Russia’s Offensive in Ukraine



Photo source: Open Democracy

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

When around a hundred thousand Russian troops were amassed near the Ukrainian border by December 2021, it created a renewal of a protracted civil war that first happened in 2014, in Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Satellite imagery, as per Ukrainian intelligence, showed movements of armour, missile and other heavy weaponry to Donbas separatist forces by Russia. In response, Ukrainian forces, in snow-laden wastelands were seen donning their white uniforms, with many snipers on the prowl. Near the front lines, war-weary soldiers were seen preparing food in makeshift kitchens, and the scenario reflected a newer version of Tolstoy's War and Peace. 

The escalation in 2021 first happened in April when NATO first backed a Ukrainian offensive in its civil war against Russian-allied separatists in the eastern provinces, of Donetsk and Luhansk. That is when Russia moved more troops to its borders with Ukraine, signalling it would defend its allies in Donbas. Former CIA Case Officer and CAM columnist John Kiriakou reported that the actual number of troops amassed on the Ukrainian border, estimated between seventy to ninety thousand, in April 2021, which was the same for the last eight years. For commentators, the long crises, anyhow, are the most intense since the cold war. The war, if happens, would be reminiscent of Bosnia and Chechnya. 

In December 2021, Russia created two draft treaties that contained requests of what it referred to as 'security guarantees' including a legally binding promise that Ukraine would not join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) as well as a reduction in NATO troops and military hardware stationed in Eastern Europe. It also threatened an unspecified military response if those demands were not met in full. The United States and other NATO members have rejected these requests and warned Russia of swift and severe economic sanctions should it further invade Ukraine. Bilateral US-Russia diplomatic talks were held in January 2022, but those failed to defuse the crisis.

Troops on both sides have been facing each other down across this line of contact since a ceasefire ended large-scale combat in 2015. Fourteen thousand people have died as a result of Russia’s war on Ukraine, which emerged in the aftermath of Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution in 2013.

Also, two million people from the self-declared separatist region in Donbas have been displaced, fleeing to Ukraine and Russia. Yet, thousands of Ukrainian citizens continue to cross the line of contact between the uncontrolled Donbas territories and Ukraine every day. There are press stories which narrate how people of the self-declared people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk in eastern Ukraine suffer under a complete economic blockade by Ukraine and its Western allies. A series of mysterious arrests, deaths and disappearances of self-declared public officials and field commanders in the territories has been followed by the appointment of figures with closer ties to Moscow. Though Moscow has increased control, the territories remain a grey zone for civil and workers’ rights, as well as for opaque and criminal businesses. More than 700,000 Russian passports have now been issued to residents of the territories, which Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called a 'sign of annexation'.

With some NATO member states hinting that they won’t send troops to support Ukraine in the face of a Russian invasion, one of the last arrows in the quiver of those looking to deter the aggression from the Kremlin is the threat of economic isolation. Sanctions that have been proposed include removing Russia from the SWIFT banking sector and banning imports of Russian oil and gas. After the annexation of Crimea, the Russian economy was hit with a range of targeted, but limited sanctions on key industries.

George Voloshin, an expert on the economy of Russia and other post-Soviet states, warns that there are no sanctions left to put on Russia that would not also have serious blowback on Western countries. 'Going further with sanctions would be painful for everyone involved. We’re at a stage where you’ve used all the small arms in your economic arsenal – now you need to use a bazooka,' he said, to Open Democracy. 

Add to that, another option would be for European stakeholders to cancel the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which would carry gas under the Baltic Sea directly from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine. This pipeline dramatically lowers Kyiv’s leverage in any dispute.

For dodging sanctions, Russia has been making some rainy-day preparations for its economy to withstand more sanctions, including developing a domestic equivalent to SWIFT banking.

The Russian government also appears to be preparing to argue that a military conflict, was started by Ukraine and its Western allies. For instance, Russian defence minister Sergey Shoigu claimed that US mercenaries were planning a chemical warfare attack in Donbas in late December 2021.

Despite all this, there are diplomatic channels existing intended to make peace. The first is the Trilateral Contact Group, which includes representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE). The group first met in June 2014, and signed an agreement in Minsk, Belarus, later that year. 

The Trilateral Contact Group met again in Minsk and signed a new agreement known as Minsk 2. This agreement set out a plan for a ceasefire and later reintegration of the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk territories via elections, a special status in Ukraine’s constitution and an amnesty for those who had participated in the armed uprising.

