Russia finally “invaded” Ukraine yesterday after recognizing the two Russian-created governments in the half of Donbas that Russia has been keeping Ukrainian forces out of since 2014. By declaring these two republics as legitimate, Russia justified sending in troops as peacekeepers and threatening to invade the rest of Ukraine if Ukrainian forces fired back against more attacks by the local and Russian forces in these two republics. Russia reinforced this threat by threatening to base over 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border.
As expected, not a lot of the nearly 200,000 Russian troops now near the Ukraine borders actually entered Ukraine. All, or most appeared to be volunteers, rather than the one-year conscripts that comprise half the strength of the armed forces. Few of the conscripts and even fewer of their parents are eager for the conscripts to be fighting neighbors.
Russian airborne forces managed to take an airport ten kilometers outside Kyiv. Efforts to use that airport to bring in additional troops were disrupted by the Ukrainian use of Stinger portable anti-aircraft missiles as well as rifle and machine-gun fire at low flying aircraft. The airport was quickly attacked by a Ukrainian army rapid reaction force organized and trained for retaking key locations seized by Russian airborne forces. While the area around the airport was soon surrounded by regular reservists and armed volunteers, the Rapid Reaction unit retook the airport before the Russians could use larger transport aircraft to bring in more troops. Russia appears to have underestimated the preparations Ukraine have made since 2014 to deal with this kind of invasion. In addition to 150 local defense units (of at least battalion size) arrangements were made to quickly arm, train and deploy volunteers, which includes all physically able males aged 16 to 60. The regular army obtained more portable anti-aircraft weapons and trained special units to deal with any Russians that seized key objectives. All those armed Ukrainians were more of an obstacle that the Russians expected. The invaders are using about a dozen main roads from the border to objectives inside Ukraine. Within hours all those roads were under fire from the armed locals. Even convoys with numerous armed escorts were fired on and the Russians did not have enough troops to clear the roads of armed hostiles. Some convoys were halted by roadblocks and at least one Russian reconnaissance platoon was captured. While the Russians control most Ukrainian airspace and coastal waters, land areas remain under Ukrainian control.
An amphibious assault on the major Black Sea port of Odessa failed and most ground advances appear to have stalled as well. One Russian column that did not encounter any resistance was the one into the Chernobyl radioactive zone. A large region around the Chernobyl power plant is still highly radioactive because of the 1986 nuclear meltdown of one of the reactors. This nuclear disaster, which the Soviets tried to keep quiet, was quickly exposed as major disasters and one of the reasons Ukrainians were so eager to leave the Soviet Union five years later. Most of the victims of the radioactivity were Ukrainian. The invading Russians replaced the Ukrainian security guards keeping people out of the 2,600 square kilometers (thousand square miles) radioactive exclusion zone near the Belarus border. After 1986 about 250,000 people were moved from the zone and since then only tourists were allowed in, under escort, for short periods. About 5,000 people guard the security zone and monitor the enormous concrete and steel structure now surrounding the still highly radioactive power plant uranium core. Those monitors spend fifteen days at a time in the zone and then two weeks outside it, with their radioactivity levels carefully monitored. Those monitor personnel appear to still be there, but now under Russian control. While Ukrainians comprised most of those killed by the melt down, about 70 percent of the initial radiation fell on what is now Belarus. For that reason, it seems unlikely the Russians would not arrange for an accident at the entombed nuclear core. Most Belarussians oppose Russia and their own dictator, which is currently kept in power by Russian forces. The main reason for taking control of the exclusion zone was that it is a key element of one of the shortest routes to Kyiv. So far Russian forces have not advanced much from the exclusion zone to the beleaguered Russian airborne troops trying to hold the airport.
The outcome of the invasion will be more obvious within a week. Much depends on the effectiveness of the local resistance to Russian forces and the roads they use. It is currently the “mud” season in Ukraine where most of the snow is gone and replaced by weeks of mud, which limits off-road travel by wheeled vehicles.
