Ukraine is dealing a strong setback to Putin’s allegedly novel model and doctrine of 21st century irregular war. Not because Ukrainian forces rout Russians and their allies in Ukraine and now control 2/3 of the Donbass.
Russia’s ‘new’ model of war escaped Moscow’s control. Putin understands it conceivably could evolve into a political threat inside Russia and even the faintest whispers of revolution. The regime could ignite war in Ukraine but not control its perceived domestic political impact on Putin’s authority.
We finally see the limits of Putin’s escalation. He will not risk even the perception of challenge to his authority. Of course, he still plays to win in Ukraine at some level. Ukraine will bear the brunt of his malice for years. And his global revanchism is unchanged.
Meanwhile, he refuses frantic demands in Moscow and from Russians fighting in Ukraine to commit formal Russian troops. Lavrov now calls for “a quick resolution” of the crisis. And Russian state controlled media is banishing Ukraine from the front pages of Komsomolskaya Pravda and changing tone, depicting Putin as face-saving “humanitarian” rather than war lord.
His personal, emotional obsession with revanchism remains. He still yearns to tear down the international order and gain his psychological revenge on Americans for the Soviet Union’s demise and his modest height (5′ 6″).
Putin is taking a walk because he no longer could control the nationalism and overt fascism he courted and stoked in through April 2014. Various ideologues surrounding Putin and their movements have always had more independence than most in the West understood.
By early May, Russia faced major strategic decisions about escalation, politics, potentially non-trivial sanctions and end games. A focal point – upcoming Ukrainian elections. Seeking to forestall the West, Putin agreed there would be no independent referendum by the so-called Donetsk Peoples’ Republic.
Russian nationalists and fascists howled at Putin’s betrayal. This tweet about an intercepted call from a Russian fascist is just one small glimpse.
Russian fascists ignored Putin. Further intercepted calls revealed them colluding together with Chechen warlord Kadyrov and Duma representatives to stage appearances on Russian television to force Putin’s hand, including demands to introduce the GRU-backed Chechen Vostok Battalion troops.
Despite Putin’s international assurances, Russian ultra-nationalists and fascists held their absurd and comically flawed referendum anyway. Putin faced the worst of all worlds: embarrassment. Was he in control? If so, why was he ignored? If he was in charge by lying internationally, why did he bungle the referendum? If he wasn’t in charge, who is?
Putin’s improvisation continued to falter as Ukraine normalized through elections and international recognition. Her anti-terror operation (ATO) began to gain traction in late May and June against separatists despite ill-considered truces.
Putin saw his domestic position notionally deteriorate still further. Dugin, for example, openly questioned whether Putin would ascend to holy “Sovereign” (mystical claptrap) and invade Ukraine or follow internal traitors, hesitate, and diminish merely as Lt. Colonel Putin.
Disappointed Russian ultra-nationalists and fascists grew in number and overt challenge to Putin personally. Others blamed Girkin, self-appointed Russian military leader in Ukraine, for retreating from the Ukrainian city of Sloviansk. Dugin blamed Russia’s losing on a “6th Column” in Moscow. These pro-Putin officials apparently hate Russia. The general anti-Putin sentiment simmering and potentially growing.
Putin agreed to allow the Chechens’ Vostok Battalion to enter Donetsk eventually. But he held back the Russian Army itself. Surprisingly, the Ukrainians shot up the elite Vostok Battalion around the Donestk airport. Moscow refused to acknowledge the numerous dead or the unexpected defeat.
Nationalists in Donetsk resorted to working with the hated independent media to document the bodies sent back to Russia in refrigerated trucks. Putinist media, print and television, denied coverage or images.
Nationalists wanted to use video and images of the casualties to spark further escalation and incite racial hatred. The Putin regime’s news blackout left them isolated and furious. Perversely, Russian fascists and ultra-nationalists resorted to using Russian opposition newspapers and liberal Echo Moskvyi radio/web site to show Russians harrowing pictures of the Vostok deceased.
Matters only got worse. Furious that Putin equivocated and refused to invade Ukraine fully, Russians independently began fund raising for Novorossiya, Girkin and Russian irregulars via their Live Journal webpages, etc. One outraged Russian ultra-nationalist whose page was closed for fundraising created the Twitter hashtag #введивойскасука [send in the troops, bitch (Putin)].
