Friday, March 28, 2014

Ukraine Foreign Minister Says Ukraine Will Fight if Russia Invades East

Thursday, March 27, 2014

With Precedent Set, the Door's Wide Open for Putin in Ukraine. What will Ukraine and the V4 Do?

So, first thing's first: I was pretty wrong. Definitely no shooting war over Crimea.

With that said, the US, Canada, and NATO are all saying Russia looks pretty poised to invade the rest of Ukraine (either to take more of Ukraine or get to Moldova), so stay tuned! There may yet be a shooting war. (The ethnic Russians live in those really red bits and would be the likely target in Ukraine.)

Ukraine up and pulled its troops out of Crimea after Russian troops smashed into the bases. In what is ultimately a complete and unlikely miracle, nobody was shot during this entire process (save for some stray sniper rifle fire from who-knows-whom.) At least the dolphins don't look like they're going to surrender.

Why surrender so quickly?

Simple: it's pretty obvious that Ukraine lacks support. The EU and US just had no interest at all in risking a war with Russia, so they weren't going to come to the aid of the Ukrainian military (which would have lost on its own). Biden may have visited Poland specifically to tell them "no-go" on getting involved in Ukraine (they seemed otherwise chomping at the bit to get in there with the Visegrad 4, which I kept believing would happen).

The US is not considering putting Ukraine under the defensive umbrella of NATO.

The biggest sign of non-support for Ukraine comes from the pretty weak sanctions against Russia. So far, it's only against individuals (travel bans, asset freezes, etc). The US and EU are considering further sanctions if Russia invades the rest of Ukraine, which basically gives Putin a hearty thumbs-up to invade the rest of Ukraine. (The Daily Show actually nails it for once, explaining that "Putin Doesn't Give a S--t.")

(So I'll have to note here that my bias in this matter is pretty obvious. I think undeterred territorial-expansion invasions in Europe are a dangerous thing and set a very bad precedent for the stability of Europe in the future.)

So  let's assume a second invasion of Ukraine is pretty likely at this point. It's not clear whether or not Ukraine is going to fight a losing war for the rest of its eastern territories. Certainly Tymoshenko--most influential leader in Ukraine right now--is ready to "wipe out" the Russians and take up arms. Highly controversial statement, but it may get her swept into power quickly if Russia invades again.

Ukraine is clearly not going to get military support if it doesn't fight. I think in Crimea it was ready to see if it could get the support it needed. Russia moved quickly and jammed through the sham-referendum, and the West balked at helping. By the time Ukraine knew what help it could get, it was just too late.

If Russia invades again, Ukraine knows it can't wait for help.If it starts fighting and its people start dying--rather than doing nothing--it is much  more likely to provoke a military response from a friendly nation. It seems somewhat Machiavellian to throw one's army into a fight one knows it will lose (on the hopes that help will come), but the pro-Western part of Ukraine very much sees itself as the Czech / Poland to Putin's Nazi Germany right now. The idea of rolling over is fairly horrifying to many.

Sadly, I just can't predict what's going to happen. They absolutely can't depend on the EU, US, or NATO--they've been quite thoroughly hung out to dry by all of them.

Once again, I turn to the Visegrad 4, the sleeping tiger in all of this (and the only ones that seem to be kicking up any serious dirt about Russia's invasion of Ukraine). It may be the very weakness of the US/EU/NATO response that kicks them into gear. The V4 was formed quite explicitly out of a lack of confidence in the rest of NATO to protect them from Russia, so they're a bit of a rogue element within NATO. To them, Russia is a very real and credible threat, and so the US/EU/NATO responding weakly is going to shake V4 confidence in that leadership. They'll be, in turn, less likely to listen to any warnings about getting involved.

So I'm still going to predict that, if Russia invades eastern Ukraine, and Ukraine fights, Poland and the V4 are going to get themselves in the fight. They won't invade Russia, but they're poised right on the western border of Ukraine and would be ready to send their battle group in to hold the line.

Once that happens, Russia will have a bit of a tough choice: either take them head on or try to avoid a fight and hold on to whatever territory it has. Normally, I'd assume that neither side wants to be seen as an aggressor, but Russia might just not care that much and try to give them enough of a bloody nose to boot them out before NATO can decide whether to back up the V4 and try to win back some shadow of a hint of relevancy in Eastern Europe.

But I'm not going to predict how that fight will go.

The big takeaway here is that the US, EU, and NATO are very quickly losing relevance in Eastern Europe, and that's where the action is. Ukraine is on its own unless the V4 jumps in. If they do, NATO as a real power in Europe is probably doomed.

