European Affairs

What Next in Ukraine?     Print
By John Barry, former Defense and National Security Correspondent at Newsweek Magazine

johnbarryThe New Year saw three small gatherings.  One in Washington, one in London, one in the capital of a small east European nation formerly under Soviet rule.   All were discreet, unpublicized, invitation-only.   Only the largest had a formal name.  The Washington meeting was labeled SW21: acronym for ‘Strategic Weapons in the 21st Century.’   Since 2008, that’s been a quiet get-together where high-level government officials, academics and nuclear weapons experts meet annually to discuss the role of nuclear weapons in a post-Cold War world.
     
The two sessions in Europe were ad-hoc groupings of government, military, think-tank and foreign-policy names, called together at relatively short notice to debate the question of the hour: what is Russian President Vladimir Putin up to? 
 
The informal consensus at all three was that Putin would welcome the return of the Cold War.  
 
That wasn’t SW21’s formal task in Washington, though Putin’s increasingly strident assertions of nuclear weapons as Russia’s shield against the West’s malign designs of subjugation --- Russia has been testing a new missile, and a new variant of an existing missile --- soberly framed their discussions.   The two European sessions looked at Putin’s breakneck military modernization.  (The excellent trade publication Defense News noted of Russia’s submarine program: “This rate of construction is beginning to look more like Cold War days…”)  Two successive ministers of finance have warned publicly that Russia cannot afford its current level of military spending.  Putin has ignored them. 
 
Against that background, the two European gatherings did try to forecast what Putin might do next in Ukraine.   Both concluded that three options lie open before him: expand the conflict in Ukraine; unleash aggressions along some other stretch of Russia’s borders; or do both at once.  Both concluded that Putin appears now embarked on a course from which he will not, may believe he cannot, likely believes he must not, back down.  The prospects for peace in Ukraine, they concluded, were bleak.
 
The next few weeks will reveal just how far Putin is prepared to go.   As if on cue, Russia has once more driven columns of tanks into Ukraine, manned as before by soldiers in green military combat jerseys shorn of name or unit badges.     The separatist militias based around Donetsk and Luhansk  --- bolstered with, as Obama charged, “Russian backing, Russian equipment, Russian financing, Russian training and Russian troops” --- have launched devastatingly effective counter-offensives against end-of-year gains by Ukraine’s own military.
 
Militarily, Putin’s next target has to be Mariupol, the Ukrainian port city that lies astride the land route from Russia to Crimea.   Putin must be able to use that route --- if possible, command it.  Crimea is essentially an island, wholly dependent on the mainland for its supplies.   Kiev has continued to feed Crimea with electricity --- though blackouts are lengthening as Ukraine itself runs short of coal (mined in the separatist east) to fuel its power-stations.  But Kiev is no longer paying pensions or benefits to its populace.  And the single freight rail-line down to Crimea has been cut.  The island was, at year’s end, short some 40,000 tons of coal to fuel the winter needs of its industries and its 42 million inhabitants.  They are already short of food and consumer goods, two-thirds of which used to flow down from Ukraine.    Russia’s current link to Crimea --- a ferry from the Russian port of Novorossiysk --- cannot handle anything close to the volume of supplies needed.  Especially if, as happens most years, winter storms and drift ice block the crossing.   The Russian navy has been running transports into its Crimean base, Sevastopol.   But that can only be a temporary fix.  
 
In taking over Crimea, Putin effectively committed himself to opening a land route to supply it.   For him, the salient question now must be whether he will do this with the agreement of the Kiev government, or whether he must do it by force of arms.   The fate of Mariupol looks set to be the decisive episode in the struggle for Ukraine.   
 
One recent incident showed how bloody any battle for Mariupol would be.   “At approximately 09.15hrs on 24 January, the SMM [Special Monitoring Mission] in government-controlled Mariupol heard at its location incoming massed Multiple-Launch Rocket System (MLRS) attacks from a north-east direction, consisting of an extremely heavy barrage lasting 35 seconds.  Twenty minutes later the SMM received information that [the] shelling had occurred in an area of Olimpiiska Street…8.5kms north-east of Mariupol city center……At 10.20hrs the SMM went to Olimpiiska Street…The SMM was able to count 19 rocket strikes and is certain there were more.    The SMM conducted a crater analysis and its initial assessment showed that the impacts were caused by Grad and Urugan rockets.  According to impact analysis, the Grad rockets originated from a north-easterly direction in the area of Okytabr (19 km north-east of Olimpiiska Street, and the Urugan rockets from an easterly direction, in the area of Zaichenko (15 km east of Olimpiiska Street), both controlled by the “Donetsk People’s Republic”….”
 
