Ben Aris in Moscow -
"Russia invades Ukraine" screamed a banner headline in the Huffington Post on August 27 after it was reported that 100 Russian tanks had crossed the border into Ukraine.
Let's get one thing straight at the outset. Russia did not invade Ukraine on Wednesday. An invasion is a military operation design to capture territory. However, what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing is political in nature: he wants to ensure that the fighting does not end so that as Russia and Ukraine begin to negotiate an end to the conflict, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is in a weaker position and will have to concede to many of Putin's demands. Russian forces and arms are flowing into the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, but they won't go any further than that.
If you clicked through from the HufPo to the actual story, the headline on the actual story in the New York Times was more restrained: "Ukraine Reports Russian Invasion on a New Front".
The paper went on: "Determined to preserve the pro-Russian revolt in eastern Ukraine, Russia reinforced what Western and Ukrainian officials described as a stealth invasion on Wednesday, sending armored troops across the border as it expanded the conflict to a new section of Ukrainian territory. The latest incursion, which Ukraine's military said included five armored personnel carriers, was at least the third movement of troops and weapons from Russia across the southeast part of the border this week."
There is a big difference between an "invasion" and an "incursion". Military strategy 101 says that if you are going to invade, then you need to do it decisively. Western military strategy is based on the "shock-and-awe" approach to fighting: go in fast, hard and take control quickly. Anything else will lead to getting bogged down and push up the casualty rates fast. No political leader can afford to see lots of body bags (or "Cargo 200" in Russian) and there are reports that there are already more Russian dead soldiers coming home to Russia to be buried than the Kremlin would like to see. The official death toll is now over 700 dead Ukrainian soldiers and over 2,600 civilian deaths, but the true numbers are clearly far higher; the Russian state-sponsored RT broadcaster ran a report on August 28 claiming that the unofficial civilian death toll was closer to 14,000.
Another problem is that if Russia were to invade, it would not limit itself to sending in 100 tanks over the border in the southeastern corner of Ukraine where the conflict is now concentrated around the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk. Rather, if Russia were to invade, it would send troops over the entire Russia-Ukraine border and move rapidly to at least capture all the major cities in eastern Ukraine. This would be supported by aerial and cyber attacks as well as paratroopers dropped behind the Ukrainian army lines at the very least in the disputed region, but probably across much of the rest of the country, as Professor Mark Galeotti of New York University argued in his recent Stolypin column for bne.
On top of the lack of strategy suggested by an invasion, is the fact that the reports are of only APCs and tanks crossing the border. The Telegraph and The Guardian both reported seeing 20 APCs cross the border on August 14. This has been followed by more reports of 100 Russian tanks cross the border August 27.
However, military experts point out that APCs that are not accompanied by tanks are sitting ducks to anyone with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. And as the Russians themselves found out in Chechnya during the two wars it fought there more than a decade ago, tanks that are not accompanied by infantry are also extremely vulnerable; Chechen insurgents would take out the first and last tank in a column with handheld weapons and then pick off the rest at their leisure. Hundreds of Russian conscripts died in that way as a result. If this is an invasion, then it is a badly planned and poorly executed invasion.
Still, something has definitely changed. There is now no denying that regular Russian troops are now openly fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, something the Kremlin has been denying from the start, including only August 27 when Russian President Vladimir Putin met Ukrainian President Poroshenko in Minsk.
"We are now evidently seeing fighting between regular Russian and regular Ukrainian forces in Eastern Ukraine. There is a word for this," Carl Bildt tweeted on August 26.
So what is going on? Is this really the outbreak of open warfare between Ukraine and Russia? The Minsk peace summit is key to understanding this situation. Poroshenko met with Putin for two hours behind closed doors and then flew home, without a second meeting that some at the summit had suggested was planned for the next day.
There is definitely a serious scaling up of the confrontation. And Russia has now shown its hand just as the two sides meet to start talks on a "roadmap" to a ceasefire. The fighting has been escalating steadily in the last few months. After Poroshenko was elected president on May 25 he let a ceasefire lapse and in effect launched a military assault to retake the disputed territories in the east by force. Moreover, in the last days before the Minsk summit the military assault on Lugansk and Donetsk has clearly escalated as Poroshenko went for a "big push" to bring the conflict to an end.
