Russia: The Memories Work Both Ways


June 7, 2014: For two months now Ukrainian troops have been in Donbas with orders to fight the Russian rebels. This offensive has, according to the government, left about sixty soldiers, over 120 civilians and an unknown (but large, several hundred) Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels dead. The most recent fighting has been in the Donbas city of Donetsk, where about 40 people have died in the last few weeks, most of them rebels. But many other rebels have kept out of the way of the Ukrainian troops and become terrorists, making normal life impossible. Thus while troops killed or chased rebels out of the Donetsk airport in the last week, it may take until the end of June before rebel irregulars can be cleared out the surrounding area so that it is safe to resume flight operations. The rebels will fire on any aircraft and don’t much care if they cause civilian casualties.

The Ukrainian military is also careful about who they send to fighting in Donbas. Basically, it’s only volunteers who go and even then the idea is to keep friendly (military and civilian) casualties as low as possible. Not all the Ukrainian troops in Donbas are active duty soldiers. A growing number are civilian (usually former military) volunteers from Donbas who are given a few weeks training, uniforms, weapons and sent in a “National Guard” battalions under their own leaders (with the help of some regular army advisors and specialists). Because of all this Ukraine has taken to referring to the Donbas fighting as an anti-terrorist operation. The rebels in turn insist, as does Russia, that they are purely local but admit to having some foreign “volunteers”. This admission is necessary because Ukrainian security forces have proof of foreigners that are involved (either by capturing some or identifying the dead). There have also been pictures of vehicles loaded with armed men and military equipment entering Donbas from Russia. This sort of thing is simply denied by the Russians and denounced as some kind of American trick.

Ukrainian military and intelligence officials believe only about 20 percent of the population in the Donbas is pro-Russian to any degree but that it appears that many rebels are taking orders from Russia and getting a lot of material and psychological support from Russia as well. Yet many of the Donbas rebels appear to be out of control and operating more like bandits than separatist patriots. There has been some fighting between Russia controlled rebels (like the Vostok Battalion) and locally organized and led rebels. The Vostok Battalion is staffed and run largely by Russian “volunteers” and seems to be trying to find locals who can reliably run a local government that will follow orders from Russia. That is proving difficult because the rebels do not control all of the Donbas and Russia is having trouble getting enough pro-Russian locals to fight the Ukrainian government. By sending in more Russians there is greater risk that so many of these Russian operatives will be captured (dead or alive) that it will be impossible to maintain the illusion that the armed resistance in Donbas is being staffed by pro-Russian Ukrainians. This may explain the recent Russian willingness to negotiate a ceasefire or some other accommodation on the Donbas. Russia wants to stop the Ukrainian offensive because the pro-Russian forces are losing and has apparently not given on eventually annexing Donbas.

Ukraine sees Russian campaign to seize the Donbas region as the result of Russian greed as well as Russian nationalism. Donbas contains two Ukrainian provinces (Donetsk and Luhansk) which comprise about nine percent of Ukrainian territory, 13 percent of the population and 15 percent of the GDP. Luhansk has half the population of Donetsk and the two provinces are about 38 percent ethnic Russian. The two provinces comprise the Donets Basin (or “Donbas”) which was for a long time an economic powerhouse for 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 needs economic as well as military aid. The economic aid may be more important as recent opinion polls show that Donbas residents (natives as well as ethnic Russians) are more concerned with the economy than maintaining Ukrainian independence and current borders. Russian success in Donbas is 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 is sworn in today and is expected to show some results quickly otherwise the economic stagnation will continue and Donbas will be lost.

As things stand now international economic organizations see Ukrainian GDP shrinking five percent in 2014, largely because of the disruption to economic activity in Donbas and the loss of Crimea. Many of the pro-government militias in Donbas are composed of employees of major local companies whose owners are siding with the government. If Poroshenko proves honest and competent these business owners will continue to support Donbas remaining part of Ukraine. The businessmen see the business environment in Russia even worse and many would sell at a loss while they could if Poroshenko does not deliver. The employees are mainly concerned with their jobs and don’t really care if the boss is Ukrainian or Russian.

The Russian attempt to dismember Ukraine relies heavily on subversion tactics developed centuries ago by Russian explorers and adventurers and improved on by the communists as they replaced the imperial government in the early 1920s. This subversion 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 Donbas and Crimea. Russia uses cash and a few hundred special operations and secret police personnel to recruit and organize pro-Russian rebels in Donbas. This sort of thing is nothing new, it’s been used for thousands of years and nearly every major nation has used it at least once. Russia, however, has been a particularly frequent user of this technique. Russia used the subversion technique successfully in 2008 when they went after the tiny Caucasus state of Georgia and annexed six percent of Georgian territory. A major component of subversion tactics has come to be called the “Big Lie” technique. 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 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 and a low-cost (and low-risk, if done right) method of expanding Russian control and influence.

The origins of the current subversion campaign is the need for Russian leaders to gain more supporters inside Russia despite the fact that Russia is being turned into a dictatorship again. One of the few things many Russians agree on was that the loss of the Russian empire (when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991) was not a good thing. Russia lost half its population in 1991 and Russians don’t like to dwell on the fact that nearly all of those former Soviet subjects really, really wanted to get away from Russian rule. Yet many Russians believe that Ukraine should still be part of Russia, or at least some parts of Ukraine should be.

