Most of the world condemns Russian aggression against Ukraine and the seizure of Ukrainian territory (Crimea). The UN charter forbids such actions, as does a treaty Russia signed in 1994 promising Ukraine that Russia would never seize any Ukrainian territory. This solemn promise was in return for Ukraine giving up the Soviet nuclear weapons in its territory. The agreement that broke up the Soviet Union in 1991 stipulated that Russia and the 14 new countries created (by the half of the Soviet population leaving the empire for independence) would keep whatever Soviet weapons and other state assets were on their territory. That was simple and straightforward but it left Ukraine with over 2,000 nuclear weapons plus 176 ICBMs, 44 heavy bombers and over a thousand nuclear weapon equipped cruise missiles used by the heavy bombers. Ukraine could have been a major nuclear power but it gave it all up for guarantees to its territory from NATO and Russia plus a lot of cash (including the expense of removing the nukes and related equipment). Violating, in such a blatant fashion, an international treaty is a major hit to Russian credibility. China is watching this carefully because China is violating an international maritime borders treaty it signed by claiming all of the South China Sea. What happens to Russia for violating the 1994 treaty will influence what China does with its numerous offshore territorial disputes. Another problem with violating the 1994 treaty is the message it sends to states like Iran. The message is that if you really want to keep invaders out you need nukes. Iranians believe the negotiations to limit Iranian nuclear research and development are an effort to block Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Most Iranians see nukes as a necessity for maintaining Iranian dominance in the region. Iran has been the regional superpower for thousands of years. Once you get a taste of superpower status, it’s a hard thing to put behind you.
Russia and China are using nationalism, in this case the promise of the restoration of lost imperial territories, to distract the population from the corruption and mismanagement of their government officials. This is an ancient political technique that depends on near-total control of information available to their populations. The Internet threatens that and this is a new threat to the building and maintenance of empires. That’s because empires are costly and inefficient. Britain realized that by the 1940s and that’s the main reason they got rid of theirs so quickly after 1945 and why the United States never took advantage of its power to create one. But the allure of empire remains, sort of as the ultimate luxury a state can indulge. Again, the Internet spreads the bad news about the real cause, and effect of empire. China tries to cope with this by concentrating on imperial ambitions (natural resource rights from the ownership of uninhabited rocks and reefs in the South China Sea and elsewhere off the coast). When empires involve conquered people the cost goes way up, as the Chinese are rediscovering in their northwest (Turks) and southwest (Tibetans). A growing number of Russians and Chinese are aware of these angles and are not happy about it. But both Russia and China are still police states with state-controlled media. Holding anti-government opinions is dangerous, especially if you express these traitorous thoughts in public.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is often described in military terms. That is not accurate because Russia knows that it has a far more potent weapon available. It’s not what military forces Russia might send into Ukraine that is a threat, it’s what Russia is threatening not to send. Or, as the old saying goes; follow the money. Ukraine is broke, actually it is worse than broke. This is at the heart of the Ukrainian crises. The problem is that Ukrainians compare themselves to the other independent East European states and fail to acknowledge the damage done by being part of the Russian empire for centuries and an economy that was integrated with the state-controlled economy of the Soviet Union for 70 years. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 those economic links were broken and there was a massive shrinking of the Ukrainian economy. Meanwhile not having been independent for centuries meant there was no tradition of independent government, much less democracy or working in a market economy. The result was massive corruption and mismanagement for the last two decades. Ukraine has fallen way behind the rest of East Europe economically. Neighboring Poland, which had the same per capita income as Ukraine in 1991 now has three times the per capital income. That is pretty obvious to most Ukrainians as is the greater economic opportunity in Poland and much less corruption and bad government.
What precipitated the current crises was an effort by many frustrated Ukrainians to forge economic relationships with European countries and the West in general. Russia saw this as a military threat, if only because many Russians felt that they were still threatened by NATO (which was formed in 1949 to defend Western Europe from a very aggressive Soviet Union). Since 1991 Russian politicians have found it convenient to create the myth that the NATO countries want to conquer Russia, something that was never one of NATO’s goals. In response to this Poland, long a victim of Russia aggression quickly joined NATO as did the Baltic States. Ukraine wanted to join as well and Russia saw that as the last straw. So Russia attacked with its most effective weapon; money. The recently deposed president of Ukraine had gotten elected based on his pledge to establish the economic links with the EU (European Union). But as that was about to happen the Ukrainian president succumbed to Russian bribes and the threat of prosecution for corruption if Ukraine did become closely linked with Western Europe (and a business climate far more hostile to corruption).
