Russia’s Stealth Invasion of Ukraine

It appears that the Russian invasion of Ukraine that I have feared since March has now begun in earnest, with the opening of a new front in the vicinity of Mariupol on the shores of the Azov Sea and a major counterattack in Luhansk Oblast leading to the retreat of Ukrainian forces from positions they have occupied (in some cases) since before the June ceasefire. This separatist counter-offensive has generated a lot of discussion among analysts and commentators about whether the forces attacking Novoazovsk and Mariupol belong to regular Russian units or irregular forces, as part of an effort to determine whether or not these new developments amount to a Russian invasion or just a new escalation by separatist forces.

I would argue that the specific provenance of the fighters involved doesn’t actually matter very much in this context. There is no doubt that the forces attacking in the south, near Novoazovsk and Mariupol came directly from Russia, not from territory already controlled by the separatists farther north. To do so, they had to be allowed through the border by Russian border guards. Furthermore, there is also no doubt that they are using weapons and equipment supplied by the Russian government, since they are no longer even trying to claim that the equipment they are using was captured from defeated Ukrainian forces.

In these circumstances, why does it matter which specific people are sitting in the tanks? 

And if it did matter, there is now more and more evidence being uncovered in Russian social media and in independent reporting that active duty Russian personnel ARE fighting in Ukraine. This includes the 10 Russian soldiers that the Ukrainian government has claimed to have captured on Ukrainian territory, as well as the various Russian soldiers from units such as the 76th Airborne Division based in Pskov who have been reported to have died recently in unexplained circumstances. 

One can invade a country through a direct frontal assault. Or one can do it in secret, a little bit at a time. The Russian government has chosen the second path. It doesn’t make it any less of an invasion.

It also means that the Minsk talks are almost certainly a diversion, meant to distract Western leaders from the reality of what is happening on the ground. The idea is that as long as world leaders think there is a chance at successful peace talks, they will refrain from strong words or actions condemning what Russia is doing in Ukraine. This seems to be working out for Russia so far, but it should not distract us from events on the ground. 

I should be clear that I don’t think Russia is currently planning a full takeover of any part of eastern Ukraine. The goal remains what it has been for months now: to ensure that Ukraine remains unstable and weak. For now, in order to accomplish this goal, Russia needs to make sure the separatists are not defeated and remain a viable force. Both the escalation in assistance and the opening of the new front are a response to the losses that the separatists had suffered in recent weeks.

In the long run, the only acceptable end to the conflict for Russia is one that would either freeze the current situation in place with separatists in control of significant territory in eastern Ukraine (the Transnistria variant) or the removal of the pro-Western Ukrainian government and its replacement by a pro-Russian one. Participants in peace talks have to understand that this is essentially a red line for Moscow. Putin will not allow the restoration of control over eastern Ukraine by the current Ukrainian government by peaceful means and is clearly willing to directly involve Russian forces in military action to ensure that it doesn’t happen through a Ukrainian military victory. 

Given Russia’s superior military capabilities this is a war that Ukraine cannot win, at least not by military means. The alternatives are to make a deal with whatever terms are possible or to continue the struggle for a long time, hoping that inflicting a high cost on Russian forces will eventually turn Russians against their government’s adventure. The former will lead to the collapse of the Ukrainian government. The latter will take a very long time at best and result in huge numbers of civilian casualties. 

Personalization and Patriotism

The following article originally appeared at the Carnegie Forum on Rebuilding U.S.-Russia Relations, where it is one of a number of contributions by eminent experts such as Henry Hale, Mark Kramer, Thomas Graham, Steven Pifer, and many others. 

——

American media narratives generally tend to excessively personalize politics and international affairs, and recent coverage of Russia is no exception to this overall trend. During the entire Ukraine crisis, and especially in the aftermath of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, Vladimir Putin has been portrayed as an evil leader bent on some combination of restoring the Soviet empire and destroying the international order. His motivation has frequently been framed as a sense of pique for the exclusion of Russian leaders from key decisions, such as on the Iraq war, on NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, and on NATO enlargement.