The Russian Donbas grab has generated a huge international backlash. This should have been no surprise since Russia had already seized Crimea (with half the land area of Donbas and a third of the population) and in 2008 seized six percent of Georgian territory. While the Georgian aggression cost Russia relatively little, the Ukrainian land-grab is causing major economic damage, to both Russia and the many foreign nations that have invested in Russia over the last two decades.  Huge amounts of Russian and foreign cash has already fled the country and most foreign investment plans are dead or on hold. The IMF (International Monetary Fund) believes the Russian economy is now in recession. This is not so much because of the sanctions, but because investors (Russian and foreign) see the Ukrainian adventure ending badly for Russia and until it is clear that the outcome is otherwise, are getting their money to a safer place.  The damage to foreign investors is even larger, with over a trillion dollars’ worth of foreign investments at risk because they consist of land, structures and equipment that cannot be moved as easily as cash. This is similar to the financial bath Western investors took a century ago as Russian entered World War I and eventually fell apart in a civil war and came back to life as the Soviet Union, which repudiated foreign debts and seized most foreign property. It’s déjà vu all over again.  The more financial damage Western investors suffer the more reluctant they will be to return to Russia in the future. Since Russia has lots of development potential but insufficient cash to make the most of it, this lack of foreign investment

All this foreign blowback is played down by the Russian media but the reality is different. Russia has eased up on its threats to Ukraine quietly started talks to end the confrontation in large part because of the economic backlash. That means even Ukrainian debts for natural gas shipments are no longer being used to justify cutting off all Ukrainian gas exports. This would be disastrous during cold weather but would also mean no Russian gas getting through to its European customers. That could cost Russia many billions of dollars in gas sales and prompt Europe to seek other, and more reliable, sources of supply. Nevertheless Russia has not given up on its plan to annex Donbas. That effort has been stymied by the Ukrainian counteroffensive that began in April. Russia initially threatened Ukraine with a larger military offensive if the Ukrainian troops were not withdrawn from Donbas. That did not work and the Russians were not willing to risk following through on their threat. Meanwhile over 100,000 civilians have fled the violence, especially when bullets started flying in their neighborhoods. Most of the refugees went to other parts of Ukraine while about five percent fled to Russia. There are believed to be a few thousand armed rebels in Donbas, not all of them operating in groups. They are mainly causing chaos, which seems to suit Russia just fine.

NATO’s new members in Eastern Europe are calling for vigorous opposition to Russian aggression. The Russian moves against Ukraine have backfired in other ways. Russia has always opposed more of its neighbors joining NATO. The Ukrainian adventure seems to have made that Russian nightmare more of a reality. Poland and the Baltic States managed to join NATO after the Cold War ended and are depending on the mutual defense terms of the NATO alliance to dissuade Russia. NATO members have sent more troops to Poland and the Baltic States for training and preparing for possible larger operations. Nevertheless all four East European NATO members, plus Finland, have increased their military readiness this year and are seeking assurances from the West that they will have help against Russia. Many Finns have called for Finland to join NATO, but a large minority has opposed this because of the fear it would anger the Russians. There was a similar division in Ukraine but now more Finns are thinking that NATO membership is preferable to trusting Russia to always behave. Even Sweden, never part of the Russian empire and successfully neutral since the early 19th century is thinking about joining NATO for protection from an increasingly aggressive Russia.

June 6, 2014: A Ukrainian Air Force An-26 twin-engine transport was shot down in the Donbas. There are more attacks on border crossings in the Donbas. The pro-Russian forces want control of these crossing points so truckloads of gunmen and weapons (and ammo) can cross.

June 5, 2014: Ukraine said it had abandoned three border posts on the Russian border because of numerous attacks on the border guards stationed there. The attacks were carried out from inside Ukraine by pro-Russia rebels. One of those posts was quickly taken over by some of these rebels. Such attacks have been frequent as border guards have sometimes detected Russian agents trying to get into Ukraine and arrested them. This is embarrassing for Russia and interferes with their timetable for taking control of Donbas. 

In a defiant but inconsequential gesture Russia and North Korea agreed to conduct their foreign trade using the Russian currency (the ruble). That trade only amounts to about $120 million a year. Russia is currently being temporarily cut off from many Western economic opportunities and organizations because of Russian aggression in Ukraine. The Russian leaders are using the Ukrainian situation to build support for the increasingly authoritarian government.

June 2, 2014: Outside the Donbas city of Luhansk several hundred rebels spent most of the day firing on a border post. This caused several dozen casualties. The border guards were eventually joined by friendly air and ground forces, which also attacked some known rebel bases. 

May 31, 2014: Russia has agreed to move some 40,000 troops away from the Donbas border. NATO is carefully tracking this and reporting any progress. Russia says it will take until June 8th to complete the move. NATO noted that some of the troops had moved back.

May 29, 2014: In Ukraine rebels shot down a Ukrainian helicopter over Donbas, killing twelve people including a Ukrainian general.