In their usual spare prose, the international monitors of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe --- in Ukraine in an effort to broker a ceasefire, and/or report on its violations --- recorded that opening barrage on Mariupol.    Grad and Urugan are truck-borne multiple-launch rocket systems of Soviet design, the Urugan a later and heavier version.  Both are devastating weapons.  In a single salvo the Grad can fire 40 missiles, each with a 44lb warhead;  theUrugan’s 16-rocket salvo unleashes missiles with a 200lb warhead.  In that first attack, the Grad almost certainly launched only a half-salvo, the Urugan even fewer.  Designed to saturate battlefields, the batteries are nowhere close to being precision weapons.   That single mini-salvo, according to the OSCE monitors, pulverized roughly two-thirds of a square mile of Mariupol--- hitting shops, homes, office blocks, a school and an open market.  At last count, thirty people were killed and another hundred wounded.
 
The salvo appears to have been retaliation for the Ukrainian army’s shelling of the separatist-held city of Donetsk two mornings before.   Two artillery rounds with shrapnel warheads hit a bus-stop there, destroying a trolleybus and a nearby car, killing at least eight and wounding more than a dozen.  “The rounds…had been fired from a north-western direction,” the OSCE monitors concluded --- in other words, from Ukrainian-held territory.    At a wreath-laying ceremony at the site two days later, Alexander Zakharchenko --- leader of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic --- declared:  “Today we have launched an offensive against Mariupol.  This will be the best monument of all to the victims [at the bus-stop].”    The salvos on Mariupol landed virtually as Zakharchenko was speaking.   When Moscow --- faced by mounting international outrage at the Mariupol carnage --- denounced the shelling as the work of Ukraine’s own forces, Zakharchenko hastily revised his remarks.   There would be “no storm” of Mariupol, he said.
 
Deliberately targeting civilians is an international war-crime. Neither side in the Ukrainian conflict has been much bothered by that. The Ukrainian army has arguably the worse record.  Its intermittent shelling of Donetsk since last July is a clear breach of international humanitarian law.  (In fairness, the separatists have been using the city as a base.)   Other towns and villages in eastern Ukraine have fared far more terribly.    The internationally respected leader of a Russian human rights organization toured the area last November, and found devastation on a scale reminding him of the pitiless war in Chechnya through the 1990s. “The scale of destruction in the city of Pervomaisk [near Luhansk] recalls wartime Grozny [capital of Chechnya],” Oleg Orlov wrote.  Grozny was razed in the fighting.  In Pervomaisk now, Orlov said, “some blocks of this city…have been practically wiped off the face of the earth by Ukrainian military barrages.   Hardly any houses have been left unscathed.”   Orlov also found two villages, also outside Luhansk, which had been similarly destroyed by artillery fire from separatist forces.
 
Mariupol is now the next target.   It’s a sizeable city of some 460,000 inhabitants.   Sustained fire on Mariupol by Grad or Urugan batteries is horrifying to contemplate.   So horrifying that both sides appear to be pausing before committing themselves.
 
Ukrainian President Poroshenko has declared his intent to defend Mariupol.   Substantial Ukrainian forces are there already.  There are whispers that a few Special Forces from an unspecified NATO nation may also be there as advisers.
 
But what would defending Mariupol entail?    Almost certainly its destruction.   But Mariupol is vital to Ukraine’s economy.   It’s home to two of the country’s three biggest steel plants.  (One plant alone provides jobs for close to a quarter of Mariupol’s citizenry.)  Coal mined in the now breakaway Donbas region of eastern Ukraine is reduced to coke in the ovens of a similarly giant plant on the city’s outskirts.  Coke not merely fuels those Mariupol steel smelters but also constitutes Ukraine’s most valuable export.   Mariupol, in other words, is more than a port.  It’s Ukraine’s export hub.   If Ukraine’s President Poroshenko commits to defending Mariupol, he seals its destruction.   Could he really accept that body-blow to Ukraine’s already teetering economy?
 
For Putin, the military calculation at least is tactically straightforward.  Mariupol would be no Stalingrad of hand-to-hand fighting.   The weapons Putin has now sent into Ukraine can destroy the city from a distance.  Nor do Ukrainian forces have the capability to shut down the long-range barrage in prospect.  
 
Strategically, though, an assault on Mariupol would be as damaging for Putin as for Poroshenko.   Mariupol’s exports are mainly from the industries of eastern Ukraine.   If Mariupol is destroyed --- or even so damaged that its port shuts down --- Putin would be saddled with two protectorates, Donetsk and Luhansk, both of which were economic basket cases.    Subsidies to Crimea are already costing Putin millions a month.    Donetsk and Luhansk would cost even more.   Russia’s tanking economy cannot afford it.
 