While Russian leaders certainly do have a sense of grievance over perceived slights by the West, and particularly by the United States, against Russia that have accumulated over the 20-plus years since the breakup of the Soviet Union, these grievances are not sufficient to explain Russian foreign policy. Instead, Russian foreign policy is driven by a combination of a desire to restore Russia’s great power status, the perception that Russian security can only be guaranteed if Russia is surrounded by friendly states, and the fear that the United States is taking active measures to overthrow the current Russian government.

Furthermore, the personalization of Russian foreign policy hurts U.S. policymaking toward Russia by creating a perception that Russian actions, as guided by Putin, are irrational and therefore cannot be dealt with through strategies other than containment. Furthermore, there is an implicit (and sometimes explicit) undercurrent that the crisis in U.S.-Russia relations will inevitably continue unless and until Vladimir Putin is removed from his position as Russia’s leader.

While Vladimir Putin has unquestionably installed a repressive domestic regime in Russia and pursued an aggressive foreign policy that seeks to establish a set of dependent buffer states on the territory of the former Soviet Union, Russian foreign policy does derive from a rational set of beliefs, goals, and interests. The inability of many Western commentators and some policymakers to see the world from the Russian point of view damages the ability of the U.S. government to adopt a Russia policy that allows for a reasonable response to Russian actions without defaulting to the outdated image of Russia as a direct descendant of the Soviet “evil empire.” In addition, Western analysts neglect the likelihood that if Vladimir Putin is forced out of office, his replacement is unlikely to be a pro-Western politician. Instead, any successor is likely to be at least as anti-Western as Putin is perceived to be. Given the strength of nationalist sentiment among the Russian population, any new leader is in fact likely to be more nationalistic and aggressive than the current incumbent.

Throughout the current crisis, Russia has been acting from weakness, rather than from strength. While various commentators have described Putin as playing a chess game against the West, I would argue that he has actually been primarily reacting tactically to what he saw as a major defeat. After all, in late February, Ukraine went in just a few days from having chosen alliance with Russia over Europe to a victory by anti-Russian forces and the prospect of a close alliance with the West, and the potential loss of Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol.

Russian leaders see the protests in Ukraine as part of a Western plot. For them, colored revolutions are a new form of warfare invented by Western governments seeking to remove independently-minded national governments in favor of ones that are controlled by the West. They have argued that this is part of a global strategy to force foreign values on a range of nations around the world that refuse to accept American hegemony, and that Russia was a particular target of this strategy.

This perspective appears to be at the core of a new national security strategy that Russia is developing. Although Western readers may find the lumping together of uprisings as disparate as those in Serbia in 2000, Syria in 2011, and Venezuela in 2014 hard to swallow, from the Russian point of view they all share the common thread of occurring in countries that had governments that were opposed to the United States. Although uprisings in countries whose governments were tied more closely to the United States, such as Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and Egypt and Bahrain in 2011 are harder to explain, such inconsistencies appear to not trouble the Russian government.

If this is the dominant perspective, then Russia’s opposition to the United States and the West is about mindset and has nothing to do with interests. In that case, it is not worth spending time to try to convince the current Russian leadership to pursue more cooperative policies. If they truly believe that the United States is seeking to force them out of power and is simply waiting for an opportune moment to strike, then Russian policies will remain committed to ensuring that the United States does not get such an opportunity.

In that environment, Russia’s current policies in Ukraine have little to do with geopolitical calculations about Ukrainian economic ties with the EU versus the Eurasian Union or even with potential Ukrainian NATO membership. And the annexation of Crimea was not about ensuring the security of the Black Sea Fleet. Instead, the main goal is to strengthen the Putin regime domestically by increasing patriotic attitudes among the Russian population. Patriotism would thus be the means by which the Russian government inoculates the Russian population against anti-regime and/or pro-Western attitudes. This goal would explain the obsessive focus on building an anti-Ukrainian and anti-American domestic media narrative from an early stage in the Ukraine conflict.

The U.S. response to such a position would have to focus on a combination of reassuring steps to show that the United States is not planning to overthrow the Putin regime with the restatement of the core U.S. position that the citizens of each country deserve the right to determine their own government without external interference (from either Russia or the United States).