There was another major flaw in the Russian plan; it is expensive and depends on the world price of oil and natural gas as well as Russian access to European markets. Oil and gas prices are at record highs right now, in part because the United States recently reduced its ability to produce a lot of oil and natural gas. Russia thought their oil and gas exports were safe but the angry response of NATO members to the Russian invasion led to something Russia had not expected, nor can afford to deal with. Not only were the West Europe customers for Russian natural gas willing to halt purchases and shut down the two new natural gas pipelines that go from Russia, via the Baltic, to Germany but also halt most trade and economic activity with Russia. This includes sanctioning major Russian banks that handled most of this trade and seizing billions in Russian assets in Europe.
Russia is now in damage-control mode because Western trading partners are more united and willing to impose more economic sanctions than expected. The Belarus and Ukraine pipelines will continue to supply natural gas to Europe as well as Belarus and Ukraine. If Russia does manage to occupy all of Ukraine that could see an end to all natural gas exports to Europe. Oil and natural gas account for 60 percent of Russian exports and nearly half the government budget. Europe has been a major customer, obtaining 40 percent of its heating fuel from Russia. Even before 2014, growing dependence on Russian natural gas was seen as risky. Germany insisted the Russian were dependable and rational. Germany began having second thoughts after 2014, now agrees with the Russia critics and is ending all trade with Russia because of the invasion. East European NATO members warned Germany that Russia had not changed and continued to be a major threat. NATO is now moving more forces to NATO members that border Russia and these reinforcements may become permanent. During the Cold War, the majority of active NATO forces were stationed in West Germany, because the largest and best equipped Russian forces in East Europe were stationed in East Germany.
The economic sanctions include tech exports and maintenance of any Western tech used in Russia. There are also individual sanctions against wealthy Russians with assets in Europe and the United States. Over the last two decades Vladimir Putin conducted a purge of the newly wealthy Russian oligarchs and soon the only ones left were those who supported Putin.
Improved relations with Russia are only possible by Russia making dramatic changes in how it treats Ukraine and East Europe in general. Russia has repeatedly broken promises and formal agreements, so now only Russian actions have any meaning and Russia refuses to behave. Days before the invasion Russian leader Putin told his French counterpart that there would be no invasion. Now Russia is threatening to close all their airspace to foreign commercial traffic. This would be a return to Cold War conditions, when the Soviets shot down foreign airliners that wandered into Russian airspace or, in some cases, just appeared to. There are also the non-oil/gas exports which consist of many rare ores and gasses that are harder to replace in the West. Before the Cold War ended many of these items were not exported. Since 1991 Russia has also become dependent on the income from these exports. Once more it comes down to who can tolerate the most economic pain. Going back to Cold War rules would cost Russia more than anyone else and increase the economic suffering of the average Russian.
The Russian economic decline since 2014 because of Western sanctions has been very real for the average Russian as personal income declines and the percentage of the population living in poverty increases. Efforts to restore the Russian Empire have some popularity among Russians if the economic cost to them is not too great. The new sanctions will be felt most by the average Russian and that is how the Soviet Union lost so much popular support that it collapsed. When it comes to popular unrest the main reason is usually economic and, if you follow the money, you discover who did what to create the mess.