So it's a pretty big deal.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Shooting War May be Starting... Stay Tuned

2 Ukrainian servicemen killed in Crimea by snipers. Not yet confirmed it's Russians.

But the Russians will have to push the Ukrainians out of Crimea if they're going to legitimize themselves, and I think a hot war is coming.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Crimean Referendum In Tow, Russia Still Possibly Stuck

The tough part about this referendum is that, under other circumstances, it might make sense.

It might even be the right thing for Crimea to be part of Russia rather than Ukraine, in some sort of idealized world.

That said, it probably also would "make sense" for lots of lines to be re-drawn to group together people that most want to be grouped together. But the process for doing that must be both delicate and consistent--lest the door be opened for the kind of mayhem that Russia is causing at this very moment.

So the reason it's tricky is that, with a population so excited about joining Russia, the West's liberal tendencies make them loathe to deny them that autonomy. But the circumstances under which it occurred force the West, even against some of its own values, to reject the referendum flat-out.

(Those of you paying attention will note that I owe you a beer: the referendum did not get 70-80% to join Russia, but got 93%--a whopping number that is so obviously padded that it's clear that Putin is more interested in showing off unwavering support/unity in the area than in having the legitimacy that comes with an election that is fully free and fair. The Tatars alone, if votes were counted freely and fairly, would have brought that number down.)

With Ukraine and NATO not recognizing the referendum, any violence by Russian troops to enforce the annexation (see my last post about the need to do so) will cross a hitherto-uncrossed line. It's one thing for Western leaders to stand by dumbfounded by a bloodless coup--it's another if the Russians start murdering Ukrainian troops in their bases.

There's actually more of a standoff than one might think. Russia is working very hard to create an air of inevitability, to declare "Mission Accomplished" loudly enough that everyone will start to believe them. But the government of Ukraine is fervently anti-Russian and the western part of the country is sufficiently terrified of more Russian domination that they're ready to fight.

I don't quite see how this is going to go down without bloodshed--Russia just isn't going to walk away, and it's likely the Ukrainians are getting some quiet promises of military support if (violently) attacked, particularly from the V4. Russian troops (about 60k, according to Kyiv) are amassing on the eastern border of Ukraine, which suggests Russia knows it's going to have to try to beat Ukraine into accepting the annexation.

The West is holding its breath, but it has the upper hand in a conflict as long as it has the will. A lot is at stake here--namely, the principle of Deterrence in Europe, which has hitherto been enforced since 1939 and has probably been the biggest reason Europe has seen relative peace in the last 70 years. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Crimean Endgame Unclear--Russia May be Stuck, And Will Likely Lose

So Russia has obviously gone "all-in" with Crimea--the only way to really walk out with face intact is to walk out with Crimea in pocket. Sadly, Putin hasn't given himself a reasonable out without it.

But can that really happen at all?

The Crimean Referendum being rushed through looks like it may seal the deal. But that's far from obvious.

Only 58% of Crimea is Russian. This is a lot, but it's unlikely 100% are going to vote for annexation--Russia's an unattractive enough state that some ethnic Russians may opt to stay. A lot of them are from families shipped to the area by force during the Soviet Union's era, which means not everyone is going to be a die-hard.

But let's be honest: the referendum is going to show Annexation is favored, and by a lot. Russia has no problem rigging even its own elections, and will rig the heck out of these. It'll wipe its hands when it's over, with some 70-80% "favoring annexation" (anyone that wants to bet a beer that it'll fall out of that range, let me know), and look to the West and say, "see? Everyone wants to be here, so leave it be."

The most dangerous thing about Russia is (excuse my language) that the leadership may believe its own bullshit. It may not understand just how absurd its behavior seems to the West.

The West, and Kyiv, are going to look at the referendum with rolled eyes. Ukraine, particularly, is not going to pack up its bags and abandon its bases in Crimea. So after the referendum, there's going to be a standoff. And here's where the dangerous part starts.

Russia will likely put an ultimatum on Ukrainian troops to leave its "legal, sovereign territory," and threaten to open fire to drive them out and "defend" its homeland. But nobody outside of Russia is going to buy the moral/righteous argument (though they're likely to buy that yes, Russia will open fire). So when Russia does open fire, it will likely feel it has a moral high-ground, but nobody else will.

The West has been pretty weak on this matter until recently, but once Russia opens fire on the Ukrainian bases (and it will have to, in order to legitimately claim that it has territorial sovereignty over Crimea), that's going to change. Poland and the V4 are going to fight back, and drag US air power in with them. Kyiv, which has a not-at-all-laughable military, is going to hit the Russians in Crimea full-force.

