Friday, February 13, 2015

So There's a Ceasefire in Ukraine? Probably Not. But Either Way: Putin's Winning Again.

The give-peace-a-chance summit at Minsk went all night, but a peace deal came out.

At least it appears so.

Warning that my complete lack of sympathy for Russia in all this is going to come through, but I want to try to set what-I-think-is the record straight.

The peace deal included the leaders of: Ukraine, France, Germany, Russia. It was signed, quite reluctantly (or at least they put on a show of reluctance) by two rebel leaders.

The Charlotte Observer has a pretty good summary of the peace deal; I'll touch on a few points.

1) All "foreign" fighters are to leave Ukraine.
2) All "foreign" heavy weapons are to be pulled out of Ukraine.
3) Ukraine will grant its eastern provinces partial autonomy--including free trade with Russia.
4) The eastern Ukrainian provinces get to hold referenda on their status. Luckily, this time it'll be run by Kiev with outside observers, rather than the incredible sham that was Crimea.

All of this begs the question: if Russia does not have troops or heavy weapons in Ukraine, how is it supposed to agree to pull them out?

The situation would be a spectacular joke if it weren't the case that Russia is continually getting away with invading another country, killing people, gobbling up territory, and facing no consequences.

There is ample evidence Russia has been there in huge force. NATO keeps releasing satellite photography of Russian heavy weapons, APCs, etc, crossing the border and going deep into Ukraine. Russia has sent a bunch of cargo trucks into Ukraine to pick up as many as 4,000 Russian bodies and bring them home--despite said bodies having never been there. Ukraine keeps capturing Russian regular soldiers, including paratroopers, who keep claiming that they are "lost" in Ukraine and were most definitely not sent there on purpose. Ukraine keeps stumbling across Russian military ID's scattered about its country. Ukrainian rebels keep getting their hands on Russian tanks, rocket launchers, APCs, guns, etc (including the sophisticated SAM that shot down the Malaysian Airlines plane)--we know they're Russian specifically because the Ukrainians don't use these weapons and they can't simply be captured in Ukraine by the rebels..



The Russians' continued denial of involvement in Ukraine has reached a comical absurdity.

Time for More Mayhem

The ceasefire doesn't start until February 15th, and there are likely plans to consolidate more territory into rebel hands before the ceasefire comes into effect, in order to have leverage during the ceasefire implementation. Russia sent about 90 heavy vehicles into Ukraine during the peace talks, and I'll bet they're heading for Debaltseve , which has been surrounded by rebels honing in on Ukrainian government troops and pounded by Russian rockets and artillery that is definitely not there. 

Tactically, it's a Battle of the Bulge-style disaster for Ukraine if it indeed loses Debaltseve before the ceasefire comes into effect.


The following constantly-updated map shows that Debaltseve has not yet fallen, but is nearly surrounded completely.

Putin Wins Again

With the Sudetenland Crimea even more securely in hand with  this deal, Putin is going to end up with much of what he wants in Ukraine--and the ceasefire might actually hold if Russia is satisfied (the Chicago Tribune has a great piece on how the deal is set up to give Russia and the rebels lots of excuses to start fighting again if it's in their interest). If Russian support is actually pulled, the rebels will have a more frustrating time beating the Ukrainian army--the fall counter-offensive by Kyiv is what led to a shrinking of rebel-held territory until the Russians brought arms and troops back into the fight.

Of course, not even Putin has full control over the rebels in eastern Ukraine. If the referendum doesn't end up resulting in "annexation by Russia," I suspect the rebels will pick right back up, and Putin is likely to continue not-supporting them until even more concessions are made.

But what else has Putin won? 

1) The autonomy for eastern Ukraine gives Russia a heavy lever to make sure Ukraine does not join NATO. As we discussed before, Ukraine joining NATO would be a major strategic, long-term security threat for Russia, and the invasion of Crimea secured Russia's only warm-water port in Sevastopol.

2) The referenda obviously might result in more territory--and thus more buffer space--for Russia. Interestingly, such buffer space might actually lead to Ukraine as a whole becoming more EU/NATO-leaning (as pro-Russian populations leave the country), but it makes the territorial integrity of Russia generally safer.

3) Russia once again sets the precedent that it can use military force to invade a neighboring country and win its political/strategic goals without consequence.

4) The ceasefire likely won't hold, and Russia will have won concessions from Ukraine for nothing in return. 

Some readers may think that my not-so-subtle reference to Nazi Germany here is overblown or even absurd. The Russians do not share the simply absurd evil of the Nazis, but it's the most recent and well-known example of expansionist powers testing the resolve of European leaders, seeing their will to be wanting, and then making ever-greater moves.

As a "realist" (this is a school of International Relations theory, rather than simply a haughty impression of myself), I believe the greatest risk for peace in a region of states (rather than a region run by militias and ethnosectarian groups, like the Middle East) is a lack of deterrence. The repeated failure to deter military invasions of Russia's neighbors is cause for serious long-term concern.

The US and UK Part from the EU

The US and UK are both planning on sending military aid (weapons) to the Ukrainians if the fighting picks back up. Even if it doesn't, the US is sending training teams to improve Ukraine's military--no doubt these trainers are also likely to be assistant coordinators if/when the war picks back up.

The EU continues to want to avoid getting embroiled in the war, so new friction is emerging between Germany/France and the US/UK, putting NATO unity at risk. Such continued discord is what makes the Visegrad 4 (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia) so nervous and independent.
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