Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Putin Triangle

It appears that Russian special forces are acting in Donetsk. Pro-Russian uprisings in other eastern cities as well force me to question whether Russia does not want to invade Ukraine (again).

I often write that gaining surprise consists of convincing a foe that you plan to do what they think you plan to do, rather than hiding your plans and actions.

I've written that I think the Russians don't want to risk invading Ukraine and having their claims of a revitalized armed forces exposed as hollow should the Ukrainians be able to resist the invasion.

But 40,000 Russian troops close to Ukraine's eastern borders and 40,000 more deeper inside Russia that could follow up that first wave (plus whatever is still in Crimea) added to reports of numerous pro-Russian uprisings in eastern Ukraine force me to question whether Russia is just bluffing and hoping to get a better peace deal to cement their successful subliminal invasion of Crimea.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports Russian news reports of what I assume are Spetsnaz in unmarked uniforms active in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

The Ukrainian regional police chief in the area resigned under pressure from pro-Russians, which will harm reaction to the attacks. Did the chief get a friendly suggestion from actual Russians to get scarce?

Armed men also took a police station in Slovyansk, north of Donetz, while protesters took over other government buildings there, too. Another report says that the men have taken control of the entire city, throwing up road blocks around the place:

Armed separatists took virtual control of a city in eastern Ukraine on Saturday and Kiev prepared troops to deal with what it called an "act of aggression by Russia".

Pro-Russian activists carrying automatic weapons seized government buildings in Slaviansk and set up barricades on the outskirts of the city. Official buildings in several neighboring towns were also attacked.

Mobs took over other government building in Donetsk and in Krasny Lyman and Kramatorsk, which are near Slovyansk.

Add these to takeovers a week ago in Donetsk as well as in Kharkov (since taken back by Ukrainian forces) and Luhansk.

These locations are noted with black blobs below.

Ukrainian authorities say they will regain their ground:

Acting Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov says attacks by pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine are an "act of aggression" by Russia.

Avakov said in a statement on his Facebook page that units of the Ukrainian Interior and Defense ministries "are implementing an operational response plan" to attacks by protesters on police stations and other government buildings in several cities and towns.

A combination of Spetsnaz-orchestrated "uprisings" supported by Russian troops moving in to "restore order" could put Russia in charge of a triangle of Ukrainian territory in the east anchored on the west by Kharkov at the north end and Donetsk at the southern end.

Added to Crimea, Russia will have wounded Ukraine twice.

But will Russia get away with aggression twice?

If Russia moves again, will Ukraine resist? Will Ukraine counter-attack with conventional forces or try to arm pro-Ukrainian local forces to resist the Russians?

Or would the Ukrainians respond by holding in the east while counter-attacking into Crimea or taking over the Russian enclave of Transdniestria on Ukraine's western border?

And does NATO get serious about supporting Ukraine with arms, equipment, intelligence, and supplies?

I've been guessing that the Russians don't want to risk a military failure by pushing for more ground after the flashy Crimea success.

But the plan may have been two-staged all along because of insufficient ready troops to carry out simultaneous operations.

Or maybe the plan was just Crimea, but success in Crimea is putting pressure on Putin to keep going while they are on a hot streak. Riding nationalism can result in being pushed by that nationalism rather than leading it.

Maybe operations in the eastern Ukraine are being allowed for the benefit of the aggressive nationalists to see if the Spetsnaz can recreate the Crimea situation and if so, exploit that with troops. And if they can't recreate the Crimea scenario, just use the exercise to scare the West and Ukraine into coming to terms with Russia's conquest of Crimea alone,

I wish I could remain confident that Russia doesn't intend to invade Ukraine (again). But I'm still not sure rationality is the way to judge this.

UPDATE: One view in Ukraine is that the activity is related to negotiations:

Ukrainian commentator Sergei Leshchenko said the burst of activity by pro-Russian groups was an attempt by the Kremlin to secure a strong negotiating position before the international talks about Ukraine in Geneva next Thursday.

Russia is expected to argue at the talks for a revamp of Ukraine's constitution to give a large degree of autonomy to eastern Ukraine, something Kiev and its Western backers reject.

Not that easterners want to leave Ukraine--not even the Russian speakers as a whole--but if Russia can pretend they do, as Russia did in Crimea, that works, too.

Of course, Ukraine can always tell Russia that Ukraine will be a federal state just as soon as Russia is one.

UPDATE: RFE/RL reports that pro-Russians have taken over the mayor's office in Mariupol, which lies on the Sea of Azov and is at the bottom of the western edge of the triangle that trouble is being engineered in.

UPDATE: RFE/RL also reports Kiev Post story that says pro-Russians have taken over an administration building in Yenakievo, whose mayor is wavering, and which is northeast of Donetsk; and at Kramatorks, between Donetsk and Kharkov, pro-Russians have taken a police station and possibly the city administration building and local airport.

With all these locations experiencing unrest, Russian forces could march into Kharkov from the north and Donetsk from the south, and then move to the numerous cities in between to pinch off the Ukrainian salient; while another force moves into Mariupol to threaten a drive to create an overland link to Crimea.

I just have a very bad feeling about this, today (13th).

UPDATE: Reports on Sunday from RFE/RL of clashes in Zaporizhia between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian demonstrators. This city is on the Dnieper River south of Dnepropetrovsk and ouside the triangle of territory where the Russians appear to be active. This could be a local thing feeding off of the eastern operations. Or it could indicate deeper objectives by Moscow.

UPDATE: More from RFE/RL. Pro-Russian separatists storm mayor's office in Kharkov. Our government says these events in the east clearly show involvement by Moscow.