It'll get messy, and Russia is honestly likely to lose. This isn't Georgia. Russia can only really deploy its southern forces to Ukraine, and those southern forces won't match up against Ukraine + the V4 (though the V4 would bring the Western forces in). Ukrainian and V4 troops are more professional and have (especially in the V4) superior tech, more plans, and similar numbers of troops.

I think the only way Russia wins this is if it somehow convinces the Ukrainian forces to pack up and leave Crimea, but I just don't see that happening at all. Otherwise, it's going to have a war on its hands that it can't win. And again, that's the dangerous part: Russia will feel its actions are entirely legitimate, that it is in the right and everyone else is aggressive/expansionist against it, and therefore may not break quickly/easily.

But I don't think it can win.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ukraine Might have Won the War Without Firing a Shot

So I might have been dead wrong about my shooting war prediction. Hopefully so.

The Russian military's ultimatum (surrender or die) to the Ukrainian military bases came and went without a peep (other than various bases very loudly singing the Ukrainian national anthem at the Russians) and, importantly, without the Russians acting. The Ukrainians called their bluff, and in such situations, having one's bluff called is pretty crippling to one's ability to further intimidate.

The Ukrainians actually claim to have intercepted a call with Putin somewhat furious at a field commander for not having provoked the Ukrainians into firing at them. It's clear Russia wants a shooting war and that their ambitions at the moment are beyond sitting on their hands in Crimea, but so far the Ukrainians aren't giving it to them--and probably won't.

Russia might just be stuck. Putin's quick-mover advantage is quickly eroding and now he looks--more importantly than looking like an aggressor--like he doesn't have a plan. If the Russians don't have a strong enough pretext with moving forward on the "shooting" part of this adventure, they may just have to withdraw.

On another note--a little bit more research suggests that Visegrad 4 military along with Ukraine would make Russia's life very hard if it was engaged--it would be far from a "rollover" kind of war, given in particular that Russia's military is mostly conscripts and the V4 is more professional. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

My Prediction: War in Crimea Within 48 Hours

It sounds like Russia is actually issuing ultimatums to the bases (that they have surrounded and put under siege, by the way) that if they don't surrender, war will begin. Russian troops are digging trenches on the northern coast of Crimea and the fleet is being mobilized to control the seas, giving the Ukrainians only a tiny bottleneck to move through.

I predict that's just what's going to happen. Ukraine won't give up without a fight.

It's not a war Ukraine's going to win. They'll get beat pretty badly and Russia will use this as an excuse to march into the rest of the country. Already, a truly North-Korean-style propaganda blitz is happening within Russia now to drum up domestic support for the war.

The big question will be what the V4 does, but I think they'll get involved. Poland is mobilizing and Russia is actually readying its northern defenses (around St. Petersburg). I think both sides are getting ready to go at it.

The West is responding as weakly as Putin hoped and predicted. The EU is refusing to join the US in imposing sanctions--Russia has too much oil/gas leverage. The US is not threatening a military response, and it's frankly the only kind of response that would give Putin pause.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Foggofwar is Back! As is the Great Game in Europe, with Ukraine the Battleground

Well, after deciding I was too busy to blog, I realized I was just talking about this stuff with my friends and repeating myself ad nauseam . I've been able to happily ignore a lot of stuff--even Syria has only been so captivating--but the Great Game in Europe has finally brought me back into the ring.

So Russia has invaded Ukraine, post-revolution. Interestingly, this revolution seemed initially to be less damaging/dangerous than the first one (The "Orange" Revolution of 2004) but it's provoked a much heavier response.

There are only three questions that are really interesting:
1) What is Russia's planned endgame?
2) How does Russia think the rest of Europe/US will respond?
3) How will they actually respond?

Russia's Planned Endgame:
Sadly I think this is actually a bit of an open question, but with a likely answer.

The most likely answer is that Russia wants to see a settlement in which Crimea (vast majority Russian descent and Russian loyalty) has enough autonomous power to maintain a treaty with Russia for Russia's use of the Sevastopol naval port without Kiev's ability to veto. This seems extremely narrow an aim, but I think it's the most "concrete" one they want to get out of it. It also seems obvious given the fact that they're specifically in Crimea and not any other part of the country (no matter how pro-Russian or not), and the geopolitical motive there (more below on that).

Russian navy ships at the Black Sea port of Sevastopol

Obviously Russia also wants to make clear that its periphery is not allowed to install pro-EU governments. But starting a war to demonstrate just that is risky--to get involved with military action, one has to have not only a goal, but a clear endgame--something the US and its allies utterly failed to do in both Afghanistan and Iraq, to devastating effect (though it wasn't the only mistake in both instances). The well-defined endgame, the thing that lets Russia pull its troops out and declare "victory" without having to indefinitely occupy Ukraine, is that agreement.

