Russia launches another major offensive in Donbass. Its operational scale and intensity already approaches peak Russian tempo from August/September. We warned official and unofficial Washington variously in November and December 2014 this attack would come – despite the professed optimism of a ‘soft landing’ with Putin based on the so-called Minsk Accords.
A favorite response? “Russians don’t typically like winter operations” – or something like that. What can one say? Ray Garthoff’s generation of Soviet analysts is long gone. It’s a Buzzfeed world now, we just live in it.
Russia telegraphed her intent in several ways. Throughout the Fall Russia pushed Ukrainians back from agreed upon start lines incrementally. By January Russia captured over 200 square miles. Simultaneously, substantial Russian military and logistical support poured into Donbass. It’s important to note a key Russian military lesson from 2014 – the expenditure of ammunition and other support in Ukraine vastly exceeded their expectations.
Finally, Russian military and a significant number of special forces battered Ukrainian troops defending the Donetsk airport in late January. The so-called Ukrainian “cyborg” heroes repulsed Russians for over 200 days. Russia’s TV Channel One underscored the importance of the January airport assault showing Russian naval infantry fighting there on national TV (see update). The Ukrainians held out until overwhelmed by Russian troops who, according to OCSE reports, also may have used gas.
Germany once again tried to paper over Russian aggression with a new agreement. The next day Russia launched multi-pronged offensives across Donbass, far beyond boundaries of September’s Minsk agreement.
What to make of it all? Here are five key points with thoughts on arming Ukraine to follow.
One: Russia exposes again American illusions that a consensus reality ‘soft landing’ bargain is currently possible.
Two: Putin seeks more than just re-negotiating the Minsk Accords or chastising Merkel. Russia’s long term goal remains Ukraine’s subordination to Moscow in toto. Putin improvises within that framework. Russian security state thinking in Putin’s war cabinet rejects the idea of a neutral Ukraine because it has the *potential* to be pro-Western and lead regime change in Moscow. From 2004-2014 they consistently repeat this point. As long as they and Putin are in power, a ‘frozen conflict’ is acceptable as a strategic pause; the Minsk Accords are a practical nullity.
Three: Russian domestic politics drive most of Russian foreign policy, as with the Soviets, too. Putin’s power is based on personal popularity derived from plebiscitary radicalization. Putin has stated repeatedly his entire 2014-2015 acting out is about escaping from the perceived yoke of the international community and its alleged EU/American values. Those values of process and procedure are antithetical to his mobilization regime: the essence of Russian revanchism. This internal dynamic is separate from Ukraine itself and uses a Ukrainian crisis as a prop.
Four: Putin is indifferent how he accomplishes Ukraine’s subordination or manipulates Russian domestic emotionalism. He will mix and match military, paramilitary, terrorism, bribery and feigned cooperation; all are tactical, improvised guises to use or discard per the exigencies of a moment. His improvisation remains the constant. It is a profound mistake to confuse the guise for the purpose.
Five: There is no example in modern recorded history of a revanchist regime being successfully deterred into reform. (1947’s Soviet Union wasn’t revanchist). This is true from Italy, Germany, Japan if you count the militarists’ 1920s attack on democracy (which we do), various governments in Eastern Europe, and even France’s de Gaulle. History teaches that revanchist regimes stop when their options for improvisation are denied, almost always and unfortunately, kinetically.
The military situation in Ukraine is grave. Evidence to date, however, does not indicate the Russians are conducting large scale operations in strategic depth to threaten Ukraine’s integrity. The main operational purpose so far is as much psychological as to achieve specific local political-military objectives – as with the Russians seizing the Donetsk airport.
The Russian offensive renews American calls to arm Ukraine. The main problem facing Ukraine is more difficult than mere arms – it’s people. First, while Ukraine uses the word “war” often, in truth they’ve wisely refused the bait to actually declare it. IMF assistance and other crucial Ukrainian international relationships can be affected technically by such declarations. Second, there’s more that Ukraine can do. Various mobilizations have come and gone with minimal effectiveness. Poroshenko’s promise to raise the defense budget to 3% GDP is feasible but remains just that.
Execution is the key. Ukrainians themselves acknowledge Kiev’s military culture, training and doctrine are inappropriate for a modern war, declared or not. Specific command level personalities may not be suited for responsibilities. Kiev tolerates too much rivalry and factionalism in military matters. Ukrainian command dysfunction deeply exacerbated the Ilovaisk tragedy. Similarly, Ukraine’s military failed to support the Donetsk ‘cyborgs’ due to poor planning and operations, not lack of weapons.
We support improving Ukraine’s defensive capabilities. After all, the best deterrent to Putin’s improvisation is to send back “Cargo 200″ (Russian KIA). American training assistance and advice on military reform is key. In the past, simple items like body armor, fuel or night vision goggles were blocked because they were deemed “force multipliers”, i.e. too aggressive.
Identifying the best arms to fit Ukraine’s current state of doctrine, training, and C3I is not easy. Choices should be carefully considered.
For example, tactical kinetics are more problematic than some realize. The rate of ammunition expenditure in Donbass and engagement intensity with regular Russian forces (65% of Ukrainian armor was lost in August/Sept.) are extraordinary. Kinetics are useful only with substantial logistical flows not only *to* Ukraine but *within* Ukraine to the front. Ukraine already struggles to supply troops with arms made in Ukraine by Ukrainians. Adding new foreign systems (and spares) to that sagging logistical/depot system without crucial familiarity and training is a recipe for – at best – disappointment. Finding and supplying (improved) Russian-made weapons familiar to Ukrainian logistics and fighters is a more effective answer.
Helping Kiev with comms/C4ISR is more straightforward. Some is being done now. C4ISR cooperation must be careful; Russian penetration of Kiev’s military and security services remains a problem. COTS should not be dismissed, either.
An uparmed Ukraine without corresponding changes in doctrine, training and personnel still would be overmatched by Russian professionals. The resulting Russian propaganda victory would be immense. Changes require time. As the improved training, C3 and doctrinal reform take place, Ukraine’s military efficiency will increase, as well as her capacity to absorb different classes of weapons. Assisting Ukraine the smart way will help Kiev deter Russian proxies in the near term and ultimately make Russia pay a full price for further adventurism.
UPDATE: The Russian soldier shown on Russia Channel One television wearing naval marine insignia now claims he was a volunteer. Details of his story are here.