Russia: Plan B In Ukraine


July 12, 2014: In Ukraine the Russian backed Donbas separatists have suffered serious defeats in the last few weeks and are further weakened by internal disputes and less support from Russia. Ukrainian security forces have entered most rebel held areas and basically crippled Russian efforts to annex the Donbas. The two Ukrainian provinces (Donetsk and Luhansk) which comprise the Donbas are now mostly under government control. Donbas contains about nine percent of Ukrainian territory, 13 percent of the population and 15 percent of the GDP. Donbas is about 38 percent ethnic Russian. The two provinces comprise the Donets Basin (or “Donbas”) which was for a long time an economic powerhouse for Soviet Russia. But that began to decline in the 1980s and accelerated when the Soviet Union fell (and Ukraine became independent) in 1991. Ukraine wants to hold onto Donbas but needs foreign help to do so.  

Ukraine received diplomatic, economic and military aid from the West but the most important foreign aid was the economic pressure on Russia that causes a massive flight of foreign and Russian capital from Russia. The economic angle is important because Donbas residents (Ukrainians as well as ethnic Russians) are more concerned with the local economy than remaining part of Ukraine. Initial Russian success in Donbas was partly possible because two decades of corrupt and inept Ukrainian politicians have left the economy a mess and living standards lower than the rest of Eastern Europe and even Russia. Most Ukrainians want some economic progress and that means less corruption and more efficient government. Petro Poroshenko, the newly elected Ukrainian president is seen as honest and competent, but it remains to be seen if he can turn around enough corrupt government officials and politicians who currently run the government and economy. Poroshenko was sworn in on June 7th and Ukrainians expected him to show some results quickly otherwise the economic stagnation will continue and Donbas will be lost more to apathy than Russian aggression. Poroshenko’s efforts to deal with corruption and revive the national economy have gone forward but are still overshadowed by the Russian backed violence in Donbas.  

Poroshenko has shown he will not back down in the face of Russian threats and it is the Russians who have blinked, so far. Russian leaders were forced to pay attention to the capital flight (over $75 billion do far) because that has had a real and negative effect on the Russian economy. In addition Western nations are gradually severing Russian ties to the Western economy the Russian aggression unnerved many Russian investors and business leaders. Economic statistics for the year so far show the damage clearly. This financial panic makes it even more difficult for Russia to grow its economy and keep most Russians content with their increasingly authoritarian government. Economist expect more than $100 billion to leave Russia by the end of the year, and this cripples economic growth because that cash is not available to invest in new and existing businesses. As a result Russia has backed off on its support for the Donbas rebels but not completely abandoned them.

Russia appears to have a “Plan B” for the Donbas that that includes keeping the rebels operational, even if at a very low level, so that by the end of the year, when the cold weather returns, Russia can uses its control over natural gas supplies for Ukraine to compel the Ukrainians to cede Donbas to Russia. This is a long shot but it is possible and Russia now trying to portray itself as the Good Guy and peacemaker. For the moment Russia is beaten, but not defeated.

Ukraine has been fighting to keep Donbas and since April, when Ukrainian troops moved in and clashed with pro-Russian rebels. In three months of fighting over a thousand troops, police, civilians and rebels have died. The fighting has driven over 100,000 people from their homes and that could more than double as civilians flee the city of Donetsk. That could result in over 3 percent of the 6.6 million people in Donbas becoming refugees and that number could increase when the other rebel held city, Luhansk, is also besieged.