In practical terms, the U.S. government should encourage the Ukrainian government to pursue policies of reconciliation in the Donbas. While the conflict has been greatly exacerbated by Russian actions, it has an internal component that cannot be solved by military action alone. In an ideal world, Russia and the United States would work together to encourage this reconciliation, though I doubt that the current Russian government is genuinely interested in peace in eastern Ukraine. Instead, it would prefer to keep eastern Ukraine unstable as an object lesson to its own population of the dangers of popular protest leading to the overthrow of even a relatively unpopular government.

Russian Interests and Policies in the Arctic

I have a new analytical piece up on  War on the Rocks. Here’s a preview:

Russian leaders have in recent months focused on the importance of the Arctic region to their country’s security and economic goals in the 21st century. Russian actions in the Arctic are governed by a combination of factors. The highest priority is economic development of Russia’s Arctic region. However, Russian leaders also see the Arctic as a location where they can assert their country’s status as a major international power. This is done by claiming sovereignty over Arctic territory, and through steps to assure Russian security in the region.

Russian policy is pursued on two divergent tracks. The first track uses bellicose rhetoric to highlight Russia’s sovereignty over the largest portion of the Arctic, as well as declarations of a coming military buildup in the region. This track is primarily aimed at shoring up support among a domestic audience. The second track seeks international cooperation in order to assure the development of the region’s resources. This includes efforts to settle maritime border disputes and other conflicts of interest in the region. Managing the lack of alignment between these two tracks, and the potential for counter-productive setbacks caused by inconsistencies between them, is an important challenge for Russia’s leadership.

The rhetoric of sovereignty claims

Russian officials have frequently made statements and taken symbolic actions to assert Russian sovereignty over parts of the Arctic. Many of these actions have had to do with enforcing Russian territorial claims in the region.

You can read the rest of the article at War on the Rocks.

Who shot down MH 17?

Today’s press conference by the Russian MOD shows that the Russian government has decided to double down on its narrative that the Ukrainian military is responsible for shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight 17. The Russian case is comprised of two parts. First, the Russian MOD released imagery showing that Ukrainian Buk systems were located in the region near where the airplane crashed. Second, the Russian MOD stated that its radars had noted two Ukrainian aircraft, one of which was a Su-25 fighter jet, tailing the Malaysian airliner immediately prior to its crash. The Russian government speculates that either 1) Ukrainian air defense forces were mistakenly aiming at the Su-25, having assumed it was a Russian plane, shot down the airliner by mistake or 2) they deliberately shot at the airliner in order to pin the attack on the separatists.

Since I am not an expert in imagery analysis, I will leave that to someone who is. As for the Su-25, Russian sources have pointed out that it’s maximum altitude is 7,000 meters, well below the 10,000 meter altitude at which MH17 was flying. Furthermore, there is no actual evidence beyond the words of the Russian spokespeople that Ukrainian aircraft were shadowing MH17. Furthermore, the presence of such planes would conflict with the second version of events. Why would Ukraine send up its planes into an area into which it is about to fire an air defense missile?

On the other hand, while the evidence for MH17 having been shot down by pro-Russian separatists acting with direct Russian assistance is circumstantial, it is nevertheless fairly strong. This includes information and video provided by separatist fighters at the time of the incident that they had shot down a Ukrainian military transport aircraft. These statements and video were deleted once it became clear that the aircraft was civilian. In addition, Ukrainian security services have released tapes of conversations among separatists first reporting that a plane had been shot down and then reporting that it had turned out to be a civilian plane rather than one carrying armaments. Even if one chooses to not believe Ukrainian government statements, the statements of the separatists still remain.

The attack on the plane also followed separatist claims to have captured a Ukrainian Buk surface to air missile system. Such claims have in the past been used by separatists to mask the transfer of heavy military equipment from Russia across the open border. Video evidence has surfaced showing a Buk system being moved earlier in the day in an area near where the plane went down and then again being transported in the direction of the Russian border with one of its four missiles notably absent. The Buk system is equipped with its own radar system and can hit targets at altitudes up to 49,000 feet, well above the 32,000 feet at which MH17 was flying over Ukraine.

