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Ukraine – Russian military options…?

March 24, 2014

Summary: Vladimir Putin retains the military initiative, but this will not last.  Several options present themselves, from staying put and absorbing the Crimea to a quick “lightning war” all the way to the Transdniester.

Map, Ukraine, north, south, east and west divisionsIt is difficult to know if Russia is on the brink of further military incursions into Ukraine.  The Ukraine government certainly seems to think it highly possible.  NATO has growing concernsUnited States intelligence gathering assets seemed to have struggled to spot Russia military activities thus far and are now attempting to increase the resources available.  But while this might perhaps give an early tip-off regarding Russian next steps, it will probably add little else that might halt or deflect Russian actions.

President Putin’s calculations remain intentionally opaque but the array of military, special forces, training and propaganda activities currently gathered would appear to give him considerable scope, while keeping everybody guessing.  In this way Vladimir Putin likely calculates that the initiative remains his.  Through seizure or massive long-term disruption of large parts of eastern Ukraine (where a large number of ethnic or pro-Russian populace live) Putin’s goal appears to be to prevent any viable Ukrainian nation moving into a Western European (aka EU, aka NATO, aka non-Putin) orbit.  A jealous and murderous lover might express it thus: “Well, if I can’t have her, nobody else can”.

Four Russian military options – presented in order of increasing difficulty – suggest themselves at present:

1)      Do Nothing/Defensive – begin the process of absorbing the Crimea into Russia, possibly using military/special forces in raids to seize key infrastructure and installations in and around the edges of the Crimea – gas, transport, fuel, communications, military – before the geographic borders become too clearly defined.

2)      Move into East Ukraine – including the oblasts (administrative divisions) of Kharkhov, Donetsk, Luhansk with the intention of securing more “Russian-rich” population centres while the population is still simmering.

3)      Move into South and East Ukraine – securing a firm land link to where the Crimean peninsula joins the mainland.  The oblasts of Kherson, Zaporizhiya and Donetsk would all be critical components here.

4)      As option three but going further west to link to Transnistria (also called Trans-Dniestr or Transdniestria).  Another casualty of the collapse of the Soviet Union, this slice of land between the river Dniester and the eastern Moldovan border with Ukraine is an independent government but unrecognised as an independent nation.  The nationalities within are Moldovan, Ukrainian and Russian (roughly a third of each), with Transnistrian Russians apparently, “post-Crimean”, calling to be reunited with Russia.  I think this would give the only guaranteed Russian-controlled land gas pipeline through Ukraine.

Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb…?

One expert, however, highlights the problems of Russian military action:

Ukraine administrative divisions

Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military expert, said he did not expect to see long columns of Russian tanks rolling across the black earth border regions into eastern Ukraine.

“The time of year for serious warfare is totally wrong,” he said. “This is black soil area and at this time of year it’s wet, wet, wet. The Germans found that. They’ll have to wait until June for it to dry up or they won’t be able to move off the roads.”

“Russia does not have the will or capability for mass invasion of Ukraine. It can bite off some pieces and the government in Kiev would not likely survive. But I’m anticipating a long drawn out stand-off.”


Although timeframes are difficult to predict, Russia’s strategic initiative can only last for so long.  The Ukraine government will presumably be doing its utmost to get itself together after the simultaneous upheavals of revolution and surprise attack.  International diplomatic and economic sanctions are being brought to bear and Western intelligence assets will provide a clearer picture of Russia deployments and intentions.   It seems to suggest that Russian military actions might need to be taken sooner rather than later – while the engine is still switched on and warmed up…

Russia, Ukraine, Crimea – look on the bright side, the end of the Putin era is beginning…

March 14, 2014

Summary:  The Crimea is returning to Russia in the short-term.  Thats tough, but Ukraine can rise above it all in the longer-term through political and economic reform.  Who knows, maybe Crimeans will be begging to come back in ten years.  But dangerous ethnic and nationalistic impulses, easily unleashed, will be very hard to control – and some groups may not want to control them.  Is Putin ignoring the golden rule of history: “Never invade Russia”…?  

map ukraine-linguistic-divisionI think it was Malcom McLaren, the manager of the Sex Pistols, who justified the band’s untimely demise by noting that a brilliant idea poorly executed was always better than a poor idea brilliantly done.  I think Vladimir Putin has stumbled upon the latter concept.