The economic links with Europe may still be formed, but Russia has another economic weapon to use on Ukraine. Russia is the primary supplier of natural gas to Ukraine and that gas has become a mainstay of the Ukrainian economy. Cut off the gas and the Ukrainian economic problems become a lot worse. While West Europe can supply cash, they are in no position to supply gas because nearly a third of West Europe’s natural gas also comes from Russia.
Now if Russia did use the natural gas weapon, and cut off Europe as well as Ukraine a lot of damage would be caused. But it would hurt Russia more than Europe because Europe can find other, more expensive, gas sources. Russia takes a bigger hit building new pipelines to China, which is the only potential customer that could replace Europe. Worse for Russia would be the damage to its reputation (already shabby) as a business partner.
The problem here is that Russia, or at least its current leaders, are more willing to pull the trigger than their European adversaries and the Russians know it. It’s a colossal game of chicken the Russians feel they can win, at least in the short term. The West pays more attention to its accountants and that limits your options when dealing with empire builders.
Russian threats to use military force against Ukraine are largely bluff. For a decade now Russia has been struggling to modernize its armed forces most of which are still equipped with Cold War (pre 1991) era weapons and equipment. Despite increasing defense spending by a third since 2008, less than half the Russian troops have modern (post-Cold War) equipment. Moreover, the Russian Army is now smaller than the U.S. Army (300,000 troops versus 500,000), a historical first. Worse, a third of the Russian army troops are conscripts, who are on active duty for one year. While the U.S. Army also has a half million reserve troops who are trained and equipped to quickly enter operations, Russia has less than 100,000 similar (and less well equipped and trained) reserves. Russia also has 200,000 armed men in the Interior Ministry. This is basically a paramilitary forces equipped as light infantry. A few are highly trained commandos and riot police, but most only good for security duties not heavy combat. A third of the Interior Ministry troops are conscripts.
Russia hopes to buy and distribute sufficient new weapons and equipment so that by 2020 at least 70 percent of its combat troops have modern equipment. A lot of Russian commanders are not confident that this deadline will be met. These officers note that since 2008, when the five day Russian invasion of tiny Georgia made painfully obvious the equipment and training shortcomings of the army, not a lot of progress has been made to remedy those problems. Russia only has about 100,000 paratroopers, commandos and airborne troops it can really rely on and these elite forces have to be ready to deal with emergencies across the vastness (11 time zones) of Russia. Those hundred thousand troops would be quickly tied down if a similar move were made into Ukraine (which has ten times the population of Georgia and much more capable armed forces). Russia went into Georgia with 20,000 troops, about a third of them pro-Russian irregulars from nearby areas that had grudges with Georgia. That force suffered higher losses and a lot of other unexpected problems. Russian leaders noted the problems and vowed to fix everything. That has not happened.
Russia does still have some impressive military resources, befitting its size (the largest country on the planet) and responsibilities. Russia still has the second largest fleet of military transports. That is eight percent of the world total, compared to 25 percent for the United States and five percent each for China and India. Russia also has the second largest air force, in terms of numbers. While China is catching up, the Russian air fleet still has an edge in quality. But the Russians are far behind the United States, which has 19 percent of all combat aircraft but about half the air combat power on the planet when you take quality of pilots, aircraft and support into account. So Russia knows it is weak compared to the West, but not helpless.
Russian tactics in Ukraine and the Crimea largely relied on ancient semi-military techniques that were used by the tsars and perfected by the communists who created the Soviet Union. This involves using lots of blatant lies backed up by some muscle on the street, rather than the more conventional declarations of war and mobilizing armies. What the Russian government is doing is creating a series of outright but constantly repeated lies about what is going on in Ukraine to justify Russian paramilitary moves to annex parts of Ukraine. They used the technique successfully in 2008 when they went after the tiny Caucasus state of Georgia and annexed six percent of Georgian territory. This is called the “Big Lie” technique and while often attributed to the Nazi founder Adolf Hitler (who boasted in print of using it) it’s actually thousands of years old. We have written evidence of the ancient Pharaoh’s using it as did Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Napoleon.
The current Big Lie tactics were used to create the Soviet Union. At the end of World War I, as Russia collapsed into civil war, the small Russian Communist Party used the Big Lie a lot. The most obvious example was calling themselves the “Bolsheviks” (Russian for majority) even though they were hardly that. Because of squabbles with another faction in the socialist movement the communists needed all the help they could get at that point. The faction led by Vladimir Lenin continued to call his group Bolsheviks until they really were. After the establishment of the Soviet Union in the early 1920s the Big Lie went on to become a standard tool for Information War operations.
