Friday, February 27, 2015

What Russia Wants: From Cold War To Hot War

LONDON, England -- The pens were on the table in Minsk, Belarus’s capital, for the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine to sign a deal to end a year-long war fuelled by Russia and fought by its proxies.

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is part of a broader, and more dangerous, confrontation with the West.

But on February 12th, after all-night talks, they were put away.

“No good news,” said Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president.

Instead there will be a ceasefire from February 15th.

A tentative agreement has been reached to withdraw heavy weaponry. 

But Russia looks sure to be able to keep open its border with Ukraine and sustain the flow of arms and people.

The siege of Debaltseve, a strategic transport hub held by Ukrainian forces, continues.

Russia is holding military exercises on its side of the border.

Crimea was not even mentioned.

Meanwhile the IMF has said it will lend Ukraine $17.5 billion to prop up its economy.

But Putin seems to be relying on a familiar Russian tactic of exhausting his negotiating counterparts and taking two steps forward, one step back.

He is counting on time and endurance to bring the collapse and division of Ukraine and a revision of the post-cold war world order. 

Nearly a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West faces a greater threat from the East than at any point during the cold war.

Even during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Soviet leaders were constrained by the Politburo and memories of the second world war.

Now, according to Russia’s chief propagandist, Dmitry Kiselev, even a decision about the use of nuclear arms “will be taken personally by  Putin, who has the undoubted support of the Russian people”.

Bluff or not, this reflects the Russian elite’s perception of the West as a threat to the very existence of the Russian state.

In this view Russia did not start the war in Ukraine, but responded to Western aggression.

The Maidan uprising and ousting of Viktor Yanukovych as Ukraine’s president were engineered by American special services to move NATO closer to Russia’s borders.

Once Yanukovych had gone, American envoys offered Ukraine’s interim government $25 billion to place missile defences on the Russian border, in order to shift the balance of nuclear power towards America.

Russia had no choice but to act.

Even without Ukraine, Putin has said, America would have found some other excuse to contain Russia.

Ukraine, therefore, was not the cause of Russia’s conflict with the West, but its consequence.

Putin’s purpose is not to rebuild the Soviet empire—he knows this is impossible—but to protect Russia’s sovereignty.

By this he means its values, the most important of which is a monopoly on state power.

Behind Russia’s confrontation with the West lies a clash of ideas.

On one side are human rights, an accountable bureaucracy and democratic elections; on the other an unconstrained state that can sacrifice its citizens’ interests to further its destiny or satisfy its rulers’ greed.

Both under communism and before it, the Russian state acquired religious attributes.

It is this sacred state which is under threat.

Putin sits at its apex.

“No Putin—no Russia,” a deputy chief of staff said recently.

His former KGB colleagues—the Committee of State Security—are its guardians, servants and priests, and entitled to its riches.

Theirs is not a job, but an elite and hereditary calling.

Expropriating a private firm’s assets to benefit a state firm is therefore not an act of corruption.

When thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets demanding a Western-European way of life, the Kremlin saw this as a threat to its model of governance.

Alexander Prokhanov, a nationalist writer who backs Russia’s war in Ukraine, compares European civilisation to a magnet attracting Ukraine and Russia.

Destabilising Ukraine is not enough to counter that force: the magnet itself must be neutralised.

Russia feels threatened not by any individual European state, but by the European Union and NATO, which it regards as expansionist.

It sees them as “occupied” by America, which seeks to exploit Western values to gain influence over the rest of the world.

America “wants to freeze the order established after the Soviet collapse and remain an absolute leader, thinking it can do whatever it likes, while others can do only what is in that leader’s interests,” Putin said recently.

“Maybe some want to live in a semi-occupied state, but we do not.” Russia has taken to arguing that it is not fighting Ukraine, but America in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian army is just a foreign legion of NATO, and American soldiers are killing Russian proxies in the Donbas.

Anti-Americanism is not only the reason for war and the main pillar of state power, but also an ideology that Russia is trying to export to Europe, as it once exported communism.

Anti-Westernism has been dressed not in communist clothes, but in imperial and even clerical ones.

“We see how many Euro-Atlantic countries are in effect turning away from their roots, including their Christian values,” said Putin in 2013.

Russia, by contrast, “has always been a state civilisation held together by the Russian people, the Russian language, Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox church.”

The Donbas rebels are fighting not only the Ukrainian army, but against a corrupt Western way of life in order to defend Russia’s distinct world view.

Mistaken hopes 

Many in the West equate the end of communism with the end of the cold war.

In fact, by the time the Soviet Union fell apart, Marxism-Leninism was long dead.

Stalin replaced the ideals of internationalism, equality and social justice that the Bolsheviks had proclaimed in 1917 with imperialism and state dominance over all spheres of life.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s revolution consisted not in damping down Marxism but in proclaiming the supremacy of universal human values over the state, opening up Russia to the West.

Nationalists, Stalinists, communists and monarchists united against Mr Gorbachev.

Anti-Americanism had brought Stalinists and nationalists within the Communist Party closer together.

When communism collapsed they united against Boris Yeltsin and his attempts to make Russia “normal”, by which he meant a Western-style free-market democracy.

By 1993, when members of this coalition were ejected by pro-Yeltsin forces from the parliament building they had occupied in Moscow, they seemed defeated.

Yet nationalism has resurfaced.

Those who fought Yeltsin and his ideas were active in the annexation of Crimea and are involved in the war in south-east Ukraine.

Alexander Borodai, the first “prime minister” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, who fought with anti-Yeltsin forces, hails Putin as the leader of the nationalist movement in Russia today.

