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces, in Donetsk

Not looking its best

As of writing, after having almost lost Donetsk’s poor, battered airport to rebel forces, the Ukrainian army seems to have launched a counter-attack which has at least stabilised the situation, and may even mean they will take it back in its entirety. This is ‘proper’ war in all its boy’s own pyrotechnics, with armour, artillery and close-quarters fighting, and has left the recently-rebuilt and once-glittering airport a blasted ruin. So why is it so important?

1. Symbolism. Kiev’s forces have, to be charitable, a mixed record in fighting this conflict. Regardless of the scale of Russian assistance to the rebels–sometimes in the form of direct intervention, largely through men and materiel–the government forces have often seemed badly-prepared, unable to follow through local successes and, frankly, badly commanded. The “cyborgs” defending the beleaguered airport for so long, despite near-constant threat of snipers, artillery and outright assault, have been conspicuous in their resolution. For them to have lost the airport, that advance intrusion into the heart of the rebellion, would have been a serious blow to their morale and the credibility of the government, as well as a fillip for the DNR at a time when its backing in Moscow looks under some pressure.

2. Supply. One of the clear aims of successive government offensives has been to isolate Donetsk or at least to be able to do more to interdict resupply to the city. Luhansk is one thing, but Donetsk is the real heart of the rebellion. If they were able to encircle the city, they could besiege it, and while one hopes they would not violate international law and try to starve it, they could at least seek to prevent the resupply of weapons and ammunition. Modern warfare is voracious in its demands for logistical support, and the capacity of the rebels to maintain the kind of high-tempo attacks we’ve seen of late would be severely affected. Sure, they wouldn’t run out of bullets for a long time, but the Grad rockets and similar artillery support they’ve deployed would have to be used much more sparingly.

However, if the rebels controlled the airport, and could clear it enough to be even marginally useable (and let’s face it, for all their crudity at times, Soviet/Russian transports are typically better at rough landings), Moscow acquired the air resupply option. Let’s say they mounted their own “Berlin Airlift”, with white-painted aircraft they say are just bringing in relief supplies for the poor, hungry citizens of Donetsk. This would pose a tricky military/political dilemma for Kiev. Let the planes through and allow the Russians to resupply DNR forces with impunity? Or try to block the flights and look heartless and, worse yet, maybe ending up shooting down a plane and give Moscow a casus belli and something that would make the MH17 shootdown history?

A Ukraine-Russia peace deal: Crimea must have a cost

March-06-14-Russia-Ukraine-and-Obama2Efforts to secure some kind of peace deal between Moscow and Kiev—and not just a temporary ceasefire that preserves a frozen conflict—continue. The latest suggestions are that Washington is coming up with proposals to this effect, as explored in this story from Bloomberg by Josh Rogin. While not officially confirmed, its details chime with what I have been hearing from people in and close to the policy circles. The essence is that in return “for a partial release of some of the most onerous economic sanctions” Russia would have to adhere to September’s Minsk agreement and cease direct military support for the rebels, while the “issue of Crimea would be set aside for the time being, and some of the initial sanctions that were put in place after Crimea’s annexation would be kept in place.”

In other words, Russia’s seizure of Crimea would be considered a done deal and taken out of the equation, in return for only minor and personal (ie, not systemic) sanctions, while Russia and Ukraine would in effect be considered to have positions of equal moral weight in the negotiations over eastern Ukraine. Although it is essential to end this war—and both Moscow and Kiev want and would gain from a resolution—this basis is, in my option, immoral, muddle-headed and downright dangerous.

1. Yes, alas for the moment it is not worth trying to get Moscow to surrender Crimea. It may not be right, but this is the only viable position. For Putin to abandon the peninsula would not be totally against his own instincts, it would also be politically lethal, critically undermining his credibility and legitimacy. He simply will not do this. (more…)

Putin, the Rouble Crisis and Ukraine: will he be tempted to up the ante?

Zenrus, 13:06, 16 December 2014

Zenrus, 13:06, 16 December 2014

A worrying thought. The Western sanctions are clearly not the deciding factor in the rouble crash, that accolade goes to the oil price slump, but they are undoubtedly a factor. So Moscow would want them lifted, but the political cost of simply backing away from their ill-starred and ill-considered Donbas adventure is likely to be considered too great. So, I cannot wonder if the temptation will be to escalate the conflict, possibly throwing in a brigade or two of troops. Why? Short-term, this means things get worse, but I suspect the West would think twice about serious extra sanctions, fearful of the risk of collapse and chaos in a fragile Russia. But, the calculation would go, it might be enough to force Kyiv to make a deal, which would allow Putin to claim success and withdraw from the region (keeping Crimea, of course), claiming peace with honour. This in turn could be leveraged to get the sanctions regime lifted or at least eased, hopefully providing a degree of macroeconomic relief. After all, the alternative would seem to be a frozen conflict and indefinite sanctions. So, will the Kremlin think short-term escalation may bring medium-term relief, as a better option to long-term sanctions? We’ll see if units around Ukraine start to be brought back to full operational readiness. Or if Strelkov comes back in from the cold!

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. (more…)

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.

(more…)

The ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ and Russian Non-Linear War

A BELATED BUT HEART-FELT PS: When using the term ‘Gerasimov Doctrine,’ I was just going for a snappy title. I really didn’t expect (or want) it to become a more generally used term. Why? (a) Gerasimov didn’t invent this; if any CoGS deserves the ‘credit’ it would be his predecessor Makarov, but even so it is really an evolutionary, not revolutionary process; and (b) it’s not a doctrine, which is in the Russian lexicon a truly foundational set of beliefs as to what kinds of war the country will be fighting in the future and how it will win them — this is more an observation about a particular aspect of particular kinds of wars in the 21stC, there is certainly no expectation that this is the Russian way of war. So stop it, please!

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, and it certainly isn’t a doctrine), although it is crucially about catching up with and defeating what he regards as a Western innovation. 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. (more…)

%d bloggers like this: