Ukraine as Strategic Stepping-Stone
Commentary for 21 September 2014
The Minsk Protocol, which has theoretically brought peace to Ukraine, gives the Russian leaders' time to regroup their clandestine and conventional forces for the sake of a future offensive operation. One observer, writing from Crimea, believes the Russian forces will move against Ukraine when the weather turns cold. At least one Polish journalist believes the Russians will move against Ukraine in a matter of weeks. The predictibly named People's Republic of Lugansk, and the People's Republic of Donetsk, have now been established (by the Minsk agreement) as permenant Russian enclaves inside Ukraine. Will Russia be satisfied with these gains?
What we saw previously in Ukraine was a series of Russian failures which do not resemble the kind of failures we saw in 1989-91. No, no, we must not think in terms of Russian retreat or collapse. That is not the kind of failure we see in Ukraine. What we see is a failure by Russia to conquer those parts of Ukraine the standing operational plan called for; that is, Odessa and a large chunk of eastern Ukraine (in addition to Crimea). We must keep in mind that Russia's policy today is not based on deceiving the West that Russia is a friendly country. Today's Russian policy, which is a war policy, more resembles Stalin's policy of 1939-40, when the Red Army annexed Eastern Poland, the Baltic States, and invaded Finland. In this policy there is no pretense of friendship with the West. Here the hostility is open, frankly acknowledged, and accompanied by actual troop movements. Or as Putin allegedly boasted to Ukraine's president, "If I wanted, Russian troops could not only be in Kiev in two days, but in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw or Bucharest, too."
In fact, as reported by the Daily Mail, Putin claimed the ability to block the adoption of decisions at the level of the European Council. He could claim even more abilities if he was inclined to indiscretion, since an entire department of the KGB was once devoted to managing heads of state who were Soviet agents. One may now imagine sub-departments for the management of mid-level bureaucrats as well. Oh yes, Russian troops can go many places. And they will, as the world shall see.
Yet Russia was rebuffed in Ukraine on its first effort. To clarify, the failure of Russia is that of stealing one fifth of a country instead of the whole thing. (or something on that order). And so this failure resemble the failure to take Finland in 1939-40. It is not a permanent setback. It is not even a true loss, since territory was gained. It is a disappointment on the order of getting less than one had hoped. The intention in 1939 it was to conquer Finland and take the whole country. Instructions were given to Russian troops as to their behavior on approaching the border of Sweden. Of course, the war did not go as planned. Finland fought back and retained its independence (with some loss of territory, as in the case of Ukraine today). So we have a kind of parallel here, which is suggestive.
But will the Kremlin let Ukraine alone?
In 1940 Finland got a peace deal not unlike the Minsk Protocol of today. Some territory was sliced off, but Finland retained her independence. We have evidence that after 1940 Soviet Russia intended to re-invade Finland at the first opportunity, but became distracted by Nazi Germany. In his meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov in late 1940, Hitler was perplexed and unhappy when the Soviets claimed Finland as theirs. Similarly, Moscow would claim Ukraine today (if this were not impolitic at the moment); and so, we should expect a future attack on Ukraine from Russia. We should expect further annexations and "separatist" uprisings. Since all the elements of the first Russian offensive of 2014 did not come together and produce the desired outcome, Moscow only needs time to devise a new plan (and to further consolidate its alliances with China and Iran). Also, in terms of Ukrainian internal politics, agents of influence are a force multiplier which failed to multiply in recent battles as disinformation did not entirely sabotage Ukrainian defenses. So time is required to fix the various problems for the sake of a second offensive.
In conventional military terms, Russia appears to be strengthening its forces on various fronts. We read of 4,000 troops massing in Crimea. We have reports of planned future separatist uprisings in other Ukrainian cities (like Zaporizhia), and a strengthening of Russian troops in Transnistria and Kaliningrad. Russian military aircraft have been testing North American air space. Truly, it looks much more like 1939 than 1989.
Another victim of 1939 was Poland, and so it is only natural that astute Polish observers may have a better feel for the sitaution than others. I recently asked a well-informed Polish journalist about the situation in Ukraine as follows:
NYQUIST: I was wondering whether you think the ceasefire will hold in Ukraine and whether you have an idea why the Russians have decided to destroy their economic position through belligerence.
POLISH JOURNALIST: The Ceasefire in Ukraine is pure fiction. In a few weeks we will see a resumption of the fighting. Putin’s goal is takeover of the Ukrainian defense industry in eastern Ukraine. He needs factories that will build turbines for his submarines, and ballistic missile factories in Dnepropetrovsk. He needs 2,000 engines for military helicopters a year. Russian factories can only build him 50 engines a year. So he badly needs supplies from Ukraine. Without looting the equipment of these factories his whole rearmament program will be delayed. He’s not bothering about sanctions. He thinks about conflict with the countries of Central Eastern Europe and he’s fighting for the tools to fight this kind of war. Besides this, his strategic plan is to isolate Ukraine from the Black Sea.
NYQUIST: What you say about Moscow’s motives is very interesting. I wonder what you think the chances are that the Russian people will become disenchanted with Putin when the full economic impact of Russia’s international isolation hits them. Or will they simply become violently anti-Western, blaming NATO and America for all their problems? Or will the idea of trade restrictions toward Russia (or by Russia against others) be undermined by those in Germany and elsewhere who would rather not have sanctions taking effect?
POLISH JOURNALIST: I visited Moscow in November 2012 and I was witnessing “Russkiy Marsh” – a huge demonstration of Russian, anti-Putin, nationalist opposition. I’ve talked with these people, and most of them were saying that Putin is a thief and a communist thug who is destroying Russia. There were a few thousand people at this demonstration – cramped on a small street on the banks of the River Moskva (the only place where they are allowed to protest) – but the crowd was larger at a nearby Putin concert. Later I checked the Russian, Polish, and Western media. All of them were saying that the people of the “Russkiy Marsh” were only a bunch of bloodthirsty neo-Nazis who are supporting Breivik and Mitt Romney. The Russian media was saying that the demonstrators were chanting “Romney vpyeryod!” “Go, Romney, go!”
NYQUIST: [So these people don't count?]
POLISH JOURNALIST: Ninety percent of Russian society is politically inactive – they are brainwashed by TV or they don’t want to endanger themselves by becoming involved in politics. The most active part of this society are anti-Putin nationalists, supporters of Navalny, etc. So Putin is inflaming extreme nationalism, not only to consolidate his position and rally the nation around a dictator, but also to steal the support from his opposition. I think that after the nationalist hype falls away, many Russians will be disenchanted with Putin. They were supporting him because he gave them “economic stability.” [But failure here] will not lead to revolution, but [a loss of stability] would support Putin’s rivals among the “elite” (I think the GRU and Shoigu are trying to undermine him). The most interesting thing is how this power struggle could influence the situation in countries like Poland. I wonder why guys like Gen. Stanislaw Kozeij (the real handler of President Komorowski) are suddenly supporting a U.S. military presence in Poland.
NYQUIST: Recently a former SBU general named Alexander Skipalski explained that “Russia operates through networks of agents who don’t always know they are working for Russia.” Acknowledging the extent of these networks in Kiev, and the defacto degree of control the Russians enjoy there (despite everything), Skipalski could not understand the reason for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the separatist provocations. Why upset the whole of Europe by triggering a bloody war in Ukraine? Why turn Europe against Russia? Why take so many risks when the Ukraine is easily recoverable? What country cannot be taken over from within given the Russian methods of infiltration, blackmail, subversion and disinformation? As far as military helicopter engines, who else is going to buy such engines from Ukraine? Surely the Russians would remain Ukraine’s primary customer in that regard. Why then create anti-Russian feeling and make your own fears come true by invading Ukraine with Russian soldiers? Why annex large chunks of a country that has always cooperated with you, and must continue to do so for a host of reasons. Is it really about factories in Donbas, or is Russia aiming at a pretext for a wider war? If no wider aggression is intended, the implication seems to be that Moscow has lost its hold on Kiev, and Moscow sees Ukraine drifting into the orbit of Western Europe.
POLISH JOURNALIST: The Russians are probing the reaction of the West. [The real question is] how much could they do without starting a full-blown confrontation? Ukraine is an important point in their timetable (just like Czechoslovakia was important for Hitler’s timetable as most of the tanks the Germans used were Czech tanks, made in the Skoda factory). Ukraine is a jumping-off point for other plans. Putin is becoming convinced that NATO will not wage nuclear war to defend the Baltic States. Just like Hitler was convinced that the UK and France would not declare war on Germany because of Poland. According to Illarionov the Russians started preparations for the invasion of Ukraine in 2008 – a long time before the Maidan Revolution. The concept of Novorosya was born in 2003 – before the Orange Revolution. The economic war against Georgia was started in 2002 – before the Rose Revolution. As for Gen. Koziej, I consider he is not an ordinary dupe or low level agent. He’s a commander of the Polish post-Communist Syndicate, just like Putin is a commander of the Russian Syndicate.
In presenting my exchange with the Polish journalist, I cannot help citing a quotation from Stalin’s foreign minister, V. Molotov, which was made to the Lithuanian Foreign Minister on 30 June 1940, and is reminiscent of the sort of thinking we are seeing in Moscow today: “We are now more than ever convinced that our brilliant comrade Lenin made no mistake when he asserted that the Second World War would enable us to seize power in Europe, just as we did in Russia after the First World War. For this reason you should be starting now to introduce your people into the Soviet system, which in future will rule all Europe.” [see S. Myllyniemi, Die baltische Krise 1938-1941, Stuttgart 1979, pp. 118, 126.]
There is another Molotov quote that fits nicely, as well, which was given on 1 August 1940 and reads as follows: “We have had many successes, but we don’t intend to be satisfied with what we have achieved [i.e., the annexation of the Baltic States, Eastern Poland and Eastern Finland]. In order to guarantee further essential successes, we must always keep Stalin’s words in mind. We must keep our whole nation in a state of mobilization, of preparedness for a military attack, so that no ‘accident’ and no tricks on the part of our foreign enemies can find us unprepared, If we all continue to bear this in mind … then nothing that happens could surprise us, and we will gain even more glorious successes for the Soviet Union.”
The provocative nature of recent Russian nuclear exercises must be viewed in this light. Russia is pushing out and must be vigilant that someone doesn't push back with a nuclear first strike. As Moscow has learned from bitter experience, the question of preventive war is not an idle question. It was not an idle question for Hitler in 1940 when he read Molotov's remarks in security briefings, or was told Russia's demands in a personal meeting with Molotov. Today we hear Putin's remarks but, of course, our leaders aren't as crazy as Hitler. There's not going to be any invasion of Russia or a nuclear first strike ordered from Washington. Instead of Hitler, we have Obama; as far as the Russians go, he is a sweetheart; yes, an anti-Churchill (to put in bluntly).
It is time to push out indeed!