Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Donbas Too Far?

Russia quickly seized Crimea but is now embroiled in a festering struggle for Ukraine's Donbas region in the east. Russia surely has not won this latter struggle, but unless we help Ukraine fight Russia's invasion, it may be the case that Russia simply hasn't won yet.

If Putin had been satisfied with rapidly and nearly bloodlessly seizing Crimea from Ukraine, Russia could have had a splendid little war that burnished their military reputation, erasing the image of their bumbling Georgia War.

Instead, as aggressors are wont to do, Putin wanted more. So he tried to carry out a subliminal invasion of the Donbas region, too.

Russia is still fighting for victory:

Russia thus finds itself in something of a Catch-22 situation. The fragile Minsk II ceasefire has eased pressures on the Russian economy – but it has done the same for Kyiv. It will be hard for Moscow to destabilize Ukraine further without renewing its military assault, yet the resumption of fighting would reverse any progress in undermining Western sanctions. With no more quick and easy Crimea-style operations on the horizon, the Kremlin finds itself stuck in a psychologically unsatisfactory holding pattern—waiting for oil and gas prices to recover, for the West to fragment, and for Ukraine to implode. Without a serious stroke of good fortune on at least two of those fronts, Moscow faces the prospect of endless subsidization of an isolated Crimea and a shattered Donbass under conditions of Russian economic stagnation, while the rest of Ukraine, even if economically hobbled, slips ineluctably away from Moscow’s gravitational pull. The realization might gradually take hold that Russia’s strategy in Ukraine, notwithstanding some moments of tactical brilliance, has ultimately failed.

Negotiations could then be on the basis of Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, the author says.

Perhaps. And while Russia might in those circumstances be willing to pull out of the Donbas, I sincerely doubt they will give up Crimea.

And unless we help Ukraine, will a Russian effort to capture the Donbas become a quagmire or just be a victory that takes Putin a little longer to complete?

Yes, families are unhappy with the dead coming back to Russia; and some Russian troops are refusing to fight inside Ukraine. But every army everywhere faces those problems. Including America. That's the price of doing this kind of rough business. That's war.

The question is whether such factors interfere with  Putin's ability to wage war and will create circumstances that make Putin willing to withdraw from the Donbas.

Those circumstances, if they come about, will make for a solvable diplomatic problem, I think.

But we are not at the point where those circumstances hold true, given that Russia's hand puppets are ready to roll again "with very little warming time":

"There has been a Russian buildup both along the borders between Russia and Ukraine, but also inside eastern Ukraine with a steady flow of heavy equipment, tanks, artillery, ammunition, air defense systems and a lot of training," alliance Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference.

Which to be fair, was the whole point of the so-called ceasefire from Putin's point of view. I dispute Stoltenberg's statement that Putin's intention is unclear. What is unclear is his timing.

Let's hope Ukraine used their time well enough to send more body bags home to Russian families.

To get those good circumstances for peace, of course.

In related news, the Ukrainians say nearly 7,000 civilians have died in the war, over a thousand are missing, and nearly 1,700 Ukrainian troops have died.

I've read elsewhere that "hundreds" of Russian troops have died. I've heard nothing on estimates for how many of Russia's hand puppet rebels (whether locals or imported mercenaries or volunteers) have died.

UPDATE: Over 200 Russian troops have died fighting in Donbas. Which isn't enough to deter Putin from renewing his invasion--probably in the next couple months, according to SACEUR.

The Russians are absorbing the so-called rebels into their command structure, too.

And related analysis from Stratfor.