Is Ukraine being thrown off the bus? Not really, but France and Germany are right

Hollande-Merkel-PoroshenkoPoroshenko was in bullish form at the UN General Assembly but was apparently very worried about the Putin-Obama handshake, worrying that Washington would make some deal over Syria at Ukraine’s expense. Perhaps he should have been looking at Europe, instead. The ever-perceptive Leonid Bershidsky has an interesting piece in Bloomberg where he suggests that France and Germany have in effect told Ukrainian President Poroshenko that he has to make peace with the separatists, through pushing through a new election law for the Donbas and an amnesty for separatist leaders to allow them to contest the vote:

The way Merkel and Hollande see it, Poroshenko should be interested in working to reintegrate the rebel-held areas into Ukraine, which would mean contesting the election and, in case of an almost certain defeat, working with the winners. That’s the European way of doing things; trying to enlist outside support to defeat the separatists is not, especially when Europe has plenty of problems of its own.

Inevitably, Kiev’s partisans will see this as a betrayal and playing into Putin’s hands, as the new plan puts the onus on Poroshenko to get the law through his recalcitrant legislature. In the process, what seemed almost certain – that at year’s end, while Kiev comes into for some criticism, Moscow and the Donbas rebels get the lion’s share of the blame for the (inevitable) failure of Minsk-2 – now looks much less clear. After all, the burden is on Poroshenko and Minsk-2 implicitly just history.

If the conflict is viewed primarily in moral terms, in not allowing an aggressor to get away with intruding into a neighbour’s sovereignty, then fair enough. However, while Kiev has a right to reimpose its authority over a rebellious/occupied region, it is not the EU’s job to encourage a conflict that, frankly, shows no sign of ending soon. In those circumstances, surely the humanitarian option but also the pragmatic option is to try and end the war as soon as possible, which means a political settlement. Realistically, this means a Donbas which is going, at least for one political generation, to be dominated by local oligarchs and the remnants of local strongmen. However, regaining control of the border and the Donbas are a pre-requisite for any serious nation-rebuilding – and also allowing the displaced population to return home. This displaced population, after all, will probably be the best allies of Kiev there in the future.

As Bershidsky notes, Kiev has failed to win friends through relying largely on playing the victim: “Poroshenko can count on meaningful support only if he shows a commitment to do difficult things that would bring Ukraine closer to Western governance models: Achieve tough political compromises and implement painful reforms. So far, the Ukrainian president hasn’t delivered on either front.” Kiev at present doesn’t look likely either to be strong and determined enough to reconquer the Donbas any day soon, nor willing and able to reform adequately at home. When does political and humanitarian support simply become enabling a government to avoid painful but necessary measures?

This may look like a cynical Franco-German ploy to make life easier for Europe. But actually I would suggest that the best, most honest measures are often ruthlessly to recognize facts on the ground and act accordingly. The discussion as to whether time was on Moscow’s or Kiev’s side ignores one basic point: not Ukraine, not Russia, let alone the people of the Donbas, were “winning” and after a certain point such talk becomes meaningless. Even under probably-hokey new election laws, the Donbas will neither become a Muscovite puppet, nor an outlier in Ukrainian politics. Local elites in the future – as now – will be thoroughly self-interested, and only entertain Moscow’s blandishments when it is in their interests, which is as it has always been. Ukrainian politics remains corrupt, oligarch-dominated, and the Donbas will be no different.

But let me re-emphasize that reuniting the country, regaining control of the border, ending the fighting, getting Russian troops and auxiliaries out of the Donbas and re-establishing unitary government are all preconditions for real progress. Unless Kiev is willing simply to eject Donbas from Ukraine, and there is no evidence that it is, then the sooner it can regain it, by whatever means, the better.

Washington’s drip-feeding of weapons and support avoids tough decisions but is enough to keep the government fighting but not enough to win the war, let alone win the peace at home. France and Germany, by contrast, are not happy to facilitate this messy and unstable status quo, but feel that it is better to force some kind of resolution, however imperfect.

It lacks heroic appeal, feels shabby and almost appeasing, but I would suggest it actually combines realism with courage.

Column Necromancy, or, where did all those old pieces from Russia! magazine go?