Yet for a few years after Putin came to power he built close relations with NATO.

In his first two presidential terms, rising living standards helped buy acceptance of his monopoly on state power and reliance on ex-KGB men; now that the economy is shrinking, the threat of war is needed to legitimise his rule.

He forged his alliance with Orthodox nationalists only during mass street protests by Westernised liberals in 2012, when he returned to the Kremlin.

Instead of tear gas, he has used nationalist, imperialist ideas, culminating in the annexation of Crimea and the slow subjugation of south-east Ukraine.

Hard power and soft 

Putin’s preferred method is “hybrid warfare”: a blend of hard and soft power.

A combination of instruments, some military and some non-military, choreographed to surprise, confuse and wear down an opponent, hybrid warfare is ambiguous in both source and intent, making it hard for multinational bodies such as NATO and the EU to craft a response.

But without the ability to apply hard power, Russia’s version of soft power would achieve little.

Russia “has invested heavily in defence,” says NATO’s new secretary-general, a former Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg.

“It has shown it can deploy forces at very short notice…above all, it has shown a willingness to use force.”

Putin drew two lessons from his brief war in Georgia in 2008.

The first was that Russia could deploy hard power in countries that had been in the Soviet Union and were outside NATO with little risk of the West responding with force.

The second, after a slapdash campaign, was that Russia’s armed forces needed to be reformed.

Military modernisation became a personal mission to redress “humiliations” visited by an “overweening” West on Russia since the cold war ended.

According to IHS Jane’s, a defence consultancy, by next year Russia’s defence spending will have tripled in nominal terms since 2007, and it will be halfway through a ten-year, 20 trillion rouble ($300 billion) programme to modernise its weapons.

New types of missiles, bombers and submarines are being readied for deployment over the next few years.

Spending on defence and security is expected to climb by 30% this year and swallow more than a third of the federal budget.

As well as money for combat aircraft, helicopters, armoured vehicles and air-defence systems, about a third of the budget has been earmarked to overhaul Russia’s nuclear forces.

A revised military doctrine signed by Putin in December identified “reinforcement of NATO’s offensive capacities directly on Russia’s borders, and measures taken to deploy a global anti-missile defence system” in central Europe as the greatest threats Russia faces.

In itself, that may not be cause for alarm in the West.

Russian nuclear doctrine has changed little since 2010, when the bar for first use was slightly raised to situations in which “the very existence of the state is under threat”.

That may reflect growing confidence in Russia’s conventional forces.

But Putin is fond of saying that nobody should try to shove Russia around when it has one of the world’s biggest nuclear arsenals.

Kiselev puts it even more bluntly:

“During the years of romanticism [ie, detente], the Soviet Union undertook not to use nuclear weapons first. Modern Russian doctrine does not. The illusions are gone.”

Putin still appears wedded to a strategy he conceived in 2000: threatening a limited nuclear strike to force an opponent (ie, America and its NATO allies) to withdraw from a conflict in which Russia has an important stake, such as in Georgia or Ukraine.

Nearly all its large-scale military exercises in the past decade have featured simulations of limited nuclear strikes, including one on Warsaw.

Putin has also been streamlining his armed forces, with the army recruiting 60,000 contract soldiers each year.

Professionals now make up 30% of the force.

Conscripts may bulk up the numbers, but for the kind of complex, limited wars Putin wants to be able to win, they are pretty useless.

Ordinary contract soldiers are also still a long way behind special forces such as the GRU Spetsnaz (the “little green men” who went into Crimea without military insignia) and the elite airborne VDV troops, but they are catching up.

Boots on the ground 

South-east Ukraine shows the new model army at work.

Spetsnaz units first trained the Kremlin-backed separatist rebels in tactics and the handling of sophisticated Russian weapons.

But when the Ukrainian government began to make headway in early summer, Russia had regular forces near the border to provide a calibrated (and still relatively covert) response.

It is hard to tell how many Russian troops have seen action in Ukraine, as their vehicles and uniforms carry no identifiers.

But around 4,000 were sent to relieve Luhansk and Donetsk while threatening the coastal city of Mariupol—enough to convince Mr Poroshenko to draw his troops back.

Since November a new build-up of Russian forces has been under way.

Ukrainian military intelligence reckons there may be 9,000 in their country (NATO has given no estimate).

Another 50,000 are on the Russian side of the border.

Despite Putin’s claim last year that he could “take Kiev in two weeks” if he wanted, a full-scale invasion and subsequent occupation is beyond Russia.

But a Russian-controlled mini-state, Novorossiya, similar to Abkhazia and Transdniestria, could be more or less economically sustainable.

And it would end Ukraine’s hopes of ever regaining sovereignty over its territory other than on Russian terms, which would undoubtedly include staying out of the EU and NATO.

Not a bad outcome for Putin, and within reach with the hard power he controls.

The big fear for NATO is that Putin turns his hybrid warfare against a member country.

Particularly at risk are the Baltic states—Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania—two of which have large Russian-speaking minorities.

In January Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s previous secretary-general, said there was a “high probability” that Putin would test NATO’s Article 5, which regards an attack on any member as an attack on all—though “he will be defeated” if he does so.

A pattern of provocation has been established that includes a big increase in the number of close encounters involving Russian aircraft and naval vessels, and snap exercises by Russian forces close to NATO’s northern and eastern borders.

Last year NATO planes carried out more than 400 intercepts of Russian aircraft.

More than 150 were by the alliance’s beefed-up Baltic air-policing mission—four times as many as in 2013.

In the first nine months of the year, 68 “hot” identifications and interdictions occurred along the Lithuanian border alone.