Many of the Donbas refugees are ethnic Russians and they flee to Russia. This includes a growing number of former rebels who have quit their rebel organization in disgust or frustration at the recent decline in Russian support. Rebel morale is down and desertions (and sometimes surrenders to government forces) are up because the various rebel factions are arguing over what to do and who should be in charge. In the past Russia provided general guidance (and material support for that “guidance”) and the various rebel groups each did what they could to support the Russian plan. At the moment Russia no longer has a clear strategy for the Donbas rebellion, although that may change. And it is that hope that is keeping many of the remaining rebels fighting. Russian volunteers and some light weapons and ammo continue to cross the border into Donbas. But more substantial support requires Russian government cooperation and, for the moment, that cooperation has stopped. Some 90 percent of the pro-Russian rebels are ethnic Russians from Ukraine (mostly from Donbas, where the population is nearly 40 percent ethnic Russian). Unfortunately for the rebels, they do not have the support of most people in Donbas, not even most of the ethnic Russians.

In one area Russian support for the Ukraine rebels continues. Russia still helps with the pro-rebel campaign on the Internet. This Information War type effort tries to convince people that what is going on in Donbas is not another Russian attempt to annex neighboring territory but a legitimate uprising against a tyrannical Ukrainian government. This Information War campaign is not having much success and is mainly appreciated by rebel supporters (in Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere) who have already made up their minds.

The Cold War is returning in more ways than one. For example, the U.S. and Russia again dominate the arms exporting business and the two of them account for nearly sixty percent of weapons exports. While both nations compete for some of the same customers, each nation has areas where they do much of their business without serious competition. India and China account for half the Russian exports. The Arab Gulf States account for 45 percent of American export business.

July 11, 2014: In Ukraine government forces are attacking rebels at the Donetsk International Airport. Donetsk is one of the last two major city in eastern Ukraine (the Donbas) held by the rebels. The other rebel held city is Luhansk and it is under air and artillery attack.

July 10, 2014: In Ukraine pro-Russian rebels fired rockets at a government held border post on the Russian border, killing 23 Ukrainian troops and wounding about three times as many. Ukraine promised retaliation for this, the largest loss in one attack in Donbas so far.  The casualties were caused by rockets brought in from Russia.

Russia conducted the first successful use of Angara, its new satellite launcher. This is the first such new rocket developed since the Cold War ended and the Russian space program collapsed from lack of funding. In the last decade Russia has poured a lot more money into their space program and the Angara launch is another result.

July 9, 2014: In Ukraine air force attacks on pro-Russian rebels in the Donbas left over fifty dead. Ukraine is using its air force to keep an eye on where the rebels are and then to bomb them.

Russia has agreed to forgive 90 percent of the $35 billion (or more) owed to Russia by Cuba. All of this was Russian aid received from the 1960s to the early 1990s. This debt forgiveness is part of a Russian effort to improve relations with Cuba, which survived during the Cold War largely because of generous Russian subsidies (cash, oil and essential equipment). That all ended when the Soviet Union went bankrupt in 1991. Since then Cuba has become less communist, at least in terms of how their economy is run. China has become a major investor, but does not provide the massive freebies that Russia supplied during the Cold War.

July 8, 2014: In Ukraine pro-Russian rebels fell back into the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk as government forces swept through the Donbas countryside chasing rebels out of many towns and villages. This led the rebels and West European nations to urge the Ukraine government to agree to another ceasefire. The Ukrainians pointed out that the rebels had used previous ceasefires as opportunities to increase their military strength, not sit down and seriously try to work out a permanent peace. So Ukraine is keeping the pressure on until Donbas is free of pro-Russian rebels. That could take a while because the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk have to be taken from the rebels and that must be done with minimal damage to the cities. Bombing and shelling the cities would only cause more locals to back the rebels. So the cities will be surrounded and, in effect, undergo siege. This can take time, but it might persuade the rebels to negotiate an end to it all.

July 7, 2014: In Ukraine pro-Russian rebels have fled the city of Slaviansk and either deserted or headed for the city of Donetsk (100 kilometers to the south).  Driving the rebels out of Slaviansk is the biggest victory yet for the government forces, which are now moving on to besiege Donetsk.

