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Ukraine: conflict flare ups continue to worry

April 7, 2016

Guest post by Michael J. Sheldon, edited by Tim Foxley

Michael Jakob Sheldon is an undergraduate student at Malmö University’s Peace and Conflict Studies program. In his free time he maintains a blog (www.dangerzoneblog.com) on topics related to ongoing conflicts.  Michael specializes in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine on every aspect from armed violence to state governance.

Summary: Increased fighting in the area between Avdiivka and Yasynuvata has observers concerned about the future stability of the region. Although fighting is unlikely to decrease in a meaningful way until either side concedes, the likelihood of this reigniting the conflict to past levels is slim.

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The conflict in eastern Ukraine has remained relatively calm up until early March this year. Although in the past occasional skirmishes were no occurrence out of the ordinary, recent flare ups in violence between Ukrainian armed forces and the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) have stakeholders in the conflict worried about what the future holds for the conflict.

 

Ukraine, Donetsk front lines

There are two main areas of heightened intensity; the area between Avdiivka and Yasynuvata and the area referred to as the “Mariupol direction” by DPR rebels, which describes the southernmost area of the frontlines, Shyrokyne in particular. The incident began in March 7th, with rebels accusing Ukrainian forces of moving into the Yasynuvata industrial zone, an area previously uninhabited. The rebels supposedly responded to this by moving into and fortifying the area by the large intersection located between the two cities. Since then, rebel forces have moved into the suburb north of the intersection where they currently hold the easternmost industrial complex and a couple of blocks of what are now destroyed buildings due to heavy artillery fire, . According to the OSCE, rebel and Ukrainian forces are just 70 meters apart in some areas, a situation reminiscent of the battle for Donetsk airport which featured intense close proximity fighting over a prolonged amount of time.

The zone of battle is shown below, with rebel territory prior to the fighting being marked with red stripes. The suburban area between the two southernmost arrows are where most of the fighting is taking place, along with the industrial complexes north of it.

Ukraine, avdiivka front line

While it is difficult to ascertain the exact reason for this flare up, it is possible that the contemporary trial and imprisonment of Nadiya Savchenko in Russia might have provoked a Ukrainian probe.  Part of what makes this flashpoint so significant is that it is an area which has usually been relatively calm, most clashes between Ukrainian forces in Avdiivka and the rebels has usually been directed at Spartak, a Donetsk suburb just north of the city center. Other areas of intense fighting are often considered to be stagnant, but the fate of this area is still undetermined.  Yasynuvata, which the rebels hold, is home to a large railyard connecting several strategic cities, notably Donetsk and Horlivka and Makiyivka.  The increase in hostilities has seen some rebel influencers so worried that they have been openly calling for the creation of a third army corps, to be jointly controlled by the DPR and LPR in order to repel what they perceive to be an imminent Ukrainian “invasion”.  Assuming that the area between Avdiivka and Yasynuvata is no different from every other similar skirmish/battle, fighting is unlikely to stop until one side has primacy over the area.  It Is also unlikely that this flare up will trigger a resumption of all-out fighting, seeing as more intense battles have not done so in the past.  All-in-all this seems like a classic case of mutual escalation, both sides had ample chance to de-escalate

Refugees: no sympathy from President Ghani

March 31, 2016

Summary: A surprisingly hard line from President Ghani on the issue of Afghan refugees going to Europe.

 

 

The BBC have an interview with President Ghani:

Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani has taken a tough and somewhat unexpectedly blunt stance on the tens of thousands of his citizens who are fleeing the country to make the dangerous journey to Europe.

“I have no sympathy,” the Afghan leader told me in his palace in Kabul. He is calling on his countrymen to remain in the war-ravaged nation and join in the effort to rebuild it.

But do his words carry the weight they should, in a country that is increasingly feeling frustrated with the political elite, and a sense of hopelessness about their future?

Convincing people to stay feels like an impossible task for what is perhaps one of the toughest jobs in the world, being Afghanistan’s president. Ashraf Ghani was sworn in in September 2014 after controversial elections…

In answer to a qustion on why European countries are sending Afghan refugees back, on the basis they were economic migrants only, Ghani said the people of the country need to make a commitment and to not leave under the current situation.

He said migrants make the journey voluntarily, “they are paying $10,000 to $30,000 USD – they are impoverishing their families in order to make that journey because that journey was made on false assumptions”.

“We are under attack. Do we stand up for our right to breathe, for our right to live or do we pack up and go?” he asked.

“This is an existential choice. Countries do not survive by their best attempting to flee. So I have no sympathy.”

“My goal is to make sure my people live with dignity, with hope and with determination,” he said implying that people need to stand up in the face of threats.

According to UN statistics, in the last 12 months, over 250,000 Afghans fled the country and that of the refugees arriving in Greece, Afghans made up 28 per cent in January and 25 per cent in February.

We should try to bar in mind that many of the refugees/migrants are young boys, often with (or acquiring) mental health issues as a result of their Afghan and trafficking experiences, with little or no say in what is happening to them.  In June 2015, President Ashraf Ghani strongly echoed Minister Balkhi’s sentiments that Afghanistan was not able to take returnees back for resource and security reasons.  In a speech made on World Refugee Day, the 20th,  he noted the difficulties for those Afghans returning to the country from illegally seized properties, deprivation of rights and the lack of basic amenities available.  In closing, he specifically mentioned the plight of Afghan asylum seekers in Europe:

“It is also worth mentioning that thousands of Afghans live as refugees in Europe, Australia, Canada, United States and other countries and have benefited from their hospitality and services. But recently an increasing number of Afghan refugees have faced the risk of getting expelled because of lack of documentation.

My request to those countries is to take into account our problems this year and stop expelling Afghan asylum seekers.  The story of our refugees is a sad part of our modern history.”

Refugees: no easy return options…

March 30, 2016

Summary: The plight of refugees attempting to return to Afghanistan is exacerbated by highy flawed legal processes hindering the fair reclamation of property and land

refugeesThat the plight of Syrian refugees has bumped the 35 year tragedy of Afghan refugees momentarily off the front pages is much more an indictment of the appalling situation in of Syria than an indication of optimism for Afghanistan.  A useful report from The Diplomat that highlights – with some good references and links – the ongoing difficulties for those Afghan refugees attempting to return to their home country.  Not only is the trauma and worry of return to a war-torn country a significant barrier, but the legal process to enable individuals to reclaim land and property is flawed and corrupt:

Afghan refugees have returned to the headlines as European countries pursue avenues to send many of those waiting for asylum back to Afghanistan. A larger number reside in Pakistan and Iran, where they are stuck in the limbo of refugee camps. Meanwhile, many of those who have already returned remain in a difficult situation, left landless despite laws a decade old geared to helping returnees reclaim their land and schemes designed to allocate land to those who return…Unfortunately, those that return to Afghanistan are still in for considerable uncertainty…many Afghan returnees remain landless, despite several laws and initiatives that aim to provide or return land to them. There has never been a calm moment in the past several decades to sort out ownership of land and during that time laws and norms have changed, resulting in a confused mess.

Jelena Bjelica has produced a very useful and in-depth review of the Afghanistan refugee situation for the Afghanistan Analyst Network:

More than 5.8 million Afghans, about 20 per cent of Afghanistan’s population, are refugees who have returned home since the fall of the Taleban according to UNHCR figures. Many found their houses destroyed or occupied, or discovered that a new set of laws had scrapped their tenancy rights. The government plan for distributing land to them, and to IDPs, is now a decade old, but has been one of the most corrupt and ineffective government schemes.

Thanks, you’ve been great: Putin has now “left” the (Syrian, war-torn, unresolved) building

March 22, 2016

Summary: Vladimir Putin declares “victory” and withdraws from Syria after a brief and bombing-intensive military mission intended primarily to make Russia look like a plausible international power.  By any serious set of benchmarks, Syria is not yet resolved.  Neither has Russia actually left.  Russia continues to try to make itself look tough and effective to distract its domestic audience from economic woes (caused in part by earlier Russian military ventures).  It is making shrewd use of modern media towards this goal.  Russia will further undermine its credibility on the international stage.  How does this end?

https://i1.wp.com/www.gannett-cdn.com/-mm-/6abfa69cc4d39113195a40697aad4611bacb2845/c=124-0-2075-1467&r=x404&c=534x401/local/-/media/2016/03/15/USATODAY/USATODAY/635936397531778684-EPA-SYRIA-RUSSIA-WITHDRAWING.jpg