Latvia recorded more than 150 incidents of Russian planes entering its airspace.

There have also been at least two near-misses between Russian military aircraft and Swedish airliners.

This is dangerous stuff: Russian pilots do not file flight plans.

They fly with transponders switched off, which makes them invisible to civil radar.

On January 28th two Russian, possibly nuclear-armed, strategic bombers flew down the English Channel, causing havoc to commercial aviation.

Such behaviour is intended to test Western air defences, and was last seen in the cold war.

Mr Stoltenberg calls it “risky and unjustified”.

Since 2013, when Russia restarted large-scale snap military exercises, at least eight have been held.

In December the Kremlin ordered one in Kaliningrad, an exclave that borders Lithuania and Poland, both NATO members.

It mobilised 9,000 soldiers, more than 55 navy ships and every type of military aircraft.

“This pattern of behaviour can be used to hide intent,” says General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s most senior commander.

“What is it masking? What is it conditioning us for?”

A huge problem for NATO is that most of what Russia might attempt will be below the radar of traditional collective defence.

According to Mr Stoltenberg, deciding whether an Article 5 attack has taken place means both recognising what is going on and knowing who is behind it.

“We need more intelligence and better situational awareness,” he says; but adds that NATO allies accept that if the arrival of little green men can be attributed “to an aggressor nation, it is an Article 5 action and then all the assets of NATO come to bear.”

For all the rhetoric of the cold war, the Soviet Union and America had been allies and winners in the second world war and felt a certain respect for each other.

The Politburo suffered from no feelings of inferiority.

In contrast, Putin and his KGB men came out of the cold war as losers.

What troubles Mr Stoltenberg greatly about Putin’s new, angry Russia is that it is harder to deal with than the old Soviet Union.

As a Norwegian, used to sharing an Arctic border with Russia, he says that “even during the coldest period of the cold war we were able to have a pragmatic conversation with them on many security issues”.

Russia had “an interest in stability” then, “but not now”.

Meddling and perverting 

Destabilisation is also being achieved in less military ways.

Wielding power or gaining influence abroad—through antiestablishment political parties, disgruntled minority groups, media outlets, environmental activists, supporters in business, propagandist “think-tanks”, and others—has become part of the Kremlin’s hybrid-war strategy.

This perversion of “soft power” is seen by Moscow as a vital complement to military engagement.

Certainly Russia is not alone in abusing soft power.

The American government’s aid agency, USAID, has planted tweets in Cuba and the Middle East to foster dissent.

And Putin has hinted that Russia needs to fight this way because America and others are already doing so, through “pseudo-NGOs”, CNN and human-rights groups.

At home Russian media, which are mostly state-controlled, churn out lies and conspiracy theories.

Abroad, the main conduit for the Kremlin’s world view is RT, a TV channel set up in 2005 to promote a positive view of Russia that now focuses on making the West look bad.

It uses Western voices: far-left anti-globalists, far-right nationalists and disillusioned individuals.

It broadcasts in English, Arabic and Spanish and is planning German- and French-language channels.

It claims to reach 700m people worldwide and 2.7m hotel rooms.

Though it is not a complete farce, it has broadcast a string of false stories, such as one speculating that America was behind the Ebola epidemic in west Africa.

The Kremlin is also a sophisticated user of the internet and social media.

It employs hundreds of “trolls” to garrison the comment sections and Twitter feeds of the West.

The point is not so much to promote the Kremlin’s views, but to denigrate opposition figures, and foreign governments and institutions, and to sow fear and confusion.

Vast sums have been thrown at public-relations and lobbying firms to improve Russia’s image abroad—among them Ketchum, based in New York, which helped place an op-ed by Putin in the New York Times.

And it can rely on some of its corporate partners to lobby against policies that would hurt Russian business.

The West’s willingness to shelter Russian money, some of it gained corruptly, demoralises the Russian opposition while making the West more dependent on the Kremlin.

Russian money has had a poisonous effect closer to home, too.

Russia wields soft power in the Baltics partly through its “compatriots policy”, which entails financial support for Russian-speaking minorities abroad.

Putin’s most devious strategy, however, is to destabilise the EU through fringe political parties.

Russia’s approach to ideology is fluid: it supports both far-left and far-right groups.

As Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss put it in “The menace of unreality”, a paper on Russian soft power: “The aim is to exacerbate divides [in the West] and create an echo-chamber of Kremlin support.”

Disruptive politics 

Far-right groups are seduced by the idea of Moscow as a counterweight to the EU, and by its law-and-order policies.

Its stance on homosexuality and promotion of “traditional” moral values appeal to religious conservatives.

The far left likes the talk of fighting American hegemony.

Russia’s most surprising allies, however, are probably Europe’s Greens.

They are opposed to shale-gas fracking and nuclear power—as is Moscow, because both promise to lessen Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels.

Mr Rasmussen has accused Russia of “sophisticated” manipulation of information to hobble fracking in Europe, though without producing concrete evidence.

There is circumstantial evidence in Bulgaria, which in 2012 cancelled a permit for Chevron to explore for shale gas after anti-fracking protests.

Some saw Russia’s hand in these, possibly to punish the pro-European government of the time, which sought to reduce its reliance on Russian energy (Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled gas giant, supplies 90% of Bulgaria’s gas).

Previously, Bulgaria had been expected to transport Russian oil through its planned South Stream pipeline, and its parliament had approved a bill that would have exempted the project from awkward EU rules.

Much of it had been written by Gazprom, and the construction contract was to go to a firm owned by Gennady Timchenko, an oligarch now under Western sanctions.