Ukraine, the target of all this Russian aggression, was motivated to resist militarily. This has been a very active tradition during the last century. Towards the end of World War I (1914-18), Ukraine was briefly independent once more. Ukrainians fought back after World War I ended and a civil war broke out in Russia that led to a communist victory and particularly harsh treatment of separatist Ukrainians. Stalin starved Ukraine in the early 1930s and felt justified because of its continued resistance to communist rule. This Holodomor (Great Hunger) killed over three million Ukrainians as too much Ukrainian grain was exported for hard currency. During World War II Ukrainian partisan fighters fought the Germans but many continued to fight returning Russian control late in the war. The armed Ukrainian separatists remained active into the early 1950s. The brutality with which Russia put down this resistance kept the Ukrainian anger alive into the 1980s and that played a role in Ukraine leaving the Russian empire. In the Russian occupied areas of Donbas, Russia assumed that unless harsh measures were taken there would be armed resistance there. While most of the locals were ethnic Russians imported decades before the Soviet Union collapsed, most spoke Ukrainian and welcomed Ukrainian independence in 1991. Russia spent a lot of money and effort to prevent an armed uprising within their Donbas territory. This was the reason so many ethnic Russian Ukrainians fled to Ukraine rather than take a job with the Russian militias or local governments. Even so there was a lot of violence within and between the local militias and Russia had to bring in specialists to identify and remove (kill) the most troublesome the militia leaders they were paying to fight the Ukrainian troops.
Unlike the past, this time Ukraine has active foreign support from NATO neighbors and NATO in general. Since Putin declared the Donbas republics legitimate, pledges of military aid to Ukraine have increased, along with economic aid.
The Syrian Money Pit
In southern Syria (Daraa province) anti-Russian violence continues, along with attacks against Iranian forces. These cause over fifty dead and wounded each month. This level of violence has remained fairly constant for three years. This is part of the undeclared war between Iranian and Syrian forces going on there since 2018. Anonymous assassins use pistols and hidden bombs to kill those who work, or worked for, government forces or Russian and Syrian backed local militias. Russian and Assad forces openly drive Iran-backed groups and individuals out of the area. There is no open violence because Iran, Syria and Russia are still officially allies. Near the Israel border Russian and Syrian pressure has prevented Iranian attacks on Israel. Russia and Syria have also been checking locals to see if they are Lebanese Shia using stolen uniforms rather than Lebanese Shia wearing authorized Syrian army or police uniforms. This border security operation is a big deal for Syria and Israel and a major embarrassment for Iran, which is why Iran has not cranked up its usual media outrage to complain. Israel will sometimes fire on Iranian forces operating in Daraa, especially near the Israeli border. Israel also shares intel with Russia and Syria about Syrian officers who are secretly working for Iran. The Iranians pay well, and in dollars. Israel will sometimes release evidence of this to the media, so that Iranians back home have another reason to oppose Iran’s foreign wars. Negotiations have been underway between Iran and Russia/Syria for over a year but are not making much progress. The covert Iranian violence is just another incentive for Syria to get the Iranian agents out of the area.
In the northwest (Idlib province) Assad forces continue their campaign to liberate and take control of the rebel-held portions of the province. This is being done with a lot of material assistance from Russia in the form of airstrikes and resupply of artillery shells and rockets fired by the Syrians into Idlib. Taking Idlib has to be done with the cooperation of the Turks, who do not want the 30,000 or 40,000 armed rebels trapped in Idlib and parts of adjacent Aleppo province, along with over a million pro-rebel civilians, forcing their way into Turkey. Why risk death from Turkish border guards and defenses? Because if the Assads get control of Idlib and its current population, the justifiably feared Assad secret police will arrive and interrogate (torture) those with a record of rebel activity. In other pro-rebel areas where the Assads took control, the secret police did their work and a lot of local civilians disappeared. This is not an issue with the Arab League, Turkey, Russia or Iran because all use similar techniques. The Assads simply do it more often.
February 24, 2022: Russia launched a limited invasion of Ukraine, advancing from about six directions, plus an airborne assault on an airport near Kyiv. Several ballistic missiles hit Kyiv at 4 AM local time. Within 24 hours Ukraine reported that about fifty people had been killed by the missile strikes, and about 150 wounded. Military casualties were about twice that during the first 24 hours of combat, where Russian airstrikes, mainly via ballistic missiles, were against military targets. Russia hoped to wipe out most of the Ukrainian air force but discovered that most of the aircraft had been dispersed to remote locations where they could land and take off on highways and operate safely at low altitudes. Commercial satellite photos were soon available to provide a more accurate picture of what was happening.
February 22, 2022: Russia recognized the two areas in eastern Ukraine occupied by local mercenaries and Russian troops to be independent nations. Russia already controlled half of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. Russian plans to seize all of these provinces were thwarted by the surprisingly swift and effective Ukrainian military opposition to the Russian effort. By the end of 2014 it was clear that the Ukrainians were too strong to push out of those provinces and Russia held “elections” that approved the portions of those two provinces as independent states called the Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic. Over the next few years Russian integrated these two republics into the Russian economy and issued Russian passports to those who wanted them. Many residents of the new republics wanted no part of being part of Russia once more and left, or at least tried to. Russia did not officially recognize the two mini-states until today, and promptly announced that more Russian troops would be sent in as peacekeepers to protect the two states from Ukrainian aggression.
The reaction in Ukraine and East Europe was outrage and the realization that some of them are next. The rest of the world was less clear about who to blame and how to react. Western nations, particularly the United States, cannot agree on what was responsible for Russian aggressiveness towards Ukraine and Ukrainian efforts to join NATO. One argument is that if the U.S. has blocked the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe, Russia would not be so intent on invading Ukraine. The history-minded point out that the original reason for NATO was to keep the Russians out, the Germans down and the Americans in (Europe). With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, after all the pro-Russia communist dictatorships in East Europe had recently collapsed and gone democratic, the situation was the same, just a bit different. By 1991 Germany had been reunited and proved much less aggressive than it had ever been. The Americans pulled most of their troops out of Europe and understood that East European nations wanted to join NATO because Russia was still a threat. Ukraine thought they were safe because they signed an agreement with Russia in 1994 in which Russia promised to never attempt to seize Ukraine or any part of Ukraine. In return Ukraine got rid of the nuclear warheads it had inherited from the former Soviet Union. The Americans brokered this deal and were unofficially supposed to enforce it if needed. Neither Russia nor the Americans respected the terms of this deal when Russia violated it in 2014 by seizing Crimea and attempting to seize two provinces in eastern Ukraine. The Americans imposed economic sanctions, which hurt but did not hinder Russian efforts to take all of Ukraine. After 2014 the majority of Ukrainians wanted to join NATO, which seemed to provide more security from Russian invasion than the 1994 treaty.
The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 because no one was willing to die to prevent that. The last Soviet government did the math and realized that too much of the population, especially the majority that were not ethnic Russians, including fellow Slavs in Ukraine and Belarus, were willing to die for their independence from communist rule. Vladimir Putin, the elected Russian leader for the last two decades, was a junior KGB officer in 1991 and was willing to fight back to preserve the Soviet state. There were not enough like him and since the KGB recruited the “best and the brightest” as officers, most of them acknowledged that open resistance was suicidal and kept quiet. These KGB officers were patient, because they also realized that the new Russia was thoroughly corrupt and unprepared to make a democracy work. After spending about a decade reducing corruption and improving the economy, the new KGB government proceeded to try and rebuild the empire. That became very obvious in 2014 and not everyone in the West appreciated what was going on here. Nations formerly controlled by or part of the Soviet Union had no illusions about what the Russians were doing and wanted help from the West to maintain their independence.
February 21, 2022: In the Donbas, Russian forces increased their artillery and machine-gun fire against Ukrainian forces. The Russians said they were defending themselves from Ukrainian efforts to advance. There was no proof of that and this sort of thing has been going on since 2014, despite several ceasefire agreements and the presence of foreign monitors to verify compliance. The monitors noted that the Russians were usually at fault because they fired first and the Ukrainians returned fire which the Russians claimed was an unprovoked attack. Eventually the foreign observers were expelled from Russian held areas. The Ukrainians are no longer firing back, because the Russians announced that would be considered an attack on Russia and the response would be massive.