(Probably) Leaving Hmeymin airbase, outside Latakia

When you are talking about Russia on the global stage, it seems just as easy to say “Putin”.  The Russian president has a very direct hands-on approach and appears unencumbered by the requirement to argue his case to an unconvinced parliament, delegate key decisions or sway a complaining and critical population.  The latter seem largely incurious, preferring to keep their heads down.  A thriving, active and vocal political opposition never quite seems to get off the ground in Russia, whatever the era, be it Czarist, Soviet, post-Soviet or Putinist.  An effectively-run state-controlled media is contributing here, probably aided by the occasional unexpected and unexplained death of an opposition leader or journalist.  But others seem genuinely happy to bask in the warmth embers of some long-lost national pride.  Just so long as there are no significant Russian casualties.  Or at least, that they do not know that there are significant Russian casualties.

But Putin’s global quest for pseudo parity with the US counts for nothing if it is not strongly splashed over international and (more importantly) domestic media.

The latest Russia venture into Syria has achieved this.  Both the coming and the going of the Russian political and military intervention wrong-footed the international community.  If this alone was the benchmark for Russian “victory”, then certainly Mr Putin would be entitled to declare “mission accomplished”.

Oscar Wilde once declared: “There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about”.  An impressive media profile is key to Mr Putin’s game plan to re-establish Russia as a global actor.  A plan which also seeks the tacit agreement from Europe and the US that Russia has a backyard called the former Soviet Union into which no one can bring messy concepts like democracy.

But Russia also leaves Assad in a stronger position for the moment.  The withdrawal from Syria last week has generated much opinion and debate.  A skim through the analysis shows:

  • Much praise for the clever manoeuvring of Putin
  • A strong sense that, yet again, the international community has been tricked by a faster-moving Russian strategy
  • That this is what happens when the US leaves the international stage – the gap is filled – but not in a good way
  • Russia’s underlying goals have been achieved – prop up Assad, impose itself into the strategic calculations, demonstrate military successes and activity.  Original stated goals have not been achieved (defeat of Islamic State?)
  • Has Russia actually withdrawn? Answer: well, not really.  Troops, aircraft and equipment are still there.  Military operations can be re-activated in hours.
  • Good use of media and propaganda by Russia
  • Some now debating the question – where next for Russia?

And if we look wider, including Crimea and eastern Ukraine, there are several characteristics surrounding modern Russia interventions (apologies, some of this will be a bit obvious):

  1. Seizing the initiative and maximising the element of surprise – even at the expense of actually having a policy or a plan. Surprise – keeping everyone guessing, edgy and reacting to the Russian tempo – sometimes seems more valuable than almost anything else, excepting bodybags
  2. The need for a high and favourable media profile
  3. Actual goals will be radically different from stated goals
  4. Russia’s media profile will have separate and distinct international and domestic narratives
  5. The “mission” above all is Putin himself. Local and international power projections are in support of Putin and his own hand-crafted regime.  Is Putting increasingly seeing and presenting himself as the embodiment of Russia’s “re-awakening”.  Solving a war, defeating Islamic State, even propping up an “ally” like Assad are secondary.  These targets can be shifted and flexed to suit.
  6. “Me, me, me”: Dashing in, thrashing around dropping bombs and dashing out again is a highly irresponsible, self-serving and immature stance. No coordination, no handover, no continuous engagement.  This is rubbish.  How reliable and trust-worthy does this make Russia?
  7. Usual rules of international conduct seem not to apply in Russia’s case. Use of dumb bombs, cluster bombs, Russia never really held to account over bombing of hospitals and schools, crude Russian denials or lies suffice and the game moves on.  This even given that US military commanders and politicians have accused Russia of deliberately “weaponising” Syrian refugees. The key lesson Russia is learning is how effective a blunt denial or a simple lie can be.

Where next indeed? (Afghanistan, the Balkans, Moldova, Ukraine, any one of the Central Asian states, Iraq, the Baltic states…???) If the Russian population are still suffering economically without the likelihood of an early improvement, it may be that a new initiative will be necessary.  Ought this to be done before Barrack Obama leaves?  The Baltic states have been worried ever since the Crimea was annexed.  But an attack on a NATO country seems too obvious – and also too risky – for Mr Putin.

The Putin performance does show an impressive use of the resources he has and perhaps an ability to learn lessons.  He got bogged down in Eastern Ukraine – perhaps after a post-Crimea spate of over-confidence.  Now he has gone the other way, quickly getting off the stage while the applause is still sounding and the reviews are still favourable.  For the moment also, the darker art of “hybrid war” has been put on the back-burner in exchange for exciting images of fast jets bombing desert.  Ambiguous operations with proxy and harder to control militias are more fraught with risk.