When the Soviet government dissolved in 1991 the Big Lie fell into disfavor for a while but having been such an essential part of the political landscape for so long it was soon back in action. One reason the current Russian government has made such energetic efforts to impose Internet censorship is because the Internet has proved to be an effective and cheap antidote for the Big Lie. The use of the Internet to quickly cripple Big Lies may yet cause Russia serious problems in Ukraine. Then again state control of the mass media enables the Russian government to quickly pump out Big Lies faster than Internet based debunking web sites can expose the falsehoods. The Internet does not kill Big Lies on contact but does shorten the lifespan of Big Lies and diminishes the use of Big Lies for whatever issue they are being applied to. So Russia may well achieve its goals in Ukraine before the Internet can cripple all the Big Lies Russia deployed in support of their land grab. The biggest lie of all is that it is not an invasion but an intervention to protect the rights of ethnic Russians in an area (Crimea) that was always part of Russia and it was simply a bureaucratic oversight, which Russia is correcting as a public service, when the Soviet Union hurriedly dissolved in 1991. The rest of the world notes that there are similar situation in many other nations that were once part of the Russian empire.
Russia also has some resources that enable it to attack the Internet directly. Over the last two decades Russia has created a massive state-sponsored cyber warfare program that is used to spy on other nations as well as domestic enemies. Russian Information War capabilities enable it to attack economic and military targets worldwide. Russia has used these Internet based attacks for its imperial expansion. It was used heavily against Georgia in 2008 and against other former Soviet provinces that have proved troublesome.
The 1994 treaty was meant mainly for Russia and at the time there were many Ukrainians who wanted to hold onto the nukes (despite the enormous costs and technical problems) as a way to discourage Russia from trying to regain control of Ukraine. It is because of this agreement that Russia is making an effort to hide its role in the takeover of Crimea, where Russian backed dissidents were soon asking to be annexed by Russia. Some of the uniformed men who took control of Crimea are apparently locals, but the core of this “local militia” are men with obvious military training and who have been using those skills recently. Some have admitted they are Russian soldiers.
China is backing Russia over the Ukraine matter. Makes sense, as China is also an empire trying to reclaim lost territories. That some of those territories are currently Russia’s Far East (areas bordering the Pacific) is not officially discussed in Russia or China but is no secret to many Russians and Chinese. That is a problem for another day, currently Russia and China support each other’s imperial ambitions (as in Ukraine and the South China Sea) and help each other out to deal with any associated problems, especially the UN or economic sanctions. China is also helping by putting economic pressure on Ukraine by suing Ukraine to cancel a $3 billion loan.
The growing aggression of Russia, first seen with the 2008 invasion of Georgia, has revealed different reactions and strategies of East and West Europe, the United States and the rest of the world. East Europe (including Ukraine and all the populations to the west that suffered four decades of Soviet occupation after World War II) is appalled at the way the U.S. and West Europe have so quickly forgotten centuries of Russian aggression in East Europe and the horrors inflicted on East Europe after World War II. Then again the U.S. and Western Europe deliberately abandoned East Europe to Soviet control to avoid war with the Soviets. The world was war-weary in 1945 and East Europe was sacrificed in the name of world peace. That was in large part because Russia was already making threats about East Europe in 1945. It’s easy to understand how the West forgets because it was the West that turned their backs on the suffering of East Europe in an attempt to appease a threatening Russia. Now the Russians are threatening again and East Europe wants some more vigorous response this time. Again, they are told to calm down by the West. East Europe sees this as the prelude to another betrayal and they aren’t keeping quiet about it. This is having an impact on the West, bringing forth long-suppressed guilt for the shabby support (or lack thereof) for East Europe before and after World War II. Will that really change anything? That remains to be seen.
The West has responded with some economic and individual sanctions. This has alarmed many wealthy people in Russia, who understand that Russia is now heavily dependent on the world financial system, which is dominated by the wealthier Western states. Russia is already in trouble with the West over the continuing corruption and lack of legal and enforceable protections for business agreements in Russia. While Russian leaders may blind themselves with imperial fantasies, Russian bankers and financiers cannot exist in such an imaginary world and that means a lot of Russian money is leaving Russia. The Crimean adventure is proving to be a lot more expensive to Russia than most Russian leaders believe. Before the effort to subvert the Ukrainian government began in 2013, Russian bankers and economists were telling the Russian leadership that it was becoming more difficult to attract foreign investment because efforts to reduce cooperation and improve the judicial system were not making enough progress. You can ignore the real problems, but that won’t make them go away. This will become obvious in Russia when they find that their credit cards don’t work outside Russia anymore. From that mundane issue things go rapidly downhill, as in Russia being expelled from international economic organizations it worked so hard to get into (like the G8). .