Troop recognition part 1 - Crimean local militia

Troop recognition part 1 – Crimean local militia

On this coming Sunday, in a wholly illegal referendum, the Crimea will almost certainly become a part of Russia.   To be honest, I was impressed by the speed and confidence of the operation – and the sheer front to deny that the soldiers were not from the Russian Army.  But the discipline, the organisation, the propaganda and media campaign that swung into action.  It is genuinely impressive that a major clash between Ukrainian and Russian ground troops was averted in the confused, bizarre and rapid shift of power that took place in the Crimea in a matter of hours.

When the Crimea is embraced to the bosom of its protector, this poses many problems, perhaps most immediately for the Ukrainian forces holed up in their bases who now become the foreign invading force – as I am sure the Russian government will waste no time in pointing out.  But there is a broader and longer-term concern for the something like 40% of the population who will wake up on the morning of Monday 17th to find they are in a new country – and one, judging by the clashes in the Crimea and eastern provinces of Ukraine and the very hostile language “ultra-nationalists, fascists and anti-Semites” (none of those groups in Russia, obviously), that doesn’t like them very much.

Troop recognition, part 2 - these are Russian Army

Troop recognition, part 2 – Russian Army

Many had thought this was an accident waiting to happen, particularly after the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008:

July 2009 – FRIDE Policy Brief “Crimea: Next Flashpoint in the European Neighbourhood?”

November 2010 – Jamestown Foundation “The Crimea: Europe’s Next Flashpoint?”

(also simultaneously demonstrating how unimaginative academic analytical titles can be…)

An intensely annoying article in the Guardian by Marina Lewycka usefully reminded us that a very similar Russian/Ukraine confrontation over the status of the Crimea – albeit without the ultimate invasion – took place in 1993.

I don’t think there is any way that the Crimea is going to rejoin Ukraine anytime soon.

But a brilliant coup de main like this needs a game plan that involved the months and years to come.  I think the key ”solutions” to the Russia/Ukraine conflict lie in the non-violent long-term and somewhere within the following two thoughtful articles.  The Economist highlights the longer term economic and political direction for the region, suggesting that, unfortunately, the Ukraine people will probably just have to accept the loss of Crimea but success lies in democratic and economic reform, with the help of the West and the EU.  Once the 60% ethnic Russians excitement of becoming officially Russian has died down, an economic future with Russia may not be as attractive as they think – if, indeed, they have actually begun to think of it at all yet:

“The least-bad course for Kiev is painfully to accept that, for now, Crimea is lost, in fact though not in law. That means negotiating a peaceful exit for those besieged Ukrainian servicemen. And for the Tatars, a put-upon Crimean minority loth to live under Russian rule (having been deported en masse by Stalin in 1944), it means securing as much protection as Ukraine and its allies can muster. After that, Ukraine’s priorities should be to stage free elections in what remains of the country, install a legitimate national government, revamp the economy and create durable democratic institutions…The West’s other task—and the best strategy for restoring Crimea to Ukraine—is to help it…in effect, a mini-Marshall Plan. With luck and time, the people of Crimea will look north at a prosperous democracy and push to rejoin it.