But how big a global power projection has the Russian adventure in Syria really been?  It still does not offer the notion that Russia can even approach the scale of America’s military and diplomatic might.  And a lot of fast, self-serving and unpredictable Russian initiatives is going to start irritating international actors who may have to pick up the pieces of a Russian “in and out” operation. The macho use of hard power is a little bit “last century” and holds out the ever present risk of public casualties – either Russian troops on the ground or new terrorist attacks coming back to Mother Russia.  The longer Mr Putin juggles shiny military balls in the air to keep his people distracted from economic woes, the greater the risk one will drop.

What is “Hybrid warfare”?, Pt I

March 21, 2016

Summary:  If, indeed, it is anything at all.   Much has been made of Russian’s swift annexation of the Crimea in 2014, which employed anonymous elite troops, local militias, intelligence and propaganda operations.  Other tools for political and military gain are also emerging – cyber warfare, lawfare, social media.  Some herald these “hybrid” combinations as a new era of warfare pioneered by Russia that will rarely actually resemble warfare and one that stands to leave western countries floundering.  Others are deeply sceptical of the notion that this is anything other than old (even ancient) tactics of deception reinvented for a new century.

 

Very possibly not a representative example of “hybrid” war…

Complex place.  The World…

The world order is becoming increasingly multi-polar, with more diverse, faster-moving, adaptable and vociferous actors.  Militaries are being asked to undertake a wider range of tasks than ever before but “conventional” forms of military intervention are having increasingly diminishing returns.  The sheer firepower of industrial nations has pushed asymmetric tactics to the fore, from Vietnam through Northern Ireland and the Balkans to Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Islamic State in Syria.

Beyond this, many actors seek deliberately to blur the distinction between war and peace.  In Crimea, Russia used social media, special forces and proxy militias in a largely bloodless land grabChina is building artificial islands in the South China Sea.  The Islamic State occupies yet another pole, fusing global terrorism with pretensions to statehood.  US military and political figures have recently been accusing Russia of bombing civilians in Syria deliberately to create a flood of refugees to cause fragmentation in Western European unity.

 “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

 

“The backbone of surprise is fusing speed with secrecy.”

— Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege

Hostile operations are, with increasing imagination and creativity, being pitched intentionally just below the level of conventional conflict, with intensive use of information.  Kelly Greenhill recently considered the way disinformation can be exploited in stressful and uncertain situations.  Russian state-controlled media created multiple explanations for the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in an attempt to thwart investigation into the cause.  Modern information and media technologies seem to lend themselves well to confusing and complicating: deepening and spreading roots of conflict, undermining conflict resolution.

Hybrid or ambiguous?

In late February of 2014, well-equipped, highly disciplined and extremely polite soldiers of no easily identifiable origin (but wearing or carrying the most modern of Russian military uniforms, weapons and equipment) quickly and calmly took over key buildings in the capital of Crimea, Simferopol, including government facilities and the airport. This was the beginning of an almost entirely bloodless seizure of the Crimea and its de facto return to Russian control.

From a myriad of terms, and amidst much intense and ongoing debate, the expression “hybrid warfare” seems to have gained a certain amount of traction for describing the orchestrated fall of Crimea, the implosion of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and new Russian military practice in the 21st century. A multi-dimensional range of political, military, economic, social, informational and technological activities are employed to political and military goals.  Much of the activity was covert and designed to be deniable or to deliberately subvert and confuse. The conventional military component became, in effect, the “tip of the iceberg” and was designed, where possible, to avoid overt combat.

In many low intensity conflicts, the causes, combatants and objectives involved are difficult to define.  Some modern techniques of political and military activity deliberately set out to make the situation more confusing. Accurate information can be hard to come by and can be distorted to serve particular agendas. In the particular case of the fighting in eastern Ukraine, fascist taunts and nationalist flag-waving are routine, if highly inflammatory, tactics. The aggressive use of social and mainstream media in all its forms by local, national and international actors and protagonists has been striking and has served—generally by intent—to confuse the situation further.