Gazprom offered to finance the pipeline and to sponsor a Bulgarian football team.

The energy minister at the time later claimed he had been offered bribes by a Russian envoy to smooth the project’s passage.

Though European opposition means it has now been scrapped, the episode shows the methods Moscow uses to protect its economic interests.

In all this Putin is evidently acting not only for Russia’s sake, but for his own.

Borodai, the rebel ideologue in Donetsk, says that if necessary the Russian volunteers who are fighting today in Donbas will tomorrow defend their president on the streets of Moscow.

Yet, although Putin may believe he is using nationalists, the nationalists believe they are using him to consolidate their power.

What they aspire to, with or without Putin, is that Russians rally behind the nationalist state and their leader to take on Western liberalism.

This is not a conflict that could have been resolved in Minsk.

Source: The Economist

Ukraine To Pull Back Artillery From Edge Of Separatist Zone

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine’s military announced on Thursday that it would begin withdrawing some heavy artillery from areas bordering separatist-held territory in the country’s southeast under a cease-fire agreement negotiated this month.

Ukrainian forces on Thursday prepared to pull back from the area around Debaltseve, which is held by separatist fighters.

The announcement followed the separatists’ capture of the strategic town Debaltseve last week in an onslaught that President Petro O. Poroshenko called a “brutal violation” of the cease-fire agreement signed just days earlier in Minsk, Belarus.

Though the deal appeared in tatters, Thursday’s statement reaffirmed the government’s support for the cease-fire, which could provide a road map to ending a conflict that has left nearly 6,000 dead since last April.

Ukraine’s military also reported Thursday that no servicemen had been killed or wounded for a second straight day along the so-called “line of confrontation” between Ukrainian forces and the Russian-backed rebels.

“Today, Ukraine begins the withdrawal of 100-millimeter guns from the dividing lines” of the conflict, a government statement on the military’s official website said, adding that the withdrawal should be monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Separatist forces announced shortly after the capture of Debaltseve that they would withdraw their heavy artillery and claimed to have pulled back hundreds of artillery pieces in the last several days.

The Ukrainian military said the schedule for the withdrawal of its artillery could be adjusted if army positions were attacked.

“If there are attempts to attack, the heavy weapons withdrawal schedule will be adjusted,” the statement read.

“Ukrainian troops are fully prepared to defend the country.”

Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe mission in Ukraine, said monitors would expect to receive inventories of heavy weapons from both sides in the conflict, the routes by which they would be evacuated and secure storage sites where the withdrawals could be verified. 

“It’s not a one-shot deal,” he said.

“We don’t want to be put in a position where we are rubber-stamping movements. Our bottom line is credible verification.”

The Minsk agreement dictated that artillery withdrawal begin last week, but the deadline passed as heavy fighting continued at Debaltseve.

Source: The New York Times

Wesley Clark: Remember Rwanda. Arm Ukraine

WASHINGTON, DC -- In the old days of the post-Cold War world, the U.S. learned the hard way that when we could make a difference, we should.

A Ukrainian soldier stands in a truck pulling an anti-aircraft gun.

In Rwanda, we didn't, and 800,000 died.

In Bosnia, we tarried, and more than 100,000 died and 2 million were displaced before we acted.

It's time to take those lessons and now act in Ukraine.

In the Balkans in 1991, we let the Europeans lead with diplomacy to halt Serb aggression disguised as ethnic conflict.

Diplomacy failed.

We supported the Europeans when they asked for United Nations peacekeepers, from Britain, France, Sweden and even Bangladesh.

That also failed.

Only when the U.S. took the lead and applied military power to reinforce diplomacy did we halt the conflict.

And we did succeed in ending it with minimal expense and without losing a single soldier.

In Ukraine today, Russian-backed forces continue to reinforce and attack Ukrainian positions.

The Minsk II agreement that calls for a cease-fire, pullback of heavy weapons, and withdrawal of foreign forces hasn't been implemented.

Losses on both sides are heavy, far heavier than publicly acknowledged.

Russia is using its newest equipment — tanks, long range rockets, cluster munitions, drones, electronic warfare — to slowly grind away Ukrainian forces that lack modern equipment.

Russia, of course, still denies its troops are present:

This is "hybrid warfare," military aggression covered by the cloak of lies and propaganda.

But, actually, except perhaps for a few stubborn European diplomats, there is surprisingly little dispute as to the facts.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel insists there is no military solution — but, as in the Balkans, there will be no diplomatic solution until the military "door" is closed for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And closing the door is actually simpler than many would have you believe.

According to Ukrainian sources, Putin ordered Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian general staff, to seize territory out to the provincial boundaries of Luhansk and Donetsk by Jan. 31.

Russia failed to secure these provinces in the face of stubborn and heroic Ukrainian resistance.

But as a result, Ukraine's forces are much weaker, while Russia continues to pour in tanks and artillery.

For diplomacy to work, the front must be stabilized.

Ukraine needs the means to defend itself: anti-armor, counterfire radar, drones, night vision capabilities and secure communications.

All this is readily available from the stocks of the United States, Poland and other allies.

It requires no U.S. soldiers in the fight and no U.S. air power.

It is not a proxy war against Russia; it is simple assistance to a fledgling democracy seeking the right to choose its own course.

The U.S. should take the lead now, as we did in the Balkans:

Tell Putin he'll get some eventual phased sanctions relief if he halts aggression, pulls back and obeys international norms of behavior.

The Minsk II agreement is a starting point, but Russia needs to recognize all Ukraine's borders, including Crimea.

If not, the Ukrainians will receive all the arms they need to stop his aggression.