Further to this, an article by Alexander Motyl in Foreign Affairs, highlights the sheer expense of propping up “Ukraine’s rustbelt”:

“…the hypernationalism generated by the war and the enthusiasm over territorial expansion would soon fade as the sobering reality in these provinces sinks in and Russians realize just whom and what they have annexed…In their search to maintain control, Russians would quickly discover that they are in possession of economically unviable provinces that cannot survive without massive infusions of rubles…annexation will bring an extremely disaffected population into Russia’s fold. The people could passively resist Russian rule. They could also take up arms…Popular disaffection will make it difficult for Putin to walk away. Tens of thousands of Russian troops will have to remain as occupiers for a long time to come — an expensive proposition that could run into billions of dollars annually. And Russia will not be able to neglect the region’s economy, since doing so would only increase disaffection and resistance…

There are two major variables – one largely within Putin’s control, one almost certainly without- that should be considered.

  • A Russian decision to grab other pieces of eastern Ukraine makes the possibility of a land conflict between the two countries much more likely, much more bloody and much less predictable.  It is difficult to see the Ukrainian armed forces failing to respond, despite being out-matched.  It may be that the Russians find it hard to control the pro-Russian sentiments that they have aroused in Kharkhov and Donetsk.
  • A Serb "helping" with peacekeeping duties in the Crimea.  Just in case you thought the Balkan wars parallels were not prominent enough...

    A Serb “helping” with peacekeeping duties in the Crimea. Just in case you thought the Balkan wars parallels were not prominent enough…

    I am most worried about the “Pandora’s box” of aggressive nationalist sentiment that looks to have been released.  Where did all this hate suddenly burst out from?  As we saw in the Balkans, some strands of revisionist history can trigger – quite unnecessarily – some of the most dangerous and violent confrontations and human rights abuses.   It might suit the Russian government to encourage slurs of “fascism” to be thrown around, but, once the Russian Special Forces have been withdrawn the real problems will begin.  Local Crimean militias (doubtless highly trained professionals with a wealth of people-centric “hearts and minds” skills who have been carefully vetted to ensure ethnic and political balance and to filter out all the criminals, bullies and nationalist thugs) are being established.  When they start patrolling and settling scores (and perhaps provoking one or two new ones), is when low-level resistance is most likely to start.  These things cannot be switched off easily and it works both ways.

My parting shot is that George Friedman’s book “The Next Hundred Years” suggested that Russia and China, over the next 10 years (in the case of Russia) and 20 years (in the case of China) would slowly implode under the weight of their own contradictions.  Growing middle classes want growing and fairer political representation, economic growth, freedom of expression, social security and, yes, even, dependable pensions.  Putin’s Russia would kind of fizzle out with some unpleasant military/nationalist posturings and aggressions on its border with Europe.

Many things can spiral out of control, as I have suggested here, and even “unpleasant military/nationalist posturings” can be bloody and protracted.  But I think the Putin decline is well under way now.

Taliban call to reject and resist elections.

March 13, 2014

Summary: Taliban state the Afghan presidential elections are rigged and must be rejected and resisted by all Afghans.  They are unlikely to achieve a significant disruption to the ballot (due 5th April).

Photos of Afghan maps 006In case there was any doubt, the Taliban have come out with a strong line against Afghan participation in the Afghan presidential elections, due to take place (and still seemingly on track) on 5th April.  The Taliban’s official statement hits three themes:

  • The election is a con because it is all being rigged by the US to “install a head of state who appears Afghan but will have an American mentality”
  • All educated and prominent Afghans – scholars, elders etc – must denounce the election
  • All aspects of the election must be “disrupted” by the Taliban: “use all force at its disposal to disrupt these upcoming sham elections; target all its workers, activists, callers, security apparatus and offices”

Interestingly, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of one of the other two insurgent groups, has called upon his own supporters to take part in the election and vote for Qutbuddin Helal, a senior Hekmatyar loyalist.

The Taliban’s reminder of the risks of collateral damage comes last:

Taliban flag“We once again call on all of our countrymen to keep away from electoral offices, voting booths, rallies and campaigns so that may Allah forbid, their lives are not put into danger. If anyone still persists on participating then they are solely responsible of any loss in the future.”