False flags, new flags or even no flags have concealed some protagonists, masked the true identities of others and introduced new ones. Interpretations of historical issues—from medieval to World War Two—have been twisted to suit 21st century political ambitions, fanning dormant but dangerous forms of intense nationalism in the process. The concealment and manipulation of facts and the distortion and discrediting of information have been one of the significant features of the circumstances surrounding the conflict that has arisen in Ukraine, where the battlefields are as much on the internet as they are in the physical domain.

Terms such as “hybrid”, “indirect”, “new generation” and “ambiguous” are being employed to describe the concepts behind the varieties of political and military tactics being employed. Article V of the NATO North Atlantic Treaty states that an attack on one is an attack on all. Thus far, the 21st century does not seem inclined to allow NATO the luxury of such simple and precise divisions. Defining an attack and the source of the attack is becoming harder as potential adversaries adopt increasingly creative approaches to achieving political and military objectives. But the wide spectrum of phraseology on offer at present is perhaps more indicative of the problems being encountered in analysing and understanding what is going on than they are a helpful categorisation of strategy and tactics. Are we seeing a further blurring and stretching of formal conflict definitions, the emergence of an entirely new form of warfare or simply a repackaging of old techniques of deception realpolitik for the 21st century?

In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, there was a surge of interest hailing this new form of “hybrid” warfare.   After a few months, some of the more critical observers started to reflect that there perhaps was nothing really new here – deception and speed are lauded by pretty much any military commander.  The Russia term “Maskirovka” covers much of this.  The definitional debate s still raging.  But something is going on – new techniques, aided by technology – are going to complicate the battle: wherever the battle may or may not be.

I shall return to this theme in due course.

Taliban reject talks. Again.

March 7, 2016

Summary: The Taliban decide not to take part in peace talks.

Afghan map outline

Back to square one.  Reuters, amongst others, are reporting this news:

Reuters, 5 March 2016: The Taliban said on Saturday it would not take part in peace talks brokered by representatives of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States, casting doubt on efforts to revive negotiations.

The Taliban, ousted from power in a U.S.-led military intervention in 2001, has been waging a violent insurgency to try to topple Afghanistan’s Western-backed government and re-establish a fundamentalist Islamic regime.

Following a meeting of the so-called Quadrilateral Coordination Group made up of representatives of the four countries in Kabul in February, officials said they expected direct peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban to begin in early March.

But the Taliban, which calls itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, denied it would be participating in any upcoming talks in Islamabad.

“We reject all such rumors and unequivocally state that the leader of Islamic Emirate has not authorized anyone to participate in this meeting,” the group said in a statement.

“(Islamic Emirate) once again reiterates that unless the occupation of Afghanistan is ended, black lists eliminated and innocent prisoners freed, such futile misleading negotiations will not bear any results,” it added.

This is in the Taliban’s own, official wording:

Statement of Islamic Emirate concerning non-participation by delegates of Islamic Emirate in upcoming QCG meetings


On the one hand America is deploying fresh troops to Afghanistan, is carrying out airstrikes in various areas and partaking in night raids and on the other the Kabul administration has expanded operations in multiple provinces, displaced thousands of families from their homes in this cold winter and at the same time intensified propaganda about negotiations and Quadrilateral Coordination Group meetings. These two contradictory activities have begun as the Political Office of Islamic Emirate has not been kept informed about negotiations from the onset and neither have the requests of known Afghan personalities been paid any heed.

At the same time rumors are being circulated that delegates of Islamic Emirate will be participating in the upcoming meetings with the permission of the esteemed Amir ul Mumineen, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor (may Allah safeguard him).

We reject all such rumors and unequivocally state that the esteemed leader of Islamic Emirate has not authorized anyone to participate in this meeting and neither has the Leadership Council of Islamic Emirate decided to partake in it. Just as the Islamic Emirate made clear during the Pugwash conference, it once again reiterates its policy that unless the occupation of Afghanistan is ended, black lists eliminated and innocent prisoners freed, such futile misleading negotiations will not bear any results. We also call on the media to avoid publishing baseless hollow reports and stop attributing news to the Islamic Emirate which has not been confirmed by the official spokespersons and Political Office of the Islamic Emirate.

Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan

25/05/1437 Hijri Lunar

15/12/1394Hijri Solar                     05/03/2016 Gregorian

We have been in this situation for years.  It is difficult to be surprised, as nothing new seemed to be in the offing from either side, other than a nice new name for the peace process (Quadrilateral Coordination Group) and the addition of the Chinese.  The Afghan government and internationals require that the Taliban renounce terrorism, accept the Afghan constitution and hand in their weapons.  The Taliban require that all international military personnel leave and that they are taken off any terrorism or financial blacklists.  In effect, both sides require that the other side gives in.  The Taliban are seemingly bouncing back from the news of Mullah Omar’s death and continue to put the Afghan National Security Forces and police under serious pressure in north and south.  They will likely  want to see how far they can push this military progress in the coming year.  After all, the fighting season is due to be announced at the end of May.

Messy stalemate.

 

 

 

Russia/Syria: new Russian air defence system…

February 10, 2016

Summary: Russia deploys highly advanced air defence system to Syria – does ISIS have an air force?

Janes report – from Russia Today sources – that a new version of the Pantsyr air defence system has been spotted defending the Russian military airbase at Humaymim in Syria:

Janes, 8 Feb 2016: Russia has deployed the new version of the Pantsyr air defence system to its Humaymim airbase in Syria, footage broadcast by the RT news channel on 3 February has confirmed.

Russia has had at least one Pantsyr-S1 at Humaymim since 3 October 2015, when its Ministry of Defence released a photograph showing one in the background.

The RT footage showed a second system with the new bidirectional radar now deployed at the base. This also appears to be the first time the new Pantsyr version has been seen in Russian service.

RT identified the system as a Pantsyr-S2: a new version the Russian military said it would take into service in 2015.

The Pantsyr S1 version has been in Syria for a few months.  This version seems to be the newer S2 and it seems this may have been in the offing since the end of last year.  Last time I checked, the Islamic State did not have any form of military combat system that might require such a sophisticated anti-air counter measures system.  The fact that it has been presented on Russia Today suggests a “flag-waving” statement for the benefit of US (and Turkish) air forces and the radar systems deployed as part of the Pantsyr package might permit a more enhanced picture of all air activity in the region.

To be fair to Russian military aviation, you might want to have your airbase defended with all means possible on the basis of “you never know”.  Perhaps ISIS has, or may develop a drone reconnaissance/strike capability…

Back to the Future or Forward to the Past? US troops back to Helmand in force

February 9, 2016

Summary:  US combat troops are sent back into Helmand to support the Afghan army. 

The Guardian is reporting a significant group of US troops going back into Helmand province to support the seemingly faltering performance of the Afghan National Army:

The Guardian, 8 February, 2016: Hundreds of additional US troops are slated to deploy to a volatile province in Afghanistan to bolster the local military against a resurgent Taliban, the Guardian has learned.

By month’s end, a force described as battalion-strength, consisting of mostly army soldiers, will arrive in Helmand province where US and UK forces have struggled in battles for over a decade to drive out the Taliban….defense officials said the additional troops would not take part in combat. But they will help the existing Helmand force defend itself against Taliban attacks, officials said [and]…declined to offer many specifics about an upcoming reinforcement, but they described the mission as primarily aimed at bolstering the performance of the embattled 215th Corps of the Afghan military, through training.

The 215th Corps has recently had its commander replaced amid performance and corruption concerns, and has endured “unusually high operating tempo for long periods of time”, outgoing US commander General John Campbell testified to Congress last week. It is among four Afghan corps that still have US military advisers embedded within it, despite a recent pullback to advise at higher levels…

The US military has sounded warnings of a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, in Helmand and beyond, that have prompted significant revisions in Obama’s war plans…

While the Pentagon initially resisted categorizing the battle as “combat”, press secretary Peter Cook called it a “combat situation, but [US troops] are not in the lead intentionally”, illustrating how the difference between combat and advisory missions can blur in practice.

Opium-rich Helmand has emerged as a Taliban priority, as most of its 2015 attacks focused on the province. Unlike earlier eras of the war, the Taliban have declined to take a winter break and have fought in the province all year.

The Taliban have come close to overrunning a district center in Helmand, Sangin, where more than 100 UK troops died during a war that has entered its 15th year, despite US airstrikes in late December. Kabul is said to control only three of Helmand’s 14 districts, including the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.

This has a worrying feel of a drip, drip return to major international operations.  I tried previously, as the ISAF mission closed down, to hazard a few thoughts about the circumstances under which NATO might ever return to Afghanistan.  Although I said “if they ever leave”, I could/should have been a little more careful to point out the risk of mission creep for those remaining residual forces.

