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Ukraine: “…this is a real war with Russia…”. A hot summer on the Black Sea?

May 21, 2015

Summary: Neither war nor ceasefire. But many reports that Russia is looking to push the separatists further west in some way, over the coming months

BBC, 20 May: Can I be absolutely clear with you this is not a fight with Russian-backed separatists, this is a real war with Russia.”  Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko

ukraine-russia-631The security situation does not look particularly encouraging in the Ukraine at present or for the rest of the year. The conflict continues in a slow-burn but unpleasant fashion.  There is a “back and forth” exchange of metal over uneasy frontlines as hundreds of artillery rounds continue to impact in sporadic but regular exchanges of fire. This from the most recent OSCE Special Monitoring Mission’s daily update:

OSCE Special Monitoring Mission report of 20 May: “The SMM observed continuing ceasefire violations in the area of “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DPR”)-controlled Donetsk. From two observation points, the SMM heard over 300 explosions caused by incoming and outgoing heavy weapons fire, including artillery, and mortar during the night period from 20:48 hours on 18 May to 02:02 hours on 19 May and during the daytime period of 09:10 until 17:25 hours on 19 May.[1] The SMM observed that the explosions occurred at locations to the west, north, north-east, and south of its Donetsk city centre and Donetsk central railway station positions at distances ranging from 2km to 8km from its positions. The SMM concluded that the explosions had occurred in or around the “DPR”-controlled Donetsk airport (10km north-west of Donetsk), Spartak (10km north-north-west of Donetsk), and the southerly part of Donetsk city, as well as government controlled Pisky (7km west of Donetsk) and Opytne (12km north-west of Donetsk).”

So the clearly misnamed “ceasefire” seems to be dealing with thousands of rounds a week, presumably with military and civilian casualties to match.

Neither war nor peace.

Earlier this week, the government of Ukraine announced that its military had captured two wounded Russian soldiers inside Ukraine territory. These were reportedly Russian Special Forces, who are filmed in hospital being questioned, which, in turn raises questions over the Geneva Convention’s position on exposing and humiliating Prisoners of War in public. Both sides have been guilty of less than compassionate readings of treatment of prisoners over the months as they scramble for media advantage.

Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, has stated that the capture demonstrates that Ukraine is in a “real” war with Russia, not merely the Russian-backed separatists. Poroshenko also believes that Russia will launch a further offensive in the summer.

The Independent, 20th May: The Ukrainian president has warned that Russia could soon attempt to stage an invasion, as the two nations are in the midst of a “real war”.

Petro Poroshenko made the worrying suggestion after four Ukrainian servicemen were killed when fighting erupted between Russian-backed separatists on Tuesday.

The president told BBC News that he believes Russia will attempt an “offensive” in the summer months.
“I think we should be ready and I think that we do not give them any tiny chance for provocation. That will totally be their responsibility,” he said.

“Can I be absolutely clear with you this is not a fight with Russian-backed separatists, this is a real war with Russia.
“The fact that we captured…Russian regular special forces soldiers [is] strong evidence of that.”

There have been numerous suggestions that pro-Russian separatists are planning and preparing a further military push, possibly down the Black Sea coast road to Mariupol, which has loomed large as the frontline of main concern for the Ukraine government.  NATO seem to echo strongly these concerns:

Wall Street Journal, 30 April: NATO’s military chief said that Russia-backed forces appear to be “preparing, training and equipping” for a potential new offensive in eastern Ukraine, even as European leaders said the conflict there was entering a “political phase.”

U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s top commander, said Thursday that the separatist forces have been using the relative lull in fighting since a cease-fire was signed in February to regroup.

“These preparations are consistent with the possibility of an offensive,” Gen. Breedlove said at a Pentagon news conference. “And that is what we have seen through several of the previous pauses in eastern Ukraine.”

The US Embassy in Kiev claimed in April that Russia was building up forces, including sophisticated air defence missile systems:

“Combined Russian-separatist forces continue to violate the terms of the “Minsk 2” agreement signed in mid-February.  Combined Russian-separatist forces maintain a sizable number of artillery pieces and multiple rocket launchers within areas prohibited under the Minsk accords.  The Russian military has deployed additional air defense systems into eastern Ukraine and moved several of these nearer the front lines. This is the highest amount of Russian air defense equipment in eastern Ukraine since August.