Furthermore, the separatist forces have in recent weeks compiled a record of shooting down Ukrainian aircraft at increasingly higher altitudes. On July 14, a Ukrainian An-26 military transport plane was shot down while flying at an altitude of over 21,000 feet, well above the range of man-portable air defense systems that the separatists have admitted to possessing. Separatists took credit for this attack, though some evidence shows that the plane was shot down by a Buk missile fired from Russian territory.

Finally, the separatists’ reaction since the downing of the plane is highly suspicious. If they had not had anything to do with the attack, why would they not allow the OSCE to secure the site and allow foreign investigators full access? Their best hope of having their story accepted would be if the investigation is seen as credible in the West and absolves them of responsibility. Instead, the media has been talking for days about how the crash site has been looted by separatists and evidence tampered with. If they truly believed that the Ukrainians had done it, the separatists’ behavior over the last five days has only made it more difficult for them to get Western observers to accept their version of the story.

It appears that the key unresolved question is whether the missile that was launched at MH17 was fired by separatists or by Russian operators who had arrived with the system in separatist-controlled territory. It is impossible to tell which was the case, though some analysts have argued that since operating a Buk system requires 6-9 months of training it is unlikely that separatists could have operated it themselves. On the other hand, there have also been reports that Russia has been training separatists in air defense warfare in recent weeks. Since the systems in question appear to have been moved back to Russia and evidence about the attack is being destroyed, it is likely that this question will never be definitively answered.

 

Ukraine: Putin is trying to rectify a historic wrong

I was interviewed by Erika Korner of Euractiv on the Ukraine crisis. Here’s the beginning of it.

In April US President Obama spoke of applying an “updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment” in light of Russia’s behaviour in the Ukraine crisis. Is an association with the Cold War useful? And is containment an appropriate remedy for the conflict?

To some extent, the association is useful but I would not overplay it. In the Cold War, the key feature was an ideological difference between the two sides that is almost absent now. There is no big ideological fight, where Russia is trying to convince the rest of the world to follow a completely different system of economics and government compared to the US. What is left, is much more of a general foreign policy difference in terms of perceptions of interest and so forth. Having said that, clearly it is not in the US interest to let Russia have a sphere of influence. This is what Russia seems to want in its immediate neighbourhood.

So from that point of view, I would not use the word containment because of all the ideological baggage from the Cold War. Instead, it would be a situation where the US tries to give the countries around Russia more options in terms of their foreign policy course. But this is something the US has been doing for the last 20 years or so.

What are some similarities and differences between the current state of Russia’s relations with the West and those during the Cold War?

I mentioned ideology. Another important difference is that the Soviet Union really strove for autarchy during the Cold War, for self-reliance among the Soviet Union and its allies and as few interconnections as possible with the rest of the international system. It never really achieved this completely, at least not after the 1930s or so, but the goal existed.

Whereas now we are dealing with an environment where there are a lot more connections both in terms of economic ties but also freedom to travel, for example, allowing Russians to go abroad.

That creates a lot more interdependence between Russia, Europe, the United States and the rest of the world. This has a moderating influence on relations.

That is the general difference, but we can talk about more specifics within that, like energy ties. While the Soviet Union certainly exported energy to Europe, starting in the 1970s, at that time it was much less central than it is to the relationship now. Energy is playing a more central role now in policy.

How much of the current conflict in Ukraine can be traced back to Western or Russian antagonism, and how much can be perceived as an organic movement from the Ukrainian population?

At the first stage of the crisis, before it became internationalised with the intervention, it was primarily a domestic crisis. Then, at least for a while after Yanukovych left, it shifted to becoming primarily an international crisis over Crimea.

(Please read the rest of the interview at the Euractiv website.)

