Saturday, February 21, 2015

When Red Lines Represent the Limits of Russia's Advance

As Russia shreds another ceasefire in eastern Ukraine by capturing Debaltseve and prepares to assault Mariupol, let's review a recent argument against arming Ukraine.

So far, Russia's plan to pretend they have no idea how the war in Donbas is continuing is working just fine, so don't expect it to end any time soon when more objectives beckon:

Pro-Russian separatists are building up forces and weapons in Ukraine's south east and the Ukrainian military said on Saturday it was braced for the possibility of a rebel attack on the port city of Mariupol.

So let's review an argument against arming Ukraine to resist Russia:

Going down that road would be a huge mistake for the United States, NATO and Ukraine itself. Sending weapons to Ukraine will not rescue its army and will instead lead to an escalation in the fighting. Such a step is especially dangerous because Russia has thousands of nuclear weapons and is seeking to defend a vital strategic interest.

I don't have a ton of respect for the author. Or many grams, for that matter. Just so you know.

Basically, the author says Russia can match any escalation; that Russia will pay any price for such a vital objective as keeping Ukraine a buffer; and that Russia could escalate to nuclear weapons.

Can Russia match Ukraine in escalation? Not really.

If Russia could have taken Donbas while they took Crimea, they would have. I assumed they'd do both before the invasion, yet I apparently over-estimated Russia's conventional military capability. Russia had to go after the two regions sequentially. And they did the easier one first.

And Russia has to protect Crimea as they escalate with their limited pool of decent troops.

If the war escalates too much, why will Crimea be off limits as a theater of war? Will Russia risk Ukraine using long-range missiles and aircraft to bombard Sevastopol naval base and using naval mines to hinder use of the port?

Eventually, if Putin's rearmament goes forward, Russia will have a decent military capable of conquering and pacifying Ukraine, but Putin does not have that military now (see 4th update). Any victory they achieve in the near term will be costly, in both money and lives--perhaps more than they can pay.

Or do you think that protesters paid or ordered to march in Moscow against the "fascists" in Kiev are signs of popular support for bearing any burden to bring Ukraine into Holy Mother Russia?

And if Russia naturally has superior will power to do as they will in Ukraine, why is Putin denying Russia is fighting in Ukraine?

Human rights groups have received dozens of complaints in the past month alone from Russian conscripts like Alexander who say they have been strong-armed or duped into signing contracts with the military to become professional soldiers, after which they were sent to participate in drills in the southern Rostov region. ...

Because only contract soldiers can legally be dispatched abroad, worries are spreading among families that inexperienced young conscripts could be sent to fight in eastern Ukraine.

An astro-turf rebellion in Donbas is being fought by reluctant Russian troops secretly sent and backed by an astro-turf movement at home to resist mythical Ukrainian fascists and nonsensical NATO plots?

Any escalation that Russia is technically capable of over-matching will have a price tag associated with it. If not, no small nation could ever beat or hope to beat a larger nation. Why do small nations even exist today if resistance to larger nations is futile?

Of course, the notion of the futility of resisting Russian escalation is based on his second argument that Russia will pay any price to keep Ukraine inside Russia. As the links above suggest, that's hardly a slam dunk assumption.

His argument neglects that Russia didn't want to pay any price at all to keep Ukraine or any other part of the old Soviet Union that wanted to go after 1991.

And he makes the mistake of comparing Russia's will to fight for Ukraine with our willingness to fight for Ukraine and then judges that since Russia is close and we are far, that Russia will out-will us.

This is in error on two counts. One, it ignores Ukraine as if it is a mere battlefield rather than a player itself that has people with a will to resist Russia and determine their own future. Defending their homeland is likely to give Ukraine more will to resist Russia's invasion than Russia has to conquer Ukraine.

On this count, there is also the lesser (because they are window dressing and not the driving force of the "rebellion") mistake of ignoring the morale of Russia's local hand puppets.

Of course, if Ukraine can't resist from lack of appropriate arms, capabilities, and training, we guarantee that Ukraine's will to resist will shatter rather than sustain their resistance. Then it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, no?

The second error is that the author compares apples and oranges by weighing American interest far from America and Russian interest close to Russia.

If it was a matter of sending in America's armed forces to eastern Ukraine to fight Russia, yes, Russia would have way more will to sacrifice lives and cash to win the war. Nobody, least of all me, is arguing we should fight Russia over Ukraine.

If we did that, Russia wouldn't need to astro-turf supportive demonstrations against evil NATO plots, eh?

But the contest between America and Russia is a contest between our willingness to spend cash to arm Ukraine and Russia's willingness to die to control Ukraine.

That's a very different contest of wills than the author assumes, isn't it?

As for the nuclear angle, threatening nuclear weapons is really only credible if you are insane or if you are protecting the very existence of your country. Russia exists without Ukraine now, so it isn't that level of vital.

Nor does it make sense to say you will risk destruction of your country in order to get a buffer zone. Putin will risk nuclear war that right now can destroy him in order to forestall a non-existent conventional threat of NATO invasion?

If Putin is that crazy, we've got real problems bigger than the future of Donbas or Crimea or even the fate of our Baltic NATO allies.

Indeed, if Putin's nuclear threats are that real, where would we stop them? Where would the buffer stop? The Vistula River? The Rhine River? The French Atlantic coast?

Ukraine is willing to fight Russia's attempt to rebuild the Soviet empire at their expense. Ukrainians deserve our support morally, and it is in our interests to keep Russian power as far east as possible.

Let's recall Russia's novel defense recently that they didn't commit genocide in Ukraine during the 1930s because the USSR was trying to kill lots of people besides Ukrainians! Under the circumstances, don't NATO states have a far better case for needing a buffer against Russia?

UPDATE: I've long assumed that Russia wanted Kharkov, yet that city has escaped Russian attention.

Until now:
Ukraine said on Sunday it feared unrest could spread beyond territory held by pro-Russian separatists, after an explosion killed two people at a memorial rally in an eastern city far from the front line.

Kiev said it arrested four people who had been armed and trained in Russia after the blast, which killed a policeman and a demonstrator at the rally in Kharkiv, the biggest city in the east, 200 km (125 miles) from the war zone.

The Russian threat will only get bigger and closer under Putin or his like-minded successor if the Russians get away with this aggression without paying a price.