Another unfortunate result (for Russia) of the Crimean adventure is to make the rest of Europe much more hospitable to fraking. This American developed process makes it possible to obtain huge quantities of oil and natural gas from hydrocarbon deposits long through inaccessible. Environmentalists oppose fracking and have been strong enough in Europe to block efforts to tap into this energy source. The threat of Russia using its natural gas supplies to extort compliance from the rest of Europe has suddenly make fracking much less objectionable.
Ukraine is trying to gets West European nations (especially Germany, which still has clout with Russia because of economic ties) to help get 25,000 Ukrainian military personnel and family members out of Crimea. The Russians are trying to “persuade” these Ukrainians to join Russia but there are apparently few takers.
March 22, 2014: Russian forces in Crimea attacked a Ukrainian air base and took control. The Ukrainian military personnel had refused to allow the Russians in, but did not use their weapons to resist when the Russians used force to crash through the gates and round up the Ukrainian troops. In the Crimean port of Sevastopol Russian forces took control of another Ukrainian warship, making four that have been seized so far. Apparently the Ukrainian troops in Crimea were ordered to resist as much as they could short of using violence and taking casualties.
March 20, 2014: Russia has promised not to invade east Ukraine. This comes as a relief because Russia still has 20,000 combat troops mobilized and sitting near the border. Ukraine said it would fight if the Russians came into the rest of Ukraine and the Russians appeared to be threatening to test that. There is a possibility that might happen, at least on a small scale. That’s because Russian troops can rush into Ukraine and occupy an asset (part of the Russian gas pipeline or some other economic objective) and then dare Ukrainian forces to attack. If that attack does come the Russians declare themselves the victims of unprovoked aggression and retaliate big time. This was used in Georgia back in 2008. Against the Ukrainians it might backfire, but at this moment anything is possible.
In Crimea Russian troops seized three Ukrainian navy ships in the port of Sevastopol.
March 19, 2014: Germany has cancelled a $138 million contract to build a “wired” and computerized military training center in Russia similar to the American NTC. The German company wanted to continue work but the German government stepped in and declared that it was necessary to halt such projects because of Russian military aggression.
March 18, 2014: An Islamic terrorist video posted on the web announced that Russia’s most wanted man, Chechen warlord Doku Umarov was dead and was being replaced as leader of Islamic terrorist rebels in the Caucasus. Umarov took credit for the 2011 terror bombing at a Moscow airport, which killed 36. Umarov claimed responsibility for similar attacks that killed 39 people in the Moscow subway in 2010, and killed 26 in 2009 when a Moscow-St Petersburg train was bombed.
March 17, 2014: The Russian created Crimean leadership called on Russia to let Crimea rejoin Russia.
March 16, 2014: A vote to secede from Ukraine was held in Crimea and to no one’s surprise 96.8 percent voted to join Russia. The vote was rigged so we’ll never know how it really would have gone in a fair vote.
March 15, 2014: Russian troops moved from the Crimea into Ukraine and took control of a natural gas facility near the village of Strilkove. The Russians did not withdraw when threatened with the use of Ukrainian troops against them. The Ukrainians have not attacked.
In eastern Ukraine (Donetsk) several thousand pro-Russian Ukrainians and what appears to be Russian civilians demonstrated and called for Donetsk to vote to join Russia. Ukrainian police forced the demonstrators to disperse. Elsewhere in the city of group of pro-Russian thugs attacked some pro-Ukraine demonstrators and killed one of them. Another 16 people were wounded.
March 14, 2014: In the UN Russia used its veto to block a resolution condemning the Russian seizure of Crimea. China abstained.
March 12, 2014: In the Crimean port city of Sevastopol Russian troops took control of Ukrainian Navy headquarters and took captive the commander of the Ukrainian Navy and some Ukrainian civilians. The admiral and the civilians were released after a few hours. Russian troops also took control of the main airport outside the Crimean capitol of Simferopol.
March 7, 2014: Ukrainian military officials admit that there is no way for Ukraine to take back Crimea, especially since Russia appears to have moved 30,000 troops into Crimea. The Crimean Peninsula is separated from Russia by the 4.5 kilometer wide Kerch Strait. Maximum depth of the strait is 18 meters (59 feet) which has led to proposals that a bridge be built there. Now that Crimea is part of Russia again that might happen.
March 6, 2014: Russia has begun licensed production of the Israeli Searcher 2 UAV. This comes after seven years of negotiations and user trials by Russian troops. The Searcher 2 is a half-ton aircraft with an endurance of 20 hours, max altitude of 7,500 meters (23,000 feet) and can operate up to 300 kilometers from the operator. It can carry a 120 kg (264 pound) payload. In 2012 The Russian Air Force now has at least six Russian made Searcher 2s and is expecting to receive a lot more from the Russian factory.