This can all be couched in the normal diplomatic terms, and we can invite Germany to come along to deliver the message.

In the meantime, we need to accelerate the delivery of the minimal assistance we have already promised and encourage our allies to immediately deliver anti-armor and artillery ammunition.

Some will say this won't work because Putin will simply reinforce, but there are limits to Russian power, even on its borders.

After six trips to Ukraine, including meetings with the Ukrainian president and defense minister, I have come away impressed with Ukrainians' determination.

They will fight hard.

Meanwhile, Putin is still trying to disguise Russian aggression from his own populace.

Russian losses are increasingly difficult to conceal.

Others say Putin might retaliate elsewhere, with a wider war, or break off cooperation on the Iranian nuclear weapons talks.

But if Putin seeks a wider war, far better to find out now than when he has digested Ukraine and is on NATO's borders.

So far as his participation in the Iran talks are concerned, he knows that this is his most powerful leverage.

He's unlikely to throw it away.

As a senior officer who worked with Richard Holbrooke on the Dayton peace accords, and later as NATO commander for the peace implementation, I find all the arguments about Ukraine depressingly familiar.

What is new is America's reluctance to understand and fulfill its leading role as the guarantor of peace and security in Europe.

Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has remained deeply engaged in European security.

We recognized that our security depended on a free, democratic and peaceful Europe.

During the Cold War, we maintained 400,000 servicemembers there to deter the Soviet Union.

In the post-Cold War, we acted to bring peace to Bosnia and halt ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

Today, our challenge is Russian aggression in Ukraine, contravening international law, threatening stability in Europe.

We cannot recreate American prosperity, ameliorate income inequality, "pivot" to Asia, or deal with international terrorism without stability and support from Europe.

Strategic patience will fail if we accept Russian aggression in Ukraine.

It is time for America to lead.

Retired General Wesley K. Clark, a former supreme commander of NATO, led alliance military forces in the Kosovo War. He is a senior fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA and author of Don't Wait for the Next War: A Strategy for American Growth and Global Leadership. Clark's Ukraine trips were paid for by the Potomac Foundation and the Open Society Institute.

Source: USA Today

One Paramedic's War In Ukraine, From Maidan To Debaltseve

KIEV, Ukraine -- A column of Ukrainian troop trucks rumbled across the frozen, pitted ground.

Alik Sardarian waits for injured soldiers outside Artyomovsk hospital.

Slowed by a full load of soldiers each, their drivers strained to see through mud-spattered windscreens in the early morning light. 

Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers had started their retreat from the besieged city of Debaltseve in the dead of night on 18 February, but the rising sun was making the trucks and their trails increasingly obvious.

As they left the strategic rail and road junction, the soldiers didn’t know where the Russian forces and their separatist allies were, but they knew they were close.

Vehicles started peeling off from the column across the fields, hoping to provide a smaller target.

As one four-truck convoy trundled onwards, metal-clad shapes loomed on a snow-capped ridge ahead.

Within moments tank rounds and rocket-propelled grenades had ripped into three of the trucks, explosions sending their human cargo sprawling and shattered into the field.

Machine gunfire clattered into the engine block of the last vehicle, bringing it grinding to a halt.

Albert “Alik” Sardarian, a 22-year-old combat paramedic, spilled out of the truck with another medic and a handful of soldiers, scrambling through the snow and firing bursts of his Kalashnikov at a distant hedgerow.

“There were casualties scattered across the field,” he says.

“I had time to treat maybe six, just to stabilise them, wrap the wounds, but there were another 12 to 15 wounded left in the snow and probably a few dozen dead guys.”

As artillery shells and small arms fire tore into the earth around them, Sardarian and what was left of his detachment were forced to sprint 500 metres across open ground, leaving the wounded and their missing limbs behind in the hope that the next withdrawing convoy would have enough vehicles intact to pick them up.

The chaos, the cold and the terror had a numbing effect.

“It was a big, messy field, many kilometres in every direction, you could only see field and didn’t know what was where. I could just see the direction people are running in, and ran too.”

Sardarian was lucky.

He was one of 2,130 soldiers Ukraine says it was able to pull out of Debaltseve alive and unharmed.

Hundreds of other government soldiers trying to leave the town, bombarded by Russian artillery almost constantly and gradually encircled over three weeks, were not so lucky.

Official government figures claim only 22 soldiers were killed in a “well-organised withdrawal”, with 157 wounded, 112 captured, and a further 82 missing in action.

But Artemivsk city hospital alone, where Sardarian is based, is treating 180 injured.

Withdrawing soldiers say the retreat was in shambles, estimating total casualties at around 500.

Returning to Artemivsk after 10 days trapped in Debaltseve, Sardarian was greeted by his euphoric mother Alla, a nurse in his battalion.

For the past two weeks she had waited anxiously for her son to return from what should have been a 12-hour rotation.

He had become trapped in the city when his unit had moved up to Ukrainian positions to stabilise and evacuate casualties on 5 February.

Separatist troops, supported by Russian armour, seized the village of Lohvynove to cut off the only road in and out of town.

He realised his predicament in one of the most painful ways possible. “One of the casualties was very heavily wounded, so we decided to send our last ambulance with a bunch of the injured, two drivers and a doctor,” he says.

Half an hour later, commanders from another unit turned up and asked where the casualties were.

When Sardarian explained they had gone back to Artemivsk, the officers were incredulous.

“They told us the road had been cut. We called Artemivsk, but our guys never arrived. Some say they were captured, but probably they are dead now,” he shrugs.

His thick dark beard and his jet-black hair had grown longer during his time in Debaltseve.