Dr Abdullah Abdullah’s election camapign started badly when two of his campaign officials were killed.  Further to this, in a previous report I noted Michael Semple’s assessment that the Taliban, although opposed to the elections, still watched the process with great interest and internal discussion, with actual actions to be taken to disrupt the election a little unclear and open to the interpretation of local commanders – not everyone is going to be blowing people up.  Unless the Taliban get very lucky, it remains difficult to see them preventing the election from taking place or even significantly disrupting it.

Vice President Fahim Khan dies of natural causes…

March 9, 2014

Fahim Khan

Need to think about implications in slower time.  Don’t think this radically changes anything:


BBC One of Afghanistan’s two vice-presidents, Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, has died of natural causes aged 57, a government spokesman has said.

The Afghan government has called for three days of mourning, during which flags will be flown at half-mast.

Marshal Fahim was a leader of the Tajik ethnic minority and a former warlord.

He was part of the alliance that ousted the Taliban in 2001 and served first as defence minister, before becoming vice-president in 2009.

President Hamid Karzai’s office told the Associated Press news agency that Marshal Fahim died from an illness.

The war continues (only less noticed than before): Afghan security force casualties are higher than 13,000

March 7, 2014

Summary: Afghan army and police casualties are high – over 13,000

ANSF mass funeralIn case anyone doubted the level of combat still ongoing inside Afghanistan, now that US, UK and other ISAF forces are more or less confined to barracks and packing up, the Afghan MOD has released figures significantly higher than previous estimates – note that numbers of wounded are an extra 16,500:

New York Times, 3rd March 2014:

KABUL, Afghanistan — More than 13,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers have been killed during the war here, far more than previously known, according to Afghan government statistics.

Most of those losses occurred during the past three years as Afghan forces took over a growing share of the responsibility for security in the country, culminating in full Afghan authority last spring.

The numbers also reflect an increased tempo to the conflict. More clashes have taken place as insurgents test the government forces, without as much fear of intervention from the American-led coalition as it prepares to withdraw.

A statement released late Sunday by President Hamid Karzai’s cabinet, the Council of Ministers, put the total number of people in the Afghan security forces killed in the past 13 years at 13,729, with an additional 16,511 Afghan soldiers and police officers wounded.

Overrunning isloated checkpoints and positions remain a favoured Taliban tactic.  We should note also the potential for higher levels of casualties in specific incidents, given an Afghan military tendency to prefer to hunker down in outposts rather get out and “dominate the ground”:

The Guadian, 23rd February 2014:

The Taliban killed 21 Afghan soldiers on Sunday at a remote outpost near the border with Pakistan, and took at least five others prisoner, in a show of military strength just weeks before a critical election.

The night raid was one of the deadliest single attacks in recent years on the Afghan military, who are stronger and more disciplined than the police and less often targeted directly by insurgents.   Five other soldiers taken prisoner in show of strength against Afghan army just weeks ahead of critical election

We should also remember some pretty sickening stories about the treatment (or lack of) given to wounded Afghan soldiers:

Digital journal, 29th July 2012: A Congressional investigation has uncovered “horrifying” details about a US-funded military hospital in Afghanistan in which patients were kept in what was described as “Auschwitz-like” conditions. A US House subcommittee heard shocking testimony of conditions at the Dawood Miltiary Hospital in Afghanistan. According to Buzzfeed, the allegations include bribery and surgery without anesthesia. Top retired US military officials also made the grave allegation that there was an attempt to block the investigation into conditions at the hospital. According to Rep. Jason Chafetz (R-Utah), who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense, and Foreign Operations, the standard of medical care at the hospital was one of the most “horrific, horrendous things I’ve ever seen.” He said: “Allowing surgery to go on without anesthetics, gangrene, open wounds that aren’t being dressed.”

Combat is likely to intensify in and around the coming election period.  Although the Taliban will not be able to stop the election taking place, there will be efforts to undermine, derail or prevent voting taking place across the country.

Semple, Taliban, elections…

February 6, 2014

Summary: Michael Semple paper highlights standard Taliban rejections of the election and the prospect of increasing violence as a result.  But the Taliban are also watching the process with interest.  Might 2019 see a Taliban candidate test their popularity?