How badly does Mr Obama want to declare “mission accomplished” in the last year of his presidency?

An anniversary assessment of the armed forces of the Donetsk Peoples Republic

January 29, 2016

Guest post by Michael J. Sheldon, edited by Tim Foxley

Michael Jakob Sheldon is an undergraduate student at Malmö University’s Peace and Conflict Studies program. In his free time he maintains a blog (www.dangerzoneblog.com) on topics related to ongoing conflicts.  Michael specializes in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine on every aspect from armed violence to state governance.

Summary: Military reform is underway in the quasi state of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR). All armed military units appear to be consolidating under a single command structure of the 1st Army Corps of the Ministry of Defence of the DPR. But it is likely there is a gap between the theory and the practice.

The armed forces of “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) have changed significantly from where they were a year ago. Stemming out of disorganised militia forces local to the three main cities of Slovyansk, Donetsk and Lugansk, the current iteration now, on paper at least, is starting to resemble a modern military.

The armed forces of the DPR have been centralised under the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and are commanded by Major-General Vladimir Kononov. The MOD is centred around a single 1st Army Corps which celebrated its first anniversary last November with a parade which showcased a professional and streamlined looking military.

The MOD holds two main combat elements under the 1st Army Corps: the Republican Guard (RG) and more independent, “separate”, units. In its current state, the separate units of the 1st Army Corps hold the task of offensive action whereas the Republican Guard is tasked with defence of its assigned territories including a rapid reaction component, some reconnaissance units and special forces.

DPR MOD, new versh

There is quite a bit of uncertainty around the specifics of this structure. Notable is the specific situation regarding the Military Intelligence Directorate (GRU is a more commonly known abbreviation). Pre-reform GRU was under the Republican Guards command structure, however the current situation of the GRU is largely up for speculation. One possibility is that the GRU exists as is pictured in the diagram above, another is that it has been dissolved and integrated with the current “Republican Guard” as reconnaissance battalions, as some evidence would support. A third possibility is that there is no real GRU and that the units which had comprised it float around in the Army Corps under no consolidated directorate.

There may be a certain amount of exaggeration and “inflation” regarding the DPR’s structure. Within the Republican Guard, only the 3rd, 5th and 6th Battalions are regularly spotted in social and televised media. Sightings of other battalions are uncommon and troops are often few in numbers. However, there are no official figures to go by, and, with a very out of date official website, it is impossible to get a real sense of size, number and structure.

With these caveats in mind, the “average” mechanised brigade of the DPR’s forces appears to be structured in a fairly conventional format:

DPR bde structure

Often militants and their vehicles in the “DPR” have insignia denoting which unit they belong to, which can be found via pro-Russian open and media sources. Compiling this data gives a greater perspective of the overall structure of the “DPR” MoD, but gives little insight into its actual size. The main factor which helps to assess the actual size of individual units is vehicle numbers. For example, tank battalion “Diesel” is known to be approximately of the size of a regular Russian tank battalion, having around 40 tanks in its inventory .

Reconnaissance companies within battalions and brigades seem to be most active at present, probably because significant combat operations have largely ceased and the main concern is monitoring the ceasefire. Terminology (“special forces”, “reconnaissance”, “rapid reaction”) looks a little bit disingenuous. It is likely that many of these titles are self-adopted for prestige and resource allocation rather than accurate formal statements of capability and training. The so-called Special Forces unit “Somali” appears to be operating more as a rapid reaction force that can quickly go where needed on the front lines.

There is still uncertainty over the current and intended end state for the DPR armed forces – this is still early days, with reliable information limited and fluid. Interestingly, but perhaps predictably, the Ukrainian government have presented the structure of the DPR armed forces as part of a wider and Russia-controlled military force. From the Ukrainian perspective, therefore, the DPR’s forces are 1st Army Corps and the “Luhansk Peoples Republic” (LPR) armed forces are grouped as 2nd Army Corps.

This suggests a form of unified command between two “occupant armies”. It is an interesting notion which might have some truth to it, at least in some capacity. One DPR source previously listed the LPR National Militia as the 2nd Army Corps. There is evidence that the DPR and LPR armed forces have been doing a lot of resource sharing as if they were under unified (i.e. Russia-directed) command. It seems that after DPR received a shipment of T-72s, it no longer had use for its Ukrainian captured T-64s and transferred them to the LPR National Militia. DPR armour holdings consists of around 75% T-72s, whereas in the LPR the vast majority of LPR tanks are T-64BVs.