This is eerily similar to Georgia in 2008, by the way, in which Russia quickly invaded and asserted a stronger South Ossetia autonomous zone with Russian military presence to "protect its people."

I really do think they're doing the same darn thing here.

The reason, by the way, that "keeping the Sevastopol port" is important enough to merit a war, is that Sevastopol is the only warm-water port the Russians have left in the European theatre. If they lose Sevastopol, they have literally no place to launch ships that doesn't freeze in the winter. It essentially knocks them out as a naval power, which is actually quite significant. There's more in my old post from 2008 on why Ukraine and Georgia are so bloody important--go re-read if you want to.

So in short, they'll have the Crimean parliament (happily) sign that they'll keep the port and welcome Russian military access. They'll tell Kiev that Kiev has to relent on the issue or life will get worse, after kicking around the Ukrainian military a bit.

Importantly, they will not march on Kiev and won't try to annex Crimea completely, as even in the current US/EU political climate, it will be such a clear "crossing of the line" that it would merit a clear military response.

How Does Russia Think the US/EU Will Respond?
Not to make too many allusions to German expansionist aggression in the 1930's, Putin has seen the US and EU in Georgia in 2008, and "they are worms" to him. He played the West like a fiddle then, and the world leaders that could (and easily, given the military disparity) oppose him watched with impotence.

Putin is counting on further impotence here. Obama has proven to be not too willing to rock the boat--he seeks a very broad support base of allies before making a move (why he went to Libya but not Syria, and why he's still in Afghanistan). Russia's oil and gas chokehold on Europe will likely make Germany and France hesitate--during a war, Russia could cut gas supplies and prop up Gazprom from the federal treasury (which is fairly hefty) while Europe's lights go out. It's a major threat and the US isn't quite prepared to supply the rest of that gas given current infrastructure.

So ultimately, Obama is likely to have a lukewarm reception from Germany and France on getting NATO involved, and Putin is betting on him not pressing it.

So there will be a flurry of diplomatic activity, of course, but I think Putin honestly believes there will be no military action against Russia whatsoever from outside of Ukraine--just like in 2008.

How Will the US/EU Actually Respond?
If I actually knew the answer to this, I'd be in the War Room in the White House right now, so I have to speculate wildly on the matter.

If you remember my post about the Visegrad 4 and the Blocanization of Europe, you'll recall that the V4 (led by Poland) formed out of fear that NATO was too weak to protect it from Russia, and they'd be banking on support from the US and UK independently of the rest of the continent.

Now is absolutely the time for them to be tested. The V4 doesn't include Ukraine (it's Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary), but if Ukraine fell very EU (or split in two), we would probably see a V5. The V4 is going to see unchecked Russian aggression as an existential threat: if Europe won't defend Ukraine from an unprovoked invasion, would they defend the Czech Republic? Would they defend Hungary? Ultimately, EU/NATO/US inaction here would ultimately cement the V4's belief that they can depend only on each other.

If the V4 sees NATO as impotent, I actually think it's likely that the V4 will take matters into its own hands. Crazy as it sounds, I believe the Visegrad 4 is going to mobilize once Ukraine is inevitably hung out to dry by more powerful allies. In their minds, the principle of Deterrence--which has kept Europe mostly peaceful for 70 years (which is an absurd amount of time in Europe's history) must hold, and they will respond, even knowing that they will not win alone.

I think the V4 will move troops to the border and threaten war if the US/NATO don't intervene. There will be a real risk of a wider European war breaking out.

At that point... I'm just not sure. Frankly, the outcome is going to depend entirely on the will of the United States and, primarily, its president. If the US is willing to fight an air war in Russia (invasion is out of the question) and mobilize aircraft carriers to the Black Sea and occupy it there, I think Russia will pull back... and the West will score a major victory in keeping Russia contained. This move would be provoked more by the V4 (to prevent a European land war) than by Russia itself (where Obama would tend to try to "jaw jaw" before he "wars war").

But a lot of things could hold the Americans back. Obama is unpopular, debt is much higher than Americans are comfortable with. The Republican party is not only generally prone to oppose whatever Obama tries to do for the sake of being contrary, but it is becoming increasingly isolationist (something we saw in the Libyan intervention).

Wrapping Up:
So I just don't know. Russia could well get away with it and sadly I think this is most likely. I know normally I don't take particularly strong position on who is good and who is bad. But I do believe that the principle of Deterrence has kept Europe safe for a very, very long time, and I am worried to see it violated with impunity.

We will see. I would put odds on Russia getting away with it, but the US (even without the EU) has such an overwhelmingly powerful naval/air force that if it decided to get involved, Russia would pull back quickly.

It's all a matter of will.