Sergei Ryabkov hopes for continued cooperation

While in Moscow a few weeks ago, I was part of a group of U.S. scholars that met with Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister and BRICS sherpa, who has particular expertise in arms control and European cooperation. The meeting with Ryabkov was in many ways the complete antithesis of the Russian speeches at MCIS, which took place the next day. He said that Russia did not want to remove anything from the bilateral relationship with the United States, expressed concern that the push for sanctions in the U.S. had taken on its own dynamics while perceptions of the other on both sides were only consolidating, and declared Russia’s intention to maintain all possible channels of dialog.

He mentioned three possible areas for bilateral cooperation, including Syria’s chemical disarmament, limits on the Iranian nuclear program, and management of climate change. In particular, he highlighted the danger of nuclear proliferation, especially in the Middle East,  depending on how the Iranian negotiations turn out. U.S. and Russian interests on this issue are very close, so prospects for cooperation are good. However, given the current state of relations, Russia will not seek to develop a new agenda for cooperation with the U.S. until after the dust settles on the current crisis — 12-18 months. Until then, Russian leaders will simply try to manage the situation to limit the damage to the relationship. At the same time, there is no plan to revise Russia’s fundamental foreign policy approach toward the U.S.

He said that there is no need for Moscow to backpedal on its Ukraine policy. Russian leaders truly believe in their explanation for why the crisis in Ukraine occurred and subsequent developments in the crisis will depend on further events in Ukraine. He wanted to make sure that we got the message that Russia has no ambition to further deteriorate the situation in Ukraine. He noted that Ukrainian plans for dialog were a step in the right direction. Russia would like to ensure that there is a new division of powers in Ukraine and to secure the status of the Russian language. He stated that a quest for establishing Novorossiya, either as an independent state or as part of Russia was out of the question and was not being considered by the Russian leadership in any way. He said that there was no risk of further deterioration in Ukraine and that therefore there was no basis for sectoral Western sanctions on Russia. At the same time, Ryabkov ruled out the possibility of any kind of negotiation with Ukraine over Crimea, since Russia considers the issue closed. Though he did not exclude the possibility of compensation of individuals or businesses for lost property, he said there would be no settlement on a government level.

The public tends to perceive the current state of relations with the U.S. as a natural outcome of past events and therefore unavoidable. Many people don’t care about or about how American political elites think of Russia. There’s no obvious vision on how build a different kind of relationship. As for the annexation of Crimea, most people see it through the prism of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and believe that one part of that historical injustice has now been remedied. References to Kosovo among some Russian commentators are to some extent artificial. The trope of “if others can do it, why can’t we?” only emerged after several cases of Western intervention. But at the same time, each case is unique, one can’t draw parallels even with the intervention in South Ossetia in 2008.

Given this divergence in views between Russians and Americans, it would be better to focus on less politically loaded issues. Russia needs to try to communicate in a more focused way with those who work Russia issues in Washington. John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov have been speaking almost daily on the crisis. This has helped a more reasonable direction to emerge, including the involvement of the OSCE and international observers, as well as the withdrawal of Russian troops in late May. He believed that the situation in late May was much better in a political sense than it had been 2-3 weeks earlier.

I asked a question about the possibility of U.S.-Russian cooperation on the Arctic once the current crisis is less acute. Ryabkov noted that contacts are still being maintained on practical questions, including monitoring fisheries limitation agreements and channels on environmental issues such as oil spill cleanup and protection of polar bears. Work in the Arctic Council is continuing, with a gradual consolidation of approaches by the Arctic littoral states. While competing claims to sectors on the continental shelf may produce some difficult motives, all sides have been trying to keep the dialog open and to keep it low key.

Another question was asked about other areas of cooperation. Ryabkov highlighted the importance of maintaining cooperative programs in peaceful nuclear energy. Although the U.S. canceled its participation in a June meeting in Russia on how to use spent fuel in energy production, the meeting was simply shifted to France. He mentioned cooperation with GE in this field and said that it was unfortunate that the U.S. government was influencing U.S. businesses against engaging with Russian economic actors.

 

Why do Russian leaders think the U.S. government is out to get them?

The following op-ed appeared in the Moscow Times today. As usual for op-eds, the headline in the Moscow Times is not mine.