The second principal channel is the Normandy Format, comprising Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany. This is a series of talks linked to the Minsk agreements. There are also the NATO Russia Council and OSCE talks with Russia.

Although, the problem with the Minsk2 agreement is that Ukrainian officials have called the document not binding under international law. Russia considers it binding. The Ukrainian authorities are reluctant to recognise any special status for the territories outside of its control, as it would give Russia leverage over Ukrainian territory. Previously, public protests have broken out in Ukraine over concerns of capitulation to Russia. That’s why these peace protocols are not having the desired effect.

At this point, it seems plausible that a military operation from Russia against Ukraine would not require too many casualties among Russian soldiers, but it will most probably be televised, the ‘sofa war’, as it is called in Russia, and it is likely to receive approval among Russians.

What works in Russia’s favour is that after the outbreak of hostilities in 2014, Ukraine’s military had been hollowed out due to decades of corruption and underinvestment.

Ukraine’s senior military staff still privately grumble that they were given advice by their Western military advisers not to contest Putin’s annexation of Crimea, a decision that many remain bitter over.

When Ukrainian forces attempted to retake major separatist-held territories in early 2015, they were encircled and suffered a rout at the Battle of Debaltseve. It was this defeat that forced Ukraine to start negotiations, and temporarily abandon ambitions to regain control of its territory through military means.

Ukrainian military observers, however, are increasingly convinced that Russia will limit itself to a targeted escalation in the existing eastern battlegrounds rather than risk full-scale war. A widely circulated report by the Center for Defense Strategies, a leading Ukrainian think tank, said that an offensive designed at capturing Ukraine is unlikely based on current troop movements. They estimated that around 66 battalions’ worth of strength is amassed on the borders, but that Russia would need perhaps double this to overwhelm Ukraine. It would take around three weeks to prepare a force of that size. Russian troops have also not been organised into the battalion groups that would be used in a war, as of yet.

When it comes to the US, it says that there is no need to renegotiate Minsk 2. What is controversial on their part is that there are press reports which propagate that CIA since 2015 had secretly trained elite Ukrainian Special Forces units in firearms, camouflage techniques, land navigation, tactics like cover and move, intelligence and other areas.

As per an article by Marwan Bishara in Al Jazeera, NATO seems to be back united under Biden’s leadership, and the scenario creates some important developments. Bishara went on to write: ‘ Biden, the Cold War liberal, is finally being taken seriously in Europe and Russia, as he uses the Putin scare to get the reluctant Europeans back in line behind the US. Even the leading European powers, France and Germany, that openly seek autonomy and even independence from the US in security affairs, are now following in Washington’s footsteps, albeit unenthusiastically.’ But, the US, like other NATO member states also says that it won’t militarily help Ukraine if it’s attacked, as it's not a NATO member. So, US’s priorities are self-limited, despite the claims that it is believed that the CIA is heavily involved in Ukraine, in addition to US’s official aid to Ukraine since 2014, which amounts to nearly $2.4 billion.

China has already called for calm, making it clear that it opposes NATO’s expansion to the Russian border. But, Beijing also has a vested interest in Moscow’s success against Washington in Ukraine, as it would pave the way for its own success against the US in Taiwan, and the rest of Asia.

The UK, on the hand, wants to fully support its allies in Ukraine, if Russia invades Ukraine, as the British army leads the NATO battle group in Estonia. Alongside Russia and the US, the UK was also a signatory to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Ukraine relinquished its nuclear arsenal in exchange for security and political guarantees. Germany, contrarily, has a difficult relationship with Russia currently, as it is governed by Social Democrats since the 2021 election. They think the current Russian regime is not reliable, and that its last chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, betrayed European and German strategic interests by siding so closely with Putin and Gazprom, the Russian state-owned gas company. France, under Macron, in contrast, is keen to claim the mantle of leadership and speak in the name of Europe, by talking with Putin through direct telephone calls. But, there are also further, internal divides among European countries, such as between the current Hungarian government, probably the staunchest supporter of Russia in Europe, and the Baltic states, which are at the most critical end. Further differences of interests exist between southern (especially Italy) and northern (Finland and Sweden) EU states. Nonetheless, the EU has passed unanimous sanctions against Russia in the past, and now the overall message is that much more incisive sanctions are on the table if Russia attacks Ukraine. 


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