February 20, 2022: In eastern Ukraine, Russian forces increased its efforts to get Ukrainian forces to fire back at the increased artillery fire from Russian controlled areas. The discipline of the Ukrainian troops is frustrating for the Russians, who have less control over the mercenaries and Russians troops (in plain uniforms) they already have in their half 0f the Donbas. Civilians in Russian controlled areas are also fed up with the Russian tactics.
Since 2014 Russian violence in Donbas has killed 14,000 and wounded about 30,000. Most of the casualties have been civilians in Ukrainian territory. The Russian forces have suffered casualties but few civilians in the Russian controlled areas have. About 1.5 million civilians have fled the Donbas, most of them from the Ukrainian side of the ceasefire line. More civilians on the Russian side want to flee now that they are officially living in what will eventually be declared part of Russia. Local members of the Russia-backed militias in Donbas are also leaving their militias and also want out of Russian controlled territory. Local militias have had growing problems with recruiting in the last few years, despite the high unemployment in Russian controlled Donbas.
February 15, 2022: After two weeks of negotiations, Britain and Poland have agreed to join Ukraine in dealing with cyber security, energy security and Russian disinformation efforts. This is not a military alliance, but it does pledge Polish and British aid to deal with some of the weapons Russia is using against Ukraine.
February 9, 2022: In western Syria (Latakia province) Russian forces turned on their wide area electronic jamming equipment briefly, and caused problems for commercial aircraft in Israel and Turkey. This has happened several times recently. Israel protested this and Russia said it was necessary because their military bases were threatened. Latakia province is an Assad stronghold but it borders Idlib province, where some Islamic terror groups continue trying to launch attacks on the Russian bases. In response Russia has brought in a wide array of electronic countermeasures, some of them it uses rarely because it disrupts Israeli GPS systems. Since late 2015 Russian electronic jamming equipment has been arriving in Syria, initially to jam ISIL and NATO communications. Some NATO radars and satellite signals were also jammed. NATO is already familiar with some of these jammers, particularly the truck mounted Krasukha-4, which was encountered in eastern Ukraine (Donbas). Russia has also brought in a lot more electronic data collection and analysis equipment to listen on ISIL and NATO communications when not jamming them. This involves jamming low orbit space satellites as well. In response NATO and Israel have deployed more EW gear and personnel and this has led to a generally unseen (and unreported) electronic war over Syria. Israel demonstrated that they could handle Russian jamming, with the side effect of disrupting Russian air defense systems. As a result of this Russia and Israel added electronic jammers to the list of things they won’t use on each other in Syria. Exceptions are made when the Russian Latakia faces an unexpected threat. Russia supplies details to Israel. This information is rarely made public.
February 8, 2022: Russia arrested a North Korean cryptography expert who was in Russia on official business but was detected trying to arrange asylum in the West via the UN refugee agency. Defections of important tech experts or government officials has been an increasing problem for North Korea and for that reason few potential defectors are allowed outside North Korea except to “friendly” (likely to arrest and extradite) nations like Russia and China. North Korea has sent additional secret police agents to Russia to work with the Russians to discover who the individuals are that are assisting North Koreans in Russian legally to escape to other parts of Russia and eventually reach any country that does not cooperate with North Korea in these matters. Russia considers these defection supporters to be spies. Most of these defection supporters appear to be Russians who are ethnic Koreans and speak Korean.