Semple paper, Taliban electionsAn interesting short paper from Michael Semple looking at the likely position of the Taliban on the upcoming Afghan presidential elections.  His conclusions as follows:

  • The Taliban publically reject the legitimacy of the elections and call upon its commanders inside the country to disrupt them
  • But the Taliban take interest in electoral developments and monitor it closely
  • The Taliban will be able to increase attacks during the election period but will be unable to derail it

Semple has a long track record of engagement inside Afghanistan and is always worth reading.  When deputy EU Special Representative, he was famously thrown out of the country by President Karzai for talking members of the Taliban in 2007.  He appears to retain strong personal contacts within members and associates of the Taliban

There are no surprising revelations in his useful piece but his analysis of the distinction between the official rhetoric and the reality of Taliban interest in the electoral process is worth thinking about.  He highlights the differing views amongst the diverse commanders on the ground and the friction between “pragmatists and hardliners”.

“Despite the robust top-level rejection of the process, comments from many Taliban leaders and mid-level officials suggested that they follow the election process with interest and curiosity through broadcast media…The most prevalent view among the Taliban, that the Americans will pick the winning candidate, is a belief shared by many non-Taliban Afghans as well…A former senior minister gave a Shariat-based defense of the institution of elections but lamented that the presence of foreign troops robbed the process of legitimacy.”

The Taliban still have dilemmas over how many civilians they should kill in order to achieve the official goal of disrupting the elections.

“Some eastern field commanders expressed dissent about this guidance – not because they favour the elections, but because their operating ability depends upon maintaining local popular consent”.

An increase in violence, Semple suggests, will likely have the impact of reducing voting in the south and east, lessening slightly the chances of the Pushtun candidates who depend upon these areas for their voting base.

In the last few months the other main insurgent group, Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) have indicated that they will be advising their supporters to take part in the election and vote for a HIG-approved candidate (although they have yet to state who they favour).   This is possibly a half-way move towards future political re-engagement.  The parallel with the Taliban is not precise – HIG were an organised Afghan political party before the Taliban were born – but the Taliban may well also look sideways at HIG and see how this plays out.  With the infidels likely departed by the time of the next Presidential election – due in 2019 – perhaps we might see Taliban candidates venturing to test their popularity with the ballot box vice the gun next time round?

They might find testing their policies and popularity levels in full public gaze a bit of a shock…

Killing sports players in Afghanistan?

January 26, 2014

Summary: A possible new trend in the killing of sports players in Afghanistan?

Photos of Afghan maps 006No sooner are the words “new trend” scribbled or uttered in the context of violence in Afghanistan, then they are either immediately disproved or nothing else happens for months.  I saw this report and wondered what it might mean:

Khaama Press, Sun Jan 26 2014: Unknown gunmen shot dead two young men while they were returning from a sports complex in north-eastern Takhar province of Afghanistan.  According to local security officials in Takhar province, the two young men were shot dead by unknown gunmen in Cha’ab district.  Santullah Temori, spokesman for the provincial police commandment, confirming the report, said Afghan security forces have launched investigations to arrest those involved behind the incident.  This comes as militants carried out at least two attacks on young men who were busy with the sports games in southern and eastern Afghanistan.   At least three young men who were playing football were killed after militants attacked a football ground in Maiwand district of Kandahar province earlier last week.   Gunmen also assassinated five young men in eastern Laghman province of Afghanistan while they were playing volleyball.   The incident in Laghman province took place on Thursday in Alingar district, after a group of unknown gunmen opened fire on the boys in the playground.

No group has so far claimed responsibility behind the incidents.

No idea on this one – a coincidence of incidents?  Otherwise, the Taliban had a reputation for banning all manner of sports inside Afghanistan during the 1990s (kite flying being the obvious one).  A trend might suggest some confident assertion of extreme Taliban-style values?  One to watch…?

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