His eyes are a little more weary, his voice a little quieter than when he was first interviewed by Newsweek several weeks ago.

Even back then it was clear Sardarian would bear the psychological scars of a deeply traumatic year with him for life.

Born just months after the formation of the 23-year-old country he is now fighting to defend, he has already lived through the most violent episodes of Ukraine’s brief history as an independent nation.

When Kievans first took to the streets to protest then-president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to abandon an association agreement with the European Union in November 2013, Alik was still a fresh-faced student.

Half Armenian, half Ukrainian and born in Kiev, at the time he was finishing his masters degree in Warsaw.

He joined the Euromaidan protests while on vacation in December, before going back to Poland.

In January 2014 police attempts to disperse the protesters grew more violent.

Yanukovych rushed through a series of repressive laws in a last-ditch bid to quash the protest movement.

Instead, unrest spiraled out of control.

Furious demonstrators, largely peaceful for weeks, hurled cobblestones and Molotov cocktails at police from behind flaming tyre barricades.

Police returned fire first with rubber bullets, water cannon and tear gas, then live ammunition.

When three activists were shot dead by police snipers on 22 January, Sardarian decided to return to Kiev.

“At that moment I understood that if we do nothing, we will lose everything,” he says.

“I understood that if Maidan loses, those guys will stay in the cabinet and we will have no laws, no country, no future.”

He became a Maidan volunteer, joining its student assembly and helping out at various medical points around the square.

At around 6am on the morning of 19 February, he offered to help out at one of the makeshift hospitals in a nearby church.

“I didn’t know in the morning there would be shooting, I just asked if they needed volunteers. Then at around 7am it started.”

Special forces loyal to Yanukovych fired live ammunition into ranks of protesters predominantly armed with sticks and wooden shields.

A handful fired back with the odd shotgun or hunting rifle.

Other snipers fired from a position on the top of the enormous Soviet-styled Hotel Ukraine, mowing down protesters by the dozen.

Suddenly the Maidan was overflowing with casualties of all ages and genders.

Sardarian did his best to help out.

“Everywhere there was shooting, people dying, people fighting. I tried to help some, dressing wounds, but mostly I was carrying people and equipment.”

Shocked by the bloodshed and pressured by international interlocutors, Yanukovych’s support base dwindled.

Gathering a handful of belongings, he hastily fled his extravagant mansion complex by helicopter on 22 February.

According to Ukraine’s Health Ministry, by the time he left 106 people had been killed, including 17 police officers.

At least 1,000 people were seriously injured.

Yet one year later, not a single official has been convicted and jailed for the attacks.

The country’s justice system remains unreformed.

At the time, Sardarian and his fellow demonstrators felt that they had won.

After months spent in the biting cold, braving ice, batons, bullets and teargas, they had an opportunity to rebuild a completely corrupted Ukrainian bureaucracy.

Then Russia invaded Crimea.

“Honestly I thought they would stop in Crimea,” Alik reflects.

“But I did think it may become a big problem.”

But Russian aggression didn’t stop in Crimea.

It extended well into Ukraine’s easternmost regions, with Russian intelligence and special forces fomenting unrest, arming and equipping enemies of the new Kiev government.

In August, just as Ukraine looked to have gained the upper hand over the separatists, Russia sent in regular troops to bolster its proxies.

Again, Sardarian was moved to respond.

“When I saw there was a war, I decided to volunteer for the national guard,” Alik says.

“It was hard to make myself understand that I would take a gun, I didn’t want to do that.”

Despite rifle training by mysterious former members of UK and US special forces, he realised he had no appetite for shooting, becoming a medic instead.

But in Ukraine’s desperately ill-equipped medical units, that job was less than rewarding.

“It’s tough to see young guys dying or heavily wounded. And it’s strange when you are helping a guy that is seriously injured, checking his passport, seeing that he is the same age as you, maybe even younger. I’ve seen people without legs, people without hands, people without heads. Half people.”

While Western officials puzzle over Vladimir Putin’s real ambitions in Ukraine and ponder how far he is willing to go, Sardarian believes the answer is straightforward: the paralysis of a generation of young reformers to preserve Ukraine’s kleptocratic oligarchy.

“When I was in the students’ assembly, we occupied the ministry of education. One condition was for them to put financial reports on the internet. We succeeded – now they do it everyday. But today, two of the guys that occupied the ministry with me are fighting here. Most of the people that were really good, really honest, brave, smart, well-educated, most of them are here now, many of them are dying. Imagine what kind of county we could build if there was no war. Fucking Russia.”

Source: Newsweek

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Now Obama Must Arm Ukraine

WASHINGTON, DC -- Ukraine and its allies hope this month’s cease-fire deal with Russia and Russian-backed rebels brings relative calm to southeastern Ukraine.

Pro-Russian soldiers of Ukraine’s self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic ride in mobile artillery cannons on February 25, 2015.

But the Minsk agreement is deeply flawed, and there is every chance it may yet unravel, even if it holds for the short term.

The accord’s greatest flaw is in letting Russia maintain unsupervised control of Ukraine’s border in the Donbass region until the end of the year.

This will mean Russia can freely continue supplying weapons and equipment to locally controlled “people’s militias,” armed formations that will now expressly be permitted under the agreement.

Moreover, while the accord calls for the withdrawal of “foreign armed formations, military equipment and mercenaries,” it creates no effective regime for enforcing a pullout of those Russian military assets from the Kremlin-engineered separatist enclave in the Donbass. 

Despite these flaws, the Minsk agreement buys desperately needed time for the United States and other allies of Ukraine to lay essential groundwork to help Ukraine survive Russia’s assault.