The Ukrainian assessment suggests that the entire 7th Mechanised Brigade has been transferred to LPR command. During the recent pullbacks of heavy armour, the 7th Brigade pulled back and stored its tanks in an LPR base along with other LPR tanks. During this move, DPR’s 1st Army Corps social media cited it as still belonging to the DPR, but was in the zone of control of the LPR’s 2nd Army Corps. We should be cautious, however. These social media accounts are often operated by private volunteers, so there is a possibility that this post is simply a reflection of personal opinion or flawed information rather than fact. It is equally plausible that the DPR & LPR act as a loose coalition with individual areas of responsibility. This is not to say that the survival of the DPR and LPR do not depend on Russian support, but that I believe that their command structures are probably not formally connected to those of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

DPR armed forces have undergone significant restructuring to reach their current structure, which is not yet in its planned final state. Some artifacts of the old system still remains, most notable are the “Somali” and “Sparta” battalions, best known for their roles at Donetsk airport, which still function as separate units reporting directly to MOD. Other less notable units still remain as separate units both throughout the Army Corps and the Republican Guard (RG). This phenomenon is far more prevalent in the Army Corps as all units were made to submit to its control upon its creation. The RG was only created later and units were taken from the Army Corps and re-organized under RG command.

The RG began as a separate entity under the authority of the head of the republic, Alexander Zakharchenko. It’s likely longevity is unclear: it may be intended for absorption into 1st Army Corps because of poor military performance at Shyrokino. Some reports suggest this may have already partly happened. The flag ceremony of the RG’s “100th Brigade” revealed it to be the same type and format as units in 1st Army Corps. The flag does however still have “Republican Guard” written on it, even in a post-reform environment.
Ukraine, DPR, 100 bde flag ceremony.png

100th brigade flag ceremony September 2015

Conclusions: It is evident that the DPR leadership is attempting to boost their military capabilities and to give the appearance of a formal military structure as befitting a “state”. But assessment is difficult:

  • it is hard to glean reliable information
  • it is likely that the effort of the DPR is a fluid “work in progress”
  • access to funding and resources is probably creating a gap between capability on the ground and the theory on paper
  • the impact of Russia (its assistance, or lack of, and wider Russian strategic plans and actions) may yet distort or thwart the evolution of the military capabilities of the Donetsk Peoples Republic

Volatile Caucasus

January 20, 2016

Summary: A worrying piece from Thomas de Waal, suggesting that Azerbaijan may have a difficult time in 2016 – with political, military and economic consequences for the Caucasus as a whole.

Well established Caucasus expert, Thomas de Waal, has written an interesting piece about the poor prospects for Azerbaijan’s stability and economy this year. He suggests that a few factors threaten to come together to produce a turbulent and toxic environment, based around a possible economic crisis, due in part to developments in Iran.

Rising prices, a collapsing currency, international turbulence, and a nervous elite. Azerbaijan is starting 2016 in the middle of what looks like a perfect storm…To make matters worse for the government, this began a week ago, even before sanctions on Iran were lifted and the oil price fell below $30 a barrel. (Around three quarters of Azerbaijan’s budget revenues come from oil sales.)… The currency collapse has hurt Azerbaijan’s middle class, who have taken out dollar-denominated loans and come to rely on imported goods.

It has also hit the population at large outside the capital Baku, who saw prices on staples, such as flour, shoot up. One Azerbaijani economist warns of the risk of the massive inflation experienced recently by Ukraine, the only post-Soviet country which has experienced a comparable currency crash.

At what point do economic protests become political? It is a blurry line.

Basically he suggests long-term over-reliance on oil for income and lack of diversification can lead to discontent from a growing economic crisis when oil prices plummet, leading to political unrest, leading to clumsy government reaction unused to dealing with political dissent, leading to bloody crackdown. All the factors are threatening to come together this year – disgruntled ex-KGB chief sacked as security minister, human rights violations, a dispute with the US, its all there.

Q: What do authoritarian regimes tend to do when they have domestic unrest?
A: They create an external threat.

De Waal is particularly and rightly concerned that the protracted and unresolved conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh might flare up again.
In the longer (and broader) perspective he suggests

It is a foretaste of the trouble that Russia may soon face for very similar reasons.

Definitely one to watch.

Worth reading this brief article in full.

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