Monday, June 09, 2014

In the Long Run, We Are All Russian

Even as we think we've stopped Putin's recent run of conquests, Putin is continuing his campaign to absorb eastern Ukraine. Just where are Russia's Interior Ministry troops, anyway? And don't forget there is no easy option for reclaiming Crimea from Putin's grasp.

Planning for the long run, we're sending experts to help Ukraine rebuild their military:

Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said senior U.S. defense officials met with senior Ukrainian officials earlier this week to discuss “ways our countries could strengthen our long-term defense cooperation to help Ukraine build highly effective armed forces and defense institutions.”

Lainez said that assessment is being viewed as a first step toward helping to “shape and establish an enduring program for future U.S. efforts to support the Ukrainian military through training, education, and assistance.”

This is all good. But in the short run, Ukraine is still fighting for their life--and what's left of their territorial integrity:

The Russian attempt to dismember Ukraine relies heavily on subversion tactics developed centuries ago by Russian explorers and adventurers and improved on by the communists as they replaced the imperial government in the early 1920s. This subversion involves using lots of blatant lies backed up by some muscle on the street, rather than the more conventional declarations of war and mobilizing armies. What the Russian government is doing is creating a series of outright but constantly repeated lies about what is going on in Ukraine to justify Russian paramilitary moves to annex Donbas and Crimea. Russia uses cash and a few hundred special operations and secret police personnel to recruit and organize pro-Russian rebels in Donbas. This sort of thing is nothing new, it’s been used for thousands of years and nearly every major nation has used it at least once. Russia, however, has been a particularly frequent user of this technique.

While we are looking to the long-term to build a better Ukrainian military that can fight (or better, deter) the next war, Ukraine has to cope with the fact that their existing military is not good enough to take on the Russian subliminal invasion of eastern Ukraine:

The Ukrainian military is also careful about who they send to fighting in Donbas. Basically, it’s only volunteers who go and even then the idea is to keep friendly (military and civilian) casualties as low as possible. Not all the Ukrainian troops in Donbas are active duty soldiers. A growing number are civilian (usually former military) volunteers from Donbas who are given a few weeks training, uniforms, weapons and sent in a “National Guard” battalions under their own leaders (with the help of some regular army advisors and specialists).

This also is nothing new. Iran's Revolutionary Guards (the Pasdaran) were created by the mullahs because they did not trust their armed forces. It grew into a parallel military establishment that could fight foreign enemies and make sure the military didn't get counter-revolutionary ideas.

Ukraine's military was gutted by pro-Russian efforts to infiltrate and defund the military. So Ukraine is sending in politically reliable troops despite the fact that the army still has the numbers, organization, and equipment. And even better training. But loyalty is what is needed in the short run. So the National Guard goes in--with support from regular and special forces no doubt checked for loyalty.

Luckily, only about 20% of the people in the two regions Russia has targeted--Luhansk and Donetsk--are pro-Russian, according to Ukraine's assessment. This is not to say that 80% are pro-Ukrainian. Many no doubt just want to get on with their lives and could live with either winning and letting them do it. But the result is that Ukraine seems to be winning the fight, although slowly.

But slowly winning is not the same as having won. Russia could settle for stoking unrest even if it can't win. But Russia seems like it is trying to win (or deny Ukraine a clear win):

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday ordered the border service to reinforce the state border with Ukraine, the Kremlin press service told Russian news agencies.

Putin can claim it is to stop illegal crossings and cope with refugees fleeing "fascists", but the real reason is surely to enable Russian men and supplies to enter Ukraine to participate in the fight.

And I do assume Russia is still trying to take the region. Yes, we've confirmed that most Russian army troops are leaving the border to go back to their bases. But where are the Ministry of Interior troops? Remember that in my pre-war scenario of how Russia would take eastern Ukraine and Crimea, I assumed that Interior Ministry troops would be the ones to move into eastern Ukraine from Kharkov to Donetsk:

Forty thousand paramilitary forces would head into eastern Ukraine, with half committed to cities from Kharkov anchoring the northern flank and points south; and the other half in the southern part, especially around Donetsk. These non-army troops would be the visible face in the cities of the intervention. ...

The 25,000 army troops in three motor rifle or tank divisions (or their brigade equivalents) would be divided into three groups, with one division near Kharkov, one near Donetsk, and one in reserve inside Russia able to move against Ukrainian counter-moves against either major city. This operational reserve force would also include 10,000 paratroopers.

So while the withdrawal of Russian troops from the border surely means that Russia is not planning a deep drive to link up with Crimea and push to Transdniestria by way of Odessa, the invasion option--against mostly National Guard units remember--could still work with paramilitary Interior Ministry troops in the lead.

In the meantime, Putin can see if his conquest of Crimea is overlooked in the rush to get back to business as usual with Moscow. If we do, taking small bites of Ukraine at a time might seem like a good plan.

Ultimately, Putin believes all of Ukraine will be Russian in the long run. And in the short run, seizing a little more territory is still an option.