February 4, 2022: Turkey and Ukraine have agreed to a free trade pact that both countries are touting as a very mutually beneficial deal. Of course, the free trade agreement announcement comes as Russia brings more troops to its Ukrainian border, threatening to invade and seize additional Ukrainian territory beyond what its Russian backed separatist forces control. The trade deal makes a key diplomatic statement as does the on-going Turkey-Ukraine bilateral diplomacy. Turkey has become a major Ukrainian ally. The Turkish government reported the value of its trade with Ukraine during 2021 was around $7.4 billion in 2021, up from $4.7 billion in 2020. Turkey, a member of NATO, has also supplied Ukraine with military equipment including the Bayraktar TB2 armed UAV. Ukrainian forces have used the TB2 to attack the Russian forces in the Donbas region. NATO is threatening Russia with sanctions should it invade. Presumably Turkey would invoke sanctions. But look at the diplomacy involved. President Erdogan is positioning himself to act as a mediator to end the Russian-manufactured crisis. Though Turkey and Russia have several serious foreign policy disagreements, Syria and Libya among them, Erdogan has managed to maintain a veneer of good relations with Russian president Putin. There is also the matter of Turkish wheat imports. Russia is Turkey’s top wheat supplier. In 2021 Turkey imported around 5.6 million tons from Russia, but that was a major reduction from prior years. In 2021 Turkey imported a record amount of Ukrainian wheat, some 1.4 million tons. Ukraine is Turkey’s Number 2 wheat supplier and Turkey is interested in buying more Ukrainian grain. Turkey has a keen culinary interest in avoiding war between its two primary grain suppliers.
January 27, 2022: Russia believes that about 6,000 Islamic terrorists are based in northern Afghanistan and often used for attacks across the borders of nations that Russia is on good terms and sometimes (as with Tajikistan) provides troops to help with border security.
January 24, 2022: Russian announced that Russian and Syrian warplanes, including early warning aircraft, would conduct joint patrols along Syrians southern borders to detect and prevent airstrikes from Israel. This was all largely symbolic because Israeli warplanes rarely enter Syrian air space to carry out attacks on targets in Syria. Instead, Israel uses air-to-surface missiles launched from Israeli fighters in Israeli, Lebanese or Jordanian air space. This is what happened a week later when Israel carried out several air strikes against Iranian weapons warehouses outside Damascus. These are operated and guarded by Lebanese Hezbollah gunmen.
January 22, 2022: American officers at AFRICOM (Africa Command) confirmed that there were several hundred Russia Wagner Group military contractors in Mali, despite the coup government denying it. In 2021 The Mali military government announced that it planned to spend $10.8 million a month to hire a thousand Wagner Group military trainers. These trainers will also accompany some Mali troops into combat zones but will not operate as combat units unless paid for that and the combat surcharge is more than what Mali is paying for training. Wagner Group had been busy during the last decade and still has, or recently had contingents in Libya, Syria, Central African Republic and Mozambique. Against poorly armed and trained local irregulars the Wagner personnel are effective, but against professionals. like Turks in Libya and Americans in Syria, they take heavy losses and back off. They took casualties in Mozambique because the government refused to use its own troops and sought to suppress an Islamic terrorist uprising using a small number of Russian and South African military contractors. That worked for a while but at the cost of heavy casualties among the contractors. This sort of thing is bad for business and recruiting and the contractors pulled back from Mozambique, which has brought in Rwandan. Wagner Group is unique among military contractors in that it was created by Russian president Vladimir Putin and reports directly to him. Sort of Putin’s Private Army. Putin asked a veteran spetsnaz (special operations) officer to organize and run the operation whose name comes from the radio call sign its commander once used. Wagner does not work for free; every customer has to pay and several African governments are doing so. Wagner Group provides media and political support to local governments that brought it in. An example of this is Russia and the Mali coup leaders both accusing the French of sustaining colonial rule. This angle serves the coup leaders and Wagner because it makes it patriotic to expel some contingents of European troops. Wagner is also foreign, but they have been hired by the coup government and thus considered serving Mali, not practicing some form of colonialism. French and foreign donor efforts against corruption are portrayed by the corrupt coup leaders as another example of French colonialism. This may seem absurd to outsiders but the coup government controls most mass media, the security forces and can justify attacking any hostile demonstration and protecting supportive ones.
January 21, 2022: In the Central African Republic (or CAR) the UN is investigating the alleged killing of at least 30 people near the town of Bria between January 16 and 17. CAR security forces and mercenaries working for the Russian Wagner Group were involved in the deaths.