July 4, 2014: In Ukraine the government said it would consider ceasefire negotiations if the rebels stopped fighting. Many rebels are interested in negotiations, but are concerned about amnesty and avoiding prosecution for death and destruction they inflicted since April. The rebels are also split by leadership and strategy disputes. Ukraine is finding that there does not seem to be a single rebel leader to deal with anymore.

July 3, 2014: President Putin has called for new education efforts to indoctrinate Russian children to be more patriotic and to ignore foreign (mainly Western) influences. This is another attempt to revive Cold War era programs. The communist Soviet government spent a lot of time, money and effort on educating children to be pro-Soviet. It didn’t work then and is unlikely to work now. But this is the direction current Russian rulers want to take the country in.

July 2, 2014: Three Russian Mi-28N helicopter gunships arrived in Iraq, delivered broken down in air transports. This is part of an Iraqi order for fifteen Mi-28Ns that is being accelerated. This speed is in the best interests of the manufacturer as well as Iraq as the Mi-28Ns would be immediately sent into combat against Islamic terrorists in northern and western Iraq. This would make the Mi-28N “combat tested” in a region where more export sales of the Mi-28N have been sought. Combat tested aircraft are always easier to sell.

July 1, 2014: In Ukraine the ten day ceasefire came to an end as the government forces resumed their offensive against the Donbas rebels.

Iran has flown three of their Su-25 ground attack into Iraq to join the five that arrived from Russia earlier. It appears that most of these eight aircraft are being flown by Iranian pilots and maintained by Iranian and Russian personnel.

June 30, 2014: The new leader of Islamic terrorists in the Caucasus (Ali Abu Mukhammad, also known as Aliaskhab Kebekov) has released an hour-long video in which is urges his followers to reduce civilian casualties (especially Moslem women and children) and not fight to the death when cornered. This is an admission of defeat and a decision to switch tactics. Islamic terrorists in the Caucasus will still use suicide bombs and attack security forces and local officials at every opportunity, but the strategy is now more long term and focused on reducing losses among Islamic terrorists and building up public support. Most people in the Caucasus are unhappy with local governments, which are corrupt and pro-Russian. Before the Islamic terrorists can take leadership of that resentment they have to shed their reputation of being mindless butchers who kill lots of civilians without seeming to have any impact on the corrupt local governments.

June 28, 2014:  In Ukraine rebels in Donetsk released four OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation) observers were taken prisoner in late May.

June 27, 2014: Ukraine signed a free trade agreement with the European Union (EU). It was a Ukrainian effort to sign such a deal last November that led to the Russian campaign to seize Crimea (which succeeded in March) and Donbas (which seems to be failing.) Russia protested the new deal with the EU, to no effect. Georgia and Moldova signed similar deals, despite sinister warnings by Russia not to.

Ukraine extended the ceasefire in Donbas 72 hours in the hope that the rebels would agree to serious peace negotiations and end their violence against Ukrainian soldiers and police in the Donbas. Some rebels want to make peace but the majority do not and these hardliners are responsible for the sniper and mortar fire against government forces during the week long ceasefire.  

June 25, 2014: NATO denounced Russia for continuing to support the Ukraine rebels after promising to withdraw such support. By the end of the month Russia had shut down most of that support, apparently because of the damage the Western economic sanctions were doing to the Russian economy.

Russian media reported that one of the three remaining Russian satellites built to detect ICBM launches has failed. The failed satellite was an Oko-1 that was launched in 2012 and was supposed to last 5-7 years. Russia began launching the Oko-1 satellites in 1991 but only two of them have lasted more than five years. The Oko-1s are GTO (high stationary orbit) type satellites costing $45 million each and two are needed to provide worldwide coverage. The older satellites are in lower, non-stationary orbit and with only two of the pre-Oko-1 satellites left Russia can detect American ICBM launches for only about three hours a day. Russia is not completely blind as it is rebuilding its network of long range (over-the-horizon) radars. These provide less warning, and less time to decide what to do.





Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close