Russia persuaded Belarus and Kazakhstan to join a new economic union with Russia. This Eurasian Economic Union will become effective in 2015 and will allow goods to move freely in all three countries without customs levies. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan are also considering joining. Kazakhstan has also agreed to become part of a unified multi-national air defense system sponsored by Russia. Belarus has also agreed to join and Armenia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are also expected to sign on as well.  All this is more than helping out a neighbor with their defense needs. This is the less violent Russian approach to rebuilding their empire. For over a decade Russia has been proposing things like customs unions, military cooperation and rebuilding the old Soviet air defense system that used to defend everyone in the empire. Ukraine refused to consider joining the union or air defense system and made it clear it preferred closer ties with the West. Russia took violent exception to that attitude.

May 28, 2014: Ukrainian forces battled rebels at the airport in the Donbas city of Donetsk, killing at least fifty rebels in the process. The Ukrainian effort included frequent use of warplanes against several hundred gunmen the rebels had brought in. This defeat caused the rebels to reconsider fighting the Ukrainian troops head on. Russia called the Ukrainian offensive in Donbas genocide against Russians. That gets some traction in Russia but elsewhere is considered ludicrous.

Now that Russia has taken control of the Ukrainian province of Crimea it is using some very traditional Russian techniques to ensure that the population does not change its mind and support the return of Ukrainian control. Thus from now on soldiers recruited (or drafted) from Crimea will be stationed in the Russian Far East (Pacific Coast). The several thousand Ukrainian soldiers who changed sides during the Russian takeover will be stationed in the Caucasus. Russia wants as few armed and trained natives in Crimea as possible.  

May 26, 2014: In the Donbas city of Donetsk rebels seized the airport and declared “martial law” in an effort to disrupt Ukrainian control over the Donbas.

May 25, 2014: The presidential election was held in Ukraine and it was won by Petro Poroshenko, a well known businessmen and politician. He quickly gained support from many Western leaders. Poroshenko has long been active in Ukrainian politics. He helped finance the popular revolt that brought down his pro-Russian predecessor Victor Yanukovych. Worth over a billion dollars, Poroshenko has had time to serve as a minister in several earlier governments. He has been the foreign minister and trade minister as well as holding other senior positions. He gets these jobs because he is seen as honest and effective. Poroshenko is known locally as the "Chocolate King" because of how he made most of his money by building a successful enterprise that makes all sorts of candies and other sweets. Poroshenko has been outspoken about many other popular politicians who are notoriously corrupt. Poroshenko is seen as one of the few good guys in Ukrainian politics. He got 55 percent of the vote to be elected president. Rebels blocked voting at about 80 percent of the voting stations in Donbas but those who did get to vote there went for Poroshenko.

May 24, 2014: In the Caucasus (Ingushetia) troops killed five Islamic terrorists including a senior leader who had long been sought.

May 22, 2014: In Ukraine rebels attacked an army checkpoint 30 kilometers south of the city of Donetsk. This left 17 soldiers and at least one rebel dead.

May 21, 2014: Russia and China agreed to build a natural gas pipeline from Russia to China so Russia can export natural gas to China. The agreement obliged China to buy a minimum amount of Russian natural gas (worth $400 billion) over a 30 year period. This deal had been in the works for a long time and it was believed that the growing production of shale (“fracked”) natural gas worldwide was making this deal unattractive for China. Russia had long dismissed shale gas and fracking as more American fads that would soon fade. Now Russia has to cope with lost markets because of shale gas (driving gas prices down). Since oil and gas are Russia’s major exports, this is a serious matter. With less foreign currency available from energy sales, there is less money to import new technology and consumer goods as well as rebuild the military. Older Russians remember how successful American efforts to lower the price of oil in the 1980s helped bankrupt and destroy the Soviet Union. To many Russians this is happening again. Even ally China suddenly became less likely to be a customer for Russian natural gas because the proposed deal to build a $22 billion natural gas pipeline to China depended on the price of natural gas staying high enough to justify the pipeline cost. With more countries (including Europe and China) fracking a lot, the price of natural gas will stay low and the China pipeline could be a big money loser. Russia has apparently sweetened the deal sufficiently (at Russian expense) to interest the Chinese again. Meanwhile, without any fanfare or much publicity China began, for the first time, producing natural gas from shale using fracking. China has a lot of these shale natural gas deposits and this could eventually produce all the natural gas China needs. The complete details of the Russia-China gas export deal were not made public and it is likely that China has a way to get out of the deal if world prices of natural gas plunge (as they already have in the U.S.) because of fracked natural gas.

May 20, 2014: In Russia two men were convicted of murdering investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 inside the lobby of her Moscow apartment building. This was a big deal as this was seen as a government assassination, not some random crime. The two culprits were caught, tried and acquitted in 2009. That produced local and international outrage. But a higher Russian court threw out the acquittal and ordered a new trial, which produced a conviction. The two killers will be sentenced on June 9th and the two refuse to discuss or hired them to kill Politkovskaya.

The U.S. placed sanctions on twelve Russian officials because of their involvement in the aggression in Ukraine. 


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