When Russia! magazine adopted its shiny new format, older articles were archived in a different place, under Unfortunately, search engines will generally take people fruitlessly and frustratingly to the former URL, so to make people’s life easier, here is a list helpfully compiled by my assistant Julie Baldyga of the archives pieces, by date, linked to their new homes:

Russians In Syria, Zaslon, and the risks of going native

SyriaIt is behind a paywall, alas, but I just wanted to note that Bearing Down: Russia to defend core Syrian government areas, a composite article on the Russians in Syria (me on the Russian side of things, Jonathan Spyer of the Rubin Center on the Syrian dimension) has come out in Jane’s Intelligence Review. There’s a short extract here, and some of the interested satellite photography has also made it into the general press. There has been a great deal of discussion about the deployment of Naval Infantry, Su-25 bombers and the like, but I did want to quote one paragraph of mine to highlight another aspect of the Russian commitment:

There is also a team from the Russian military Main Intelligence Directorate (Glavnoye razvedyvatelnoye upravleniye: GRU) attached to its Syrian counterparts, the Mukhabarat, working in the Ministry of Defence building on Umayyad Square, Damascus, according to IHS Jane’s sources. Western intelligence sources have also told IHS Jane’s that a small special forces team in Damascus is reporting neither to the GRU or to regular military cells, but instead to the Russian embassy on Omar Ben Al-Khattab Street. This implies that it may therefore be a unit from Zaslon, the highly-secretive special forces of the Foreign Intelligence Service (Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki: SVR).

So first of all I think it’s important to note the extent to which the Russians may also be playing an increasing role in intelligence operations and military planning. Understandable, and they may well do some good for the regime. However, if we look at the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, while working alongside the locals can sometimes breed exasperation, even contempt, it can also lead to a Stockholm Syndrome of sorts as the outsiders begin to acquire an emotional commitment to their in-country counterparts. I wonder how this will affect the reporting going back to Moscow, and and if they will press for greater deployments when — I suppose if, but honestly I expect when — the war continues to go badly for Damascus.

But at the same time if that SF unit is from Zaslon — and that is just my speculation based on what little I have heard, and the way the reporting chain is not what I would expect for military Spetsnaz — then that would suggest that Moscow is at least willing to contemplate the possibility of the fall of the regime. The last time I heard with any confidence of Zaslon being deployed (other than a few individuals in extreme diplomatic protection missions) was to Baghdad in the final days of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Then, their role was to secure (retrieve or destroy) particular documents, military tech and whatever else Moscow wanted to ensure did not end up in American hands. It could be that, as higher tech Russian kit begins to bolster the regime’s capabilities, Zaslon is being deployed again as a precautionary measure.

Launch Event for the Initiative for the Study of Emerging Threats: President Ilves on ‘Modern World – Modern Threats?’

I’m delighted and honoured that to launch my new Initiative for the Study of Emerging Threats at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs, Estonian President Toomas Ilves – not just a statesman but also a scholar and a keen observer of the evolving geopolitical environment – will be coming to talk on the subject Modern World–Modern Threats? Responses to Hybrid Aggression. The event will be at the SUNY School of Optometry Auditorium at 33 West 42nd Street, 1730-1900, on Monday, September 28. It is free, but attendees must register in advance here, and space is limited so register soon!


Quick Thoughts on Yakunin’s move from RZhD

“A hat goes with the job, incidentally”

So Vladimir Yakunin, the obscenely rich and, needless to say, deeply pious head of Russian Railways (RZhD), has stepped down and will now take the position of the Federal Council representative for Kaliningrad, an essentially honorific position. It will be interesting to see how this story plays out, but here are a few interpretations:

He fell from grace. Putin is good to his friends, and Yakunin has certainly been both personally close to the president and a great beneficiary of that closeness. However, despite signs in the past that there were those trying to claw him down (like the hoax dismissal in 2013), there have been no outward signs of his losing favour and frankly, Putin does tend to be very loyal to that tiny circle of people he genuinely sees as his friends and allies. I find this hard to believe. Yes, he’s built himself a ridiculously opulent mansion – who hasn’t? There’s a scandal brewing over the arrest on corruption charges of his friend, the former head of Latvian Railways – do we think Putin cares? You really need to do something quite extraordinary to lose Putin’s friendship once you’ve won it, and there hasn’t been any whisper of this.

“Hybrid War as a War on Governance” – interview in Small Wars Journal

Usually, an interview means fifteen minutes spent on the phone with a journalist, the first ten of which are telling him or her the basics they should already know, and the outcome typically being a single slightly mangled and out-of-context quite in paragraph six. In this context, it was especially refreshing to have a long conversation with Octavian Manea on “hybrid wars” (not that the current conflict in Ukraine ought really to be called that) and generally the “new way of war” (or is it an old way, fought in a new world?), answering interesting and well-informed questions and then seeing the whole transcript posted on Small Wars Journal. How far more words translated into any more insight is for each reader to decide, but there it is for those of you interested in my thoughts.


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