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. Read the full post »

First thoughts on the Navalny/ies sentencing

navalny-and-brother1291555128

Alexei and Oleg, target and hostage

A three-and-a-half year suspended sentence for Alexei Navalny on questionable fraud charges and a similar sentence in a labour colony for his brother Oleg represents rather less than the prosecution demanded, more than justice would demand. But given that such political trials are wholly choreographed by the Kremlin, what does it say about what’s going on behind those closed doors at this tense and volatile time? My sense is that this reflects a perennial uncertainly in the government about quite what to do with Navalny and as a result is an inadequate and incoherent compromise between different camps or schools of thought, a reflection of division and lack of confidence rather than particular subtlety or a belief that Navalny no longer matters. Here are a few general observations.

1. The handling of the sentencing was clumsy and galvanised opposition. The sentencing was brought forward, presumably in the hope of taking the wind out of the sails of the protest scheduled for 15 January. However, not only does this make the government look jumpy and manipulative–and remember that protests feed off a sense that their side is “winning”, or at least that the other side is worried–it actually allows the anti-Kremlin forces to double-dip, with a flash protest now planned for tonight as well as the later one. At present more than 17,000 people have signed up to attend tonight’s, and although it is anyone’s guess how many will actually turn up, that is an impressively rapid mobilisation, and the Kremlin has no one to blame but itself.
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Igor Rodionov, 1936-2014: soldier, scapegoat, minister, hard-liner and reformer, all at once

RodionovArmy General Igor Nikolaevich Rodionov, the former defence minister who in many ways epitomised what was both the best and the worst of the Soviet officer corps, died today after a lengthy illness. A career soldier, he commanded the 40th Army in Afghanistan 1985-86 and went on to become defence minister 1996-97, then chair of the Popular Patriotic Party of Russia (NPPR)/Rodina, as nationalist a group as the name would suggest, retaining links with the Communist Party (who came out with the first fulsome obituary). His reputation was as a meticulous and no nonsense soldier, of the austere rather than jovial variety, but as a nobody PhD student who wrote to him while he was heading the General Staff Academy in 1988, I found him unexpectedly thoughtful and receptive (I’ll be honest: I wrote on the very off-chance and was amazed to get a reply of any kind).

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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!

‘Russia’s Wars in Chechnya, 1994-2009′ out today!

A quick moment for self-publicity: my new book Russia’s Wars in Chechnya, 1994-2009  is out today, published by Osprey in their Essential Histories series and available as both a paperback and Kindle e-book. A slim, yet I hope comprehensive overview, it covers not just the causes and conduct of both Chechen wars, but also the wider implications for Russia and also a sense of the impacts on those involved, from Chechen civilians to Russian combatants. Here is the blurb:

Osprey Chechnya CoverFeaturing specially drawn full-color mapping and drawing upon a wide range of sources, this succinct account explains the origins, history and consequences of Russia’s wars in Chechnya, thereby shedding new light on the history – and prospects – of that troubled region.

Mark Galeotti, an expert on the conflict, traces the progress of the wars, from the initial Russian advance through to urban battles such as Grozny, and the prolonged guerrilla warfare based in the mountainous regions that is common to both wars. He assesses how the wars have torn apart the fabric of Chechen society and their impact on Russia itself, where they have influenced presidential elections and widened the gulf between the military and the rest of society. These were savage conflicts which combined at different times the characteristics of an imperial war, a civil war and a terrorist campaign. The rich tradition of banditry in Chechnya, exemplified by the disproportionately large numbers of Chechens in the Spetsnaz special forces, gave the conflict its particular character, as did the steady shift from the initial nationalism to being inspired by a wider Islamic jihad.

My next Osprey book, by the way, due out in mid-2015, is Spetsnaz: Russia’s special forces for their Elite series.

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