Monies raised from such efforts would be minimal. Politically, however, this step represents absolutely forbidden self-organization that could threaten the regime. After 2012 if not before, Putin views NGOs or other non-state organizations as mostly illegitimate, if not illegal foreign agents. Moscow can not allow nationalists to self-organize on the Internet and fund-raise using popular emotionalism while criticizing Putin.
Putin lost control of his own narrative. His AgitProp of hate created self-empowered actors. Consider these tweets from the head of Russia Today. They only hint at the 24 hour a day, non-stop hate storm Putin puked on the willing Russian people.
Which shows the limits of Putin’s alleged new model of war. Once nationalist race rage is ignited, the only truly safe political course is continued escalation. Blowback can’t be controlled on this blunt scale. Moscow is so worried about blowback Russian border guards are reportedly shooting Russians and their allies trying to flee Ukraine back into Russia.
Putin’s revanchism and his role assigned to Ukraine will play out over years. As of this writing, however, Russia’s Ukraine campaign must rank a net strategic failure.
In some ways, Ukraine represented the best environment to test Russia’s war fighting. Russian failure — to date — is noteworthy because Moscow assaulted a particularly fragile state. Ukrainian national identity even before Maidan was tenuous. Ukrainians historically never shared Russian imperial fantasies and related resentments.
If by February 2014, Ukraine largely was a failed state politically and economically, she is unified now with an electoral political legitimacy beyond Russian aspirations. Ukraine receives more economic, technical and military aid than before. Ukrainians also boast a new ethos and sense of self, with a deep hostility to Russia. Russia pulled off a trifecta of fail.
The GRU and FSB took on a tiny, ill-equpped army never prepared for operations in the east against an assumed friend, Russia. Kiev’s army still lacks basic equipment because of corruption, cronyism and Russian penetration. Likewise, the Russians began this campaign largely owning Ukraine’s intelligence service, the SBU. It still must be regarded as compromised.
Russians also could exploit uniquely deep linguistic, cultural and business ties across Ukraine, especially in the East. Russia’s chosen venue for Novorossiya and war, the Donbass region, historically has been mafia-directed/crime ridden, governed by a local oligarch, not Kiev, and the home turf of Putin crony, deposed former president Yanukovich.
And yet, as of early July, Putin and Russia are in retreat. And they feel it. Russians can be expected to study events of February-July 2014 for lessons learned. We’ll offer some thoughts on that in the future. The Baltics can expect a different look based on the stumble in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s struggle for independence and reform is just beginning. Putin and Russia’s necessity to subvert and ruin her progress is existential: a prosperous Ukraine following even moderately in Poland’s steps is a permanent rebuke to Putinism and Russia herself. Apart from Russian revanchist fantasies.
Tactically, Russians and their allies control still the major cities of Donetsk and Luhansk in the South East. Moscow has many tools besides gas as economic levers. Russia is already hyping the dislocation costs of reform and adhering to European standards for useful resentment. Ukraine also remains the only economical way for Moscow to supply Crimea. Each day will be a test of Ukraine’s will and sovereignty.
Newly elected Ukrainian President Poroshenko can look forward to a challenging tenure. Our challenge? Putin’s revanchist war likely will last decades.
UPDATE: Putin convened a Kremlin Security Council meeting on Sovereign And Territorial Defense. He rejected calls from Ultra-nationalists and Fascists for purges and radicalization, stating Russia could defend herself against US and NATO schemes, without them. He also ignored calls for formal military escalation in Ukraine.
Pro-Novorossiya nationalists and fascists condemned Putin immediately as weak. Some mocked Putin as lesser than a Soviet restorationist but just a mere merchant. http://sputnikipogrom.com/russia/16535/trade-federation/
Meanwhile, fascist and neo-fascist Russian entities are back vigorously trying to fund-raise for Girkin et al. in Donbas as the ATO finally begins to close the pocket. See, e.g., http://interbrigada.org/ (Russian) Note the call to ‘entrepreneurs’ in the defense sector to donate military equipment.