——

The May 23 to 24 Moscow Conference on International Security, sponsored by Russia’s Defense Ministry, focused not on conflict zones or technology advances, but on the role of popular protest — specifically “color revolutions,” in international security.

The speakers, among them top Russian military and diplomatic officials such as Sergei Shoigu and Sergei Lavrov, argued that color revolutions are a new form of warfare invented by Western governments seeking to remove independently minded national governments in favor of ones that are controlled by the West. They argued that this was part of a global strategy to force foreign values on a range of nations around the world that refuse to accept U.S. hegemony, and that Russia was a particular target of this strategy.

While the West considers color revolutions to be peaceful expressions of popular will opposing repressive authoritarian regimes, Russian officials argued that military force is an integral part of all aspects of color revolutions.

According to them, Western governments first attempt to topple opposing governments with peaceful protests. But military force is is still an option.

If the protests turn out to be insufficient, military force is then used openly to ensure regime change. This includes the use of external pressure on the regime in question in order to prevent the use of force to restore order, followed by the provision of military and economic assistance to rebel forces.

If these measures are not sufficient, Western states organize a military operation to defeat government forces and allow the rebels to take power. Russian officials at the MCIS conference described color revolutions as a new technique of aggression pioneered by the U.S. and geared toward destroying a state from within by dividing its population. The advantage of this technique, compared to military intervention, is that it requires a relatively low expenditure of resources to achieve its goals.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu argued that this scheme has been used in a wide range of cases, including Serbia, Libya, and Syria — all cases where political interference by the West transitioned into military action. Now the same scheme is being followed in Ukraine, where anti-regime protests have over several months been transformed into a civil war, and in Venezuela, where the so-called democratic opposition is supposedly organized by the United States.

This perspective appears to be at the core of a new national security strategy that Russia is developing. Although Western readers may find it hard to swallow the lumping together of uprisings as disparate as those in Serbia in 2000, Syria in 2011, and Venezuela in 2014, from the Russian point of view they all share the common thread of occurring in countries that had governments that were opposed to the U.S.

Although uprisings in countries whose governments were closely allied to the U.S., such as Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and Egypt and Bahrain in 2011 are harder to explain, such inconsistencies appear to not trouble the Russian government.

Listening to the speeches at the conference, I was left with one big question: Do the Russian officials actually believe this? Or is it just propaganda meant to convince the Russian population and leaders of other countries?

If it is merely propaganda, then perhaps Russian leaders are acting from a realist playbook. In that case, the West just needs to convince them that it is against their interests to try to create a bipolar world where countries are either with the West or against it.

But if the former is true, then the opposition to the U.S. and the West is about mindset and has nothing to do with interests. If this is true, it is not worth spending time to try to convince the current leadership to pursue more cooperative policies. If they truly believe that the U.S. is seeking to force them out of power and is simply waiting for an opportune moment to strike, then Russian policies will remain committed to ensuring that the U.S. does not get such an opportunity.

In this environment, Russia’s current policy in Ukraine is not just about geopolitical calculations regarding Ukraine’s economic ties with the EU versus the Eurasian Union, or even potential Ukrainian NATO membership. Instead, a main goal may be to strengthen President Vladimir Putin’s regime domestically by increasing patriotic attitudes among the Russian population.

Patriotism would thus be the means by which the Russian government inoculates the population against anti-regime or pro-Western attitudes. This goal would explain the obsessive focus on building an anti-Ukrainian and anti-U.S. domestic media narrative from an early stage in the Ukraine conflict.

One thing that may strike observers is that the supposed U.S. strategy laid out by Russian officials very closely parallels Russia’s actions in Ukraine in recent weeks. While Russian officials certainly did not organize the Maidan protests, NATO has accused Russia of backing pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The Kremlin has repeatedly used the threat of force to try to influence the actions of the new Ukrainian government, both by making statements in which they reserve the right to intervene in the conflict and by staging several military exercises on the Ukrainian border.

Is this a case of Russian officials giving the U.S. what they think is a taste of its own medicine? Perhaps the Kremlin thinks that U.S. policy is aimed at destabilizing opposing regimes because such activities are a standard part of their own policy toolkit.