At a minimum, this will mean helping Ukraine to stabilize its reeling economy, absorb and assist more than 1.6 million people uprooted by the war, and rebuild its defense forces.

Last month’s multifront offensive in Donbass by Russia and its well-armed proxy forces showed their superiority.

It helped European leaders recognize that, despite improved training, cohesiveness and equipment, Ukraine’s army is no match for the superior growing arsenal of the aggressor and must be modernized.

Still, in the main, most European leaders are nervous about growing support in the U.S. Congress and in the Obama administration for sending lethal defensive weapons.

However, European military support for Ukraine could involve the politically easier step of sending essential components (including dual-use technologies) to help it develop its own weapons systems.

But that will not be enough.

Ukraine urgently needs anti-tank and other defensive weapons, surveillance drones, advanced counter-battery radar systems and anti-aircraft systems that would raise the costs to the separatists and Russia of new attacks.

U.S. Should Arm Ukrainians 

President Barack Obama, therefore, should approve the rapid transfer of weapons to enhance exactly that Ukrainian deterrent capability.

At a minimum, he should agree to send such aid quickly in the event all-out warfare resumes.

Ukrainian soldiers could be given training in the key weapons systems to be ready to immediately use them.

Crucially, no announcements should be made until weapons are in place and trained Ukrainians are ready to deploy them.

A public announcement, coupled with piecemeal delivery of too few weapons, would dangerously fuel Russian propaganda without delivering deterrent firepower.

Western critics of supplying weapons have protested that this would be insufficient to let Ukraine defeat an all-out Russian invasion.

That is obvious, but it misunderstands the purpose of such arms: to let Ukraine increase the costs to Russia of a new offensive.

Such an improved defense, combined with heavy economic sanctions and Russia’s stalling economy, could be enough over time to force Russian President Vladimir Putin to agree to a lasting peace.

Obama’s decision will rest on whether he concludes that weapons supplies would lead Putin to a disproportionate escalation of Russia’s current war-by-proxy, or even a conventional invasion by regular Russian forces.

Escalation is possible; Russia already has escalated its proxy war—in the absence of any Western military aid—by providing heavy weapons, Russian mercenaries, finance and training.

The Limits of Russian Action 

The tougher question is whether military aid to Ukraine would trigger a direct invasion.

The record of Russia’s engagement in the Donbass war suggests it would not.

According to Ukraine’s armed forces chief, General Viktor Muzhenko, thousands of Russian forces are in southeastern Ukraine but are mostly not engaged in direct combat.

Their role is mainly command and training of the separatist militias, intelligence gathering, the operation of long-range artillery and targeting of Ukrainian forces.

Russia has only once deployed large military units in direct combat—at Ilovaysk in August, to beat back a Ukrainian offensive that threatened to defeat the proxy forces, which then were weaker and more lightly armed.

Yet even under these rules of engagement, there have been significant Russian casualties, and Putin’s government has taken extreme measures to hide this fact—and the massive Russian military presence in Ukraine—from the Russian people.

The Kremlin has kept secret its burials of paratroopers and tank drivers killed in Ukraine; has sent thugs to beat reporters and dissidents who have documented Russian troops’ presence in the war; and has warned dead soldiers’ families not to discuss their losses in public.

The Financial Times reported last month that Putin agreed to an initial cease-fire in September only after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko threatened to make Russia’s casualties a domestic political issue for Putin.

Poroshenko threatened to reveal hundreds of Russian military dog tags that Ukraine’s forces had collected during combat, and to directly inform the mothers of these dead Russian soldiers.

(Russia’s “soldiers’ mothers committees” are a potential source of opposition to Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine war.)

Russian Opinion Polls 

Repeated Russian opinion polls have underscored the good reason for Putin’s caution.

While Russians support a right to independence for Donbass and Russian military help to the proxy “people’s republics” in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, a November 2014 survey found 58 percent of respondents firmly opposed to direct military intervention in Ukraine.

Asked whether they would support the participation of family members in combat, 68 percent said no.

Putin shapes his foreign policies to maintain his domestic support.

Amid Russia’s deepening economic decline, he would be loath to ignite a new source of opposition sentiment.

Thus Russia is most likely to rely on its recruitment, arming, and financing of proxy forces in Donbass.

But with casualties high, the pool from which it can keep sending mercenaries—including its own soldiers “on holiday,” army veterans, ultranationalists and criminals—is not without limit.

No one, of course, can offer absolute guarantees about Putin’s actions, but the overwhelming preponderance of evidence suggests there are limits to Russia’s capacity for escalation.

So the quiet provision of weapons and strong financial support to Ukraine—plus tough economic sanctions on Russia—are the best way to establish the greater strategic equilibrium required to push Moscow to a durable peace with Ukraine.

Russian Opinion Polling – A Sample 

Here are a few of the recent findings by prominent Russian public opinion pollsters, as published in Russian media, with links to their sources.

  • By 58 percent to 23 percent, Russians surveyed opposed a direct role for Russian forces in the Ukraine war (November 2014). 
  • Of Russians surveyed, only 13 percent would support sending their own children to fight in support of the Kremlin-backed separatists in Ukraine (November 2014). 
  • Only 25 percent of Russians believe that their country’s own troops are fighting in Donbass (November 2014). 
Source: Newsweek

Moscow Court Hands 'Death Sentence' To Hunger-Striking Ukrainian MP

MOSCOW, Russia -- An appeals court in Moscow today refused to bring forward the trial date of the Ukrainian MP Nadiya Savchenko, who has been on hunger strike for over 70 days.