Russian and separatist forces also have a large concentration of command and control equipment in eastern Ukraine.  Combined Russian-separatist forces have been conducting increasingly complex training in eastern Ukraine. The increasingly complex nature of this training leaves no doubt that Russia is involved in the training. The training has also incorporated Russian UAVs, an unmistakable sign of Russia’s presence.

Russia is also building up its forces along its border with Ukraine. After maintaining a relatively steady presence along the border, Russia is sending additional units there. These forces will give Russia its largest presence on the border since October 2014. Russia has also redeployed military elements near Belgorod, opposite Kharkiv.

Russia has continued to ship heavy weapons into eastern Ukraine since the “Minsk 2” ceasefire took effect on 15 February.”

Analysis and Outlook

You can only “cry wolf” so many times.  NATO and the Ukraine are not the most reliable of witnesses: new Russia-sponsored operations have been declared “imminent” for a while, be it winter, spring or now summer offensives. But I find it very convincing that pro-Russian separatists are being rushed through training, with new tactics, equipment and direction all courtesy of the Russian military, which sticks to the story that any Russian military personnel inside Ukrainian borders is there independently of the Russian government. What else should they be expected to do?

I certainly would not rule out a new large-scale attack, but the new “hybrid/ambiguous/deniable” warfare forms offer so many more flexible and effective means of securing objectives.  New forms of drip-drip, or “salami slicing” can be helpful. You can clear, hold and build in small, bite-sized pieces: artillery drives people out and separatists moving gradually in.  The Ukrainian military still insufficiently resourced to push anyone back whence they came.

But if we were looking at a larger, strategic, picture, if a larger military-led action was being contemplated, there are perhaps four “fronts” that could be opened or developed in new offensive operations coming from the east:

Front 1: Black Sea coast road towards (and beyond Mariupol). A favourite theatre of operations. This holds out the prospect of narrow thrust to open a land link between Russia and the Crimea

Ukr, Map Donbas mariupol

Front 2: Central – Donetsk/Luhansk. Maintain pressure, seeking to expand and make these two regions more defensively, economically, administratively and politically “viable”. Alexander Motyl has an interesting angle that Putin has currently “lost” because he “owns” the economic “basket case” of the Donbas:

“…whoever ends up holding the Russian-controlled territories of the Donbas will actually be the loser.
The region, he noted, is an economic basket case. It’s industrial base is devastated. Infrastructure damage is estimated to be $227 million. Gas and water shortages are endemic. Only one-third of the population is receiving regular wages.  Of the estimated 3 million people remaining there, 2 million are either children or pensioners who must be supported by 1 million working-age adults.  Responsibility for rebuilding this mess will be a major financial albatross for either Kyiv or Moscow.”

Front 3: Kharkiv – A region that saw demonstrations, building seizures and violence in 2014 but has largely died down and certainly drifted out of the media. Some small-scale, non-attributable explosions have occurred this year

ukraine map unrest“A bomb has killed at least two people, including a police officer, and injured at least 10 more people at a rally in Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv.  The rally was one of several being held to mark a year since the Kiev uprising that led to the fall of pro-Russia leader Viktor Yanukovych.  Security forces have detained four suspects in the attack, officials say.  Kharkiv lies outside the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine, where a ceasefire appears finally to be taking hold.”

Front 4: Kiev/behind the lines. Tension can be created. Explosions, demonstrations and the seizure – or attempts to seize – government buildings in Kiev or another major city (Odessa?). There are small contingents of UK and US soldiers in the country – a small explosion in their vicinity might generate a powerful political backblast…

Wild cards: Moldova, Crimea and Belarus – explosions, demonstrations and the seizure of government buildings from the direction of Belarus, the Crimea and/or in Moldova could open up new fronts or greatly distract and destabilise.

Nothing is clear in this unclear eastern war.  The nature of the rhetoric between protagonists (Russia claims of about Ukrainian invitations of NATO troops, missiles and membership?), perhaps coupled with the trends of ceasefire violations and Russia military manoeuvres/training/posturing/sabre rattling on the other side of the border may give us clues in the coming months.  But my admittedly evolving view of hybrid warfare is clear, at least, on one aspect: there are no bonus points for being transparent, obvious or predictable.

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