The wider consequences of an assault on Mariupol must also give Putin pause.  Harrowing television coverage of the carnage would surely compel a step-change in the West’s responses to Putin’s aggressions.  Military:  Ukraine would finally get the weaponry and support systems its forces need.   Financial:  Russia’s banks and financial institutions could be shut out of the SWIFT international banking system.  That would all but end Russian financial transactions with the rest of the world.  
 
What happens to Mariupol is a game-changer.    All sides realize this.  That’s why there is now a pause --- to see if there is a last chance for a political settlement.  Secretary of State Kerry flew to Kiev;  so did German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande.    It’s not too hard to figure out their purpose:  to persuade Ukrainian President to acquiesce to what the trio believe will be the best terms likely to be acceptable to Putin.  
 
Even Putin’s minimal demands are certain to be unpalatable.   Western leaders still talk about a deal restoring the agreement reached in Minsk last September.  But that was no more than a ceasefire accord --- one which Putin ignored from the start.   A political settlement now would demand much more of Ukraine and the West. Piecing together the numerous statements of Russian foreign minister Lavrov, Moscow will require at least the following:
 
***Ukraine becomes a federated state.   The breakaway areas of Donetsk and Luhansk are given considerable autonomy.   
***Ukraine is barred by treaty from joining NATO.  
***Russia keeps Crimea and gets a land-route to it.   (Like the rail-line that Russia has through Estonia to reach its Kaliningrad exclave.) 
***All sanctions on Russia or Russian citizens are lifted immediately. 
Putin’s going-in requirements will, of course, go much further.  It’s plausible to think he will demand:
***Ukraine is barred from joining the European Union.
***No foreign troops are allowed on Ukrainian soil.   Russia is, however, allowed to retain ‘peace-keeping forces’ in the east.
***The federal structure of Ukraine is so organized that the two breakaway provinces effectively have a veto over actions by the Kiev government.   
***OR the two provinces are organized as essentially independent statelets --- as Transnistria is now, divorced from the rest of Moldova.    In that case, Putin will demand that Kiev continue to pay pensions and other benefits to the breakaways.  And that their access to Mairupol’s port facilities is guaranteed.
***Ukraine continues to pay pensions and other benefits to the citizens of Crimea.
***Ukraine pays reparations to the breakaway provinces to compensate for their lives lost.   Ukraine pays to restore and rebuild all war-damage in the east.
 
Putin must surely believe that at this point he can demand pretty much whatever he wants.  Militarily, he holds all the cards.  He will surely gamble that President Poroshenko will choose not to defend Mariupol, preserving it instead by declaring it an ‘open city’ --- as Paris and Prague were in World War Two.  Putin’s assault group is then poised to push west beyond Mariupol towards Ukraine’s only other significant port, Odesa.   From there, it’s a 200 mile drive --- up the excellent EU-financed autobahn --- to Transnistria, the breakaway province from Moldova which also pleads for a Russian presence. 
 
The West has no effective military response.   None, at any rate, that could influence event for months.  Which is to say never --- unless NATO is minded to prepare for a major war in Europe.   That seems unlikely.       
 
In Washington, the Administration has been signaling --- semaphoring wildly, more like --- that it is “considering” sending defensive weaponry to Ukraine.  (Washington has already supplied Ukrainian forces with counter-battery radar --- but short-range only, useful against mortars, but not artillery.)     It is hard to know how seriously to take this.    Incoming defense secretary Ashton Carter was forthright in supporting the notion at his Senate confirmation hearing this past week --- but a few hours later had to row back his comments.
Similarly, the most senior U.S. soldier in Europe --- General Philip Breedlove, NATO SACEUR --- has apparently changed his mind. For months Breedlove has talked of strengthening Ukraine’s military.   In Kiev in November, Breedlove said NATO had developed a plan to do this:  “The work is good; it has been given great support from my command.”  The next step would be to develop “a series of train-advise-assist capabilities.”   In Kiev last month, Lt Gen Hodges --- commander of U.S. Army Europe --- elaborated that the Ukrainian military would be helped in three specific areas:  to avoid and respond to artillery fire;  to conduct electronic warfare; and to better care for combat casualties.    Hodges said the U.S. Army had already supplied lightweight counter-mortar radar, as well as other systems to detect rockets and other artillery.    U.S. soldiers would deploy to Ukraine in the spring to begin a training program.
 