Ukrainian army pilot Nadezhda (Nadia) Savchenko looks out from a defendants' cage as she attends a hearing at the Basmanny district court in Moscow February 10, 2015.

The ruling could mean that Savchenko will die in pretrial detention, and her campaigners have slammed the decision as effectively being a “death sentence”.

Russia charged Savchenko, 33, with involvement in a mortar attack that killed two Russian journalists last summer, in the ongoing conflict between pro-Russian separatists and forces loyal to Kiev in eastern Ukraine.

The former military pilot was captured by pro-Russian forces last June after joining a volunteer battalion.

The Ukrainian government claims she was abducted by pro-Russian separatists near Luhansk and handed over to the Russian authorities, yet Russia claims she crossed the border herself, posing as a refugee.

The court today upheld an earlier ruling that Savchenko be tried on May 13, but lawyers and campaigners are increasingly worried that she will not survive until then.

Last week, it was confirmed that she has decided to refuse further glucose injections because of the swelling effect the continuous injections are having on her veins.

She is now only accepting water.

Savchenko is thought to have lost around half a kilo (1.1 lbs) a day since she first went on hunger strike on December 13.

One of her lawyers Mark Feygin, wrote on Twitter earlier today before the result of the appeal:

"The court has one last chance to change the measure of restraint against innocent Nadiya Savchenko, or they risk letting her die.” 

“There is very little time left now,” her lawyer Nikolai Polozov told Newsweek.

“She is only alive thanks to her army training, willpower and courage. But even that is not infinite. If we do not urgently take action, we will witness the dramatic finale of this story.”

There has also been confusion and outrage surrounding two mysterious German medics who supposedly visited Savchenko two weeks ago and conducted an ultrasound of her internal organs.

They apparently presented themselves as ‘experts on hunger strike’, but their report of her condition has yet to be made public, despite the extremely time-sensitive nature of her case.

According to Alex King, who started the online campaign #FreeSavchenko:

“Had German doctors released their recent medical examination of Nadiya, her lawyers would have been able to refute Russian prosecutors who claim that Savchenko is fit enough to be held in detention.”

“Today the Kremlin passed a death sentence on Nadiya Savchenko. How many more chances must we give to President Putin to show he’s human, to prove that he’s not taking Russia back to the Dark Ages?” King continues.

“There are no more chances. We fight on for Nadiya, for Ukraine and for democracy.”

A Ukrainian human rights group yesterday reported that Savchenko is experiencing kidney and gall bladder problems, although this cannot be verified.

Savchenko, despite pleas and requests from her friends, families, lawyers, politicians and the European Court of Human Rights, refuses to stop the hunger strike.

“She believes the hunger strike is the only way of countering the repressive machine of the Putin system,” said Polozov.

“Her condition is immediate release from unlawful imprisonment, or death.”

Source: Newsweek

NATO Commander Warns About Deteriorating Situation In Ukraine

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The fighting in eastern Ukraine is “getting worse every day” and Western efforts to deter Russian intervention are having little effect, NATO’s top military commander said Wednesday.

Gen. Philip M. Breedlove attends a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

In appearances on Capitol Hill and at the Pentagon, Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, gave a decidedly pessimistic account of the Ukrainian conflict.

He also predicted that Russia’s success in destabilizing Ukraine would embolden President Vladi­mir Putin to sow divisions elsewhere as part of a strategy to weaken NATO politically and expand Moscow’s influence in the region.

With the Obama administration wrestling with the question of whether to respond more aggressively by providing arms to the Ukrainian government, Breedlove acknowledged that such a move would be a gamble.

“I can’t tell you what is going on inside Putin’s head,” he said, adding that U.S. officials are unsure whether sending arms to Kiev would cause Russia to back down, or escalate the war.

“We have to be cognizant that if we arm the Ukrainians, it could cause positive results. It could cause negative results. But what we’re doing right now is not changing the results on the ground,” he said during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.

Later, during a press conference at the Pentagon, Breedlove said he has submitted formal recommendations to the White House, via his chain of command at the Pentagon, on what other measures Washington should take to push back against Moscow and its support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Although he declined to elaborate on his proposals, Breedlove said that in order to turn the tide in Ukraine, the United States and its NATO allies need to develop a more effective mix of diplomatic, military and economic tactics.

“We don’t want a war of grand proportions in Ukraine. We must find a diplomatic and political solution,” he said.

“What is clear is that this is not getting better. It is getting worse every day.”

Obama administration officials have said they are weighing a new round of economic sanctions against Russia as well as whether to send anti-tank missiles and other weaponry to Ukraine.

Until now, Washington has limited its military assistance to non-lethal aid, such as body armor, night-vision goggles, radios and uniforms. 

There is rising bipartisan support in Congress for the idea of arming the Ukrainians, with many lawmakers criticizing Obama for being too cautious.

But some influential NATO allies, including Germany and France, have resisted the idea, arguing that it would only make matters worse. 

“We have to be absolutely straightforward to say that none of us knows what Putin will decide,” Breedlove said.

“If we take action, many believe he’ll accelerate. If we take action, others believe it may raise the cost to him, and he might make another decision.”

In general, Pentagon officials are believed to favor a more aggressive approach.

At his confirmation hearing this month, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said he was “inclined” to support arming Ukraine’s government.

On Wednesday, Breedlove also downplayed the idea that Putin would “up the ante” if Washington delivered weapons to Kiev.

He noted that the Russian government has already sent combat forces into eastern Ukraine, including artillery battalions and sophisticated air defenses.

“I would say that Putin has already set the bar and the ante very high,” he said.

Source: The Washington Post