There is now no denying a Russian incursion into Ukraine. "These incursions indicate a Russian-directed counteroffensive is likely underway in Donetsk and Luhansk," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters, referring to two rebel regions in eastern Ukraine. She also voiced concern about overnight deliveries of materiel in southeast Ukraine, where separatists on August 27 entered a key town linking Russia to the Crimean peninsula it annexed in March. Russia has dropped all pretence of not supporting the rebels with arms and fighters, and has also clearly scaled this support up. And despite Poroshenko's big push, the Ukrainian army is still no nearer to taking control of the two main eastern cities.
"Scary recipe in Ukraine as Poroshenko wants to go for battlefield victory and Putin seemingly willing to do anything to prevent one," Joshua Yaffa, the Economist correspondent tweeted on August 26.
As events play out, some are starting to believe that Poroshenko and the West underestimated how determined Putin is to see this fight through to the end. Ian Bremmer, chairman of the Eurasia Group, tweeted on August 27: "#Ukraine believing they could retake separatist regions militarily (and/or would have outside help) was a serious miscalculation."
The simpler explanation is that as ceasefire talks begin, Putin is demonstrating his ability to cause chaos in Ukraine and that Poroshenko has no hope of a battlefield victory. He doesn't want to invade and occupy Ukraine; he only wants to make sure that Poroshenko's effort to win a military victory and retake control of the southeastern corner of Ukraine fails. And Putin is showing he will do anything and everything to ensure the fighting does not end. This puts Putin in a stronger negotiating position when it comes to forcing Ukraine to concede to his demands.
"Russia would settle for a ceasefire now on the ground, which would create a frozen conflict scenario, and then leverage for Moscow to get delivery on its agenda, ie. No NATO, No EU and No Maidan," writes Tim Ash, head of research for Standard Bank, in a note to clients.
Putin's naked aggression and blatant use of force is only one of Poroshenko's problems. The other is that Putin has successfully split Europe and the US support for Ukraine.
"The focus perhaps for the West should be working to encourage Russia to stop interfering in Ukraine's affairs, and this might require further iterations of sanctions. Unfortunately therein, Europe is clearly split on the issue," says Ash. "So the two scenarios now are either Ukrainian forces carry on to victory, and clear the Donbass, and secure Ukraine's borders, or Russia forces a stalemate, which would in effect be a Russian victory, via a frozen conflict scenario."
German Chancellor Angel Merkel was in Kyiv last weekend and her comments after the meeting suggest very strongly that she wants to compromise to bring the conflict to an end. Until now, Europe has backed the US' strong line, but Merkel backtracked significantly the day before the summit. Merkel said on August 25 that Ukrainian "decentralisation", a deal on gas prices, and Ukraine's "trade relations" with Russia are elements that could bring about an accord. Most importantly, she suggested that while Ukraine cannot be simultaneously be a member of the Russia-led Customs Union and the EU, it could perhaps be a member of the EU and the Eurasia Economic Union, which is due to replace the Customs Union on January 1, 2016. Moreover, the EU delegation at the Minsk summit agreed to start three-way talks in September on thrashing out a solution to the trade relations impasse.
Trilateral talks is a huge concession to Russia, as it means in effect that the EU has abandoned its us-or-Russia stance over trade. It also means that Brussels has split with Washington and the effort to isolate Russia has collapsed. Merkel's obvious motive for this volte-face is the contraction in Germany's economy reported by Eurostat two weeks ago and obvious economic pain being inflicted on many EU countries by the sanctions war. The time has come to put an end to this row and get everyone back to work, as the Eurozone crisis is still rumbling on in the background and Europe has many big issues of its own to deal with if a third wave to the crisis is to be avoided.
Tellingly, the White House has been almost totally silent in the last two days. Tim Ash said in a note: "Many people asking me given clear evidence of Russian escalation, where is the US these days? Fair question." Although the State Department's Psaki lambasted Russia's latest incursion August 27, she pointedly failed to outline any immediate response by the US to Russia's open aggression.
Without clear and unified support from the West and unable to bring the military conflict to a decisive end, Poroshenko is now an extremely difficult position - doubly so, as he has just called for a snap general election in October where he needs to build a new, powerful parliamentary block after the constitution reverted to the 2004 version that significantly reduced the president's powers.
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