As late as the start of this month, Breedlove was a supporter of sending military hardware to Ukraine.  The New York Times reported on Feb 1 that he "now supports providing defense weaponry and equipment to Kiev's beleagured forces".  At the Munich Security Conference a few days later, Breedlove made his case.   The debate, he said, was between those who believe there is no military solution, and those who believe that "Mr Putin is prosecuting the military solution to the issue in Ukraine."   The West had tried using diplomatic and economic measures to pressure Putin, he said:  "But if what is being done is not producing what you want to gain from the conversation, then maybe all the tools in the toolbag should be used and conventional means should not be outwardly discounted."  (In military-speak, "conventional" means non-nuclear.) 
 
But Breedlove called a press conference in Brussels recently (Thursday 2/05) to warn that any move to provide Ukraine with lethal defensive weaponry must take into account a possibly angry reaction from Russia.  Foreseeing “a more strident reaction from Russia”, Breedlove said, a decision on any aid “has to be taken in light of what we anticipate would be the Russian reaction.” This would appear to give Russia veto power over any military assistance to Ukraine.
 
The reality is that, even if President Obama were to end his dithering and decide, finally, to risk Russian ire and arm Ukraine, this would have no immediate effect on the balance of forces.  The Ukrainians would need weeks, perhaps months, of training to use new systems effectively.   Meanwhile, Putin would retain the initiative.
 
What has changed?   The answer is that in the New Year, Putin did what he has done throughout the Ukraine crisis:  he doubled down.   The West has been fatally slow to respond.
The Russian forces sent into Ukraine from last August onwards were impressive in scale but essentially opportunistic, tactically defensive.  They went in to preserve the separatists from impending defeat by the Ukrainian army.   
 
The force that Putin sent into Ukraine in January was different.   It was configured as an assault force, with a heavy contingent of long-range rocket batteries like the SMERCH and with mobile air-defense batteries echeloned alongside the armor.   Daniel Baer, embattled U.S. envoy to the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, charged at the end of last month:   “Since December, Russia has transferred hundreds of pieces of military equipment to the Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine, including tanks, armored vehicles, rocket systems, heavy artillery and other military equipment.   In mid-to-late January, Russia deployed into eastern Ukraine advanced surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft systems….” 
 
Why such dense air-defenses?  Ukraine has no significant airforce.   The answer is surely that Putin has observed the U.S. air campaign against ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria.   For the U.S. it has been an essentially risk-free operation.  ISIS has no air defenses.  It seems plausible that Putin’s January assault force was, in part, configured to send a message to President Obama:   In Ukraine, you have no cheap options.    
 
Realistically, the only weapons in the West’s arsenal are financial ones.  The question is whether Europe would impose them.   The West’s default response throughout the crisis has been to slap asset freezes on a steadily widening circle of Russian oligarchs.   That’s not as wimpy as it sounds.  The only group in Moscow with even the smallest chance of organizing opposition to Putin’s Ukrainian aggression are the fat-cats; and they are hurting.  It’s been calculated that the 21 most affluent people in Russia – all billionaires --- lost a total of $61 billion last year, a quarter of their combined wealth.    So it’s significant that, as Bloomberg News reported late last month, Putin has been distancing himself from them in recent months, opting “to shrink his inner circle from dozens of confidants to a small group of security officials…”   In Russia they’re called the siloviki , the band of officials, mostly from the intelligence services, who have been close to Putin since the start of his career in what was then Leningrad.   All are nationalist hawks.
 
The West has ample other financial options.  “Sectoral sanctions” --- sanctions against entire blocs of the Russian economy --- would inflict great damage.    The ultimate financial weapon would be to block Russian banks from SWIFT.  The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications is the instant-messaging network used by some 10,000 financial institutions across 194 countries.   Expulsion from SWIFT would cripple all Russia’s international financial transactions.   There is a precedent: one of the sanctions imposed on Iran is loss of access to SWIFT.   But SWIFT is a Europe-based entity --- headquartered in Brussels --- and thus obeys Belgian law.    To expel Russia from SWIFT would require a unanimous vote by all 28 EU member nations.    The Brits tried to organize that last fall.  The European Parliament voted to back the move.  But Europe’s leaders rejected it.    Would they agree now?  Could they even agree now?   Greek assent would be required; and Greece’s new government would surely see that as a bargaining chip in its fraught efforts to ease Greece’s crippling debt burden.    
  
Any negotiations with Putin are going to be difficult.   Not least because any western government accepting even his likely minimal terms will confront a fire-storm of criticism.  In that regard, a cynic might wonder why Secretary of State Kerry was not going to Moscow with Merkel and Hollande.  Could it be that the Administration hopes to present any deal as one cooked up by the Europeans?
 
 We are about to find out how determined Putin is to provoke a new Cold War.