Thursday, February 12, 2015

Putin’s Strategy in Ukraine

[This post may be read along with the author’s earlier post on crisis in the Ukraine]

There is a growing apprehension that if the US and the West fail to stand up to Russia over Ukraine, Europe could descend into a major war.

A former US ambassador to Estonia predicted that Estonia and other Baltic States – all members of the NATO – could be targeted by Russia if Putin is allowed to hold on to Ukraine territory which has been seized by force. Serhii Plokhy wrote in the March of 2014 that if the Russian President’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea region succeeded, Russia may seize other parts of Ukraine and beyond like Moldova and the Baltic States which had substantial numbers of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking minorities.

The genesis of the present conflict goes back to the last days of the Soviet Union whose collapse according to Putin was the “greatest geo-strategic catastrophe of the century.” Putin according to Ukrainian media reports had also questioned the legality of Ukraine’s secession from the Soviet Union in 1991. These two statements of the Russian President should give the West and the US an indication of the enormity of the challenge at hand and to find an amicable solution to the crisis.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the nineties, the West did not have a strategy to partner Russia, (the successor state of the Soviet Republic) but was instead subjected to Washington’s triumphalism and superiority; it was a sort of imposition of victor’s peace. Russian pride was hurt and national interests undermined by the expansion of the North Atlantic Alliance right up to the Russian border. A partnership with Russia would have weaned Russia away from China and an alliance could have been forged to tackle the rampant jihadism in the form of Al Qaeda and Islamic State in the Middle East and elsewhere. This foresight was sadly missing then. Putin’s game plan, today, is a result of that folly.

Lessons not learnt

The Ukraine crisis must not be viewed in isolation. Russia’s increasing insecurity post-1991 as a result of the policies of the West and the US in particular has played a major role in triggering the conflict. The West did not learn from the 2008 Russo-Georgian War either. Georgia under President Milheil Saakashvili had sought membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) which served as a major stumbling block to Russo-Georgian relations. During the NATO Summit in Bucharest in April 2008, the then US President George W Bush favoured offering Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Georgia and Ukraine. However, Germany and France opposed the proposal on the ground that it would provoke Russia. NATO stated that Georgia and Ukraine would become members of the alliance and pledged to review applications for MAP in December 2008. The Russian President Putin stated that an expansion of NATO to Russian borders “would be taken as a direct threat to Russia’s security”. Russia’s policy became aggressive after the Bucharest Summit and it actively planned for an armed conflict with Georgia to thwart the latter’s accession to NATO and to bring about a regime change.

Putin’s Strategy and Objectives

Not only has the 2008 conflict with Georgia given Putin confidence, the annexation of the Crimean region with minimum efforts has emboldened the Russian strongman to go all out in eastern Ukraine. According to Michael Kofman "Moscow has found a winning tactic during its annexation of Crimea, and has made it the overarching strategy for achieving interests in broader Ukraine." Russia's use of operational ambiguity to create confusion, mobilizing the populace in support of its objectives, and creating points for plausible disengagement all suggest one thing: Moscow has become far more clever and capable than the West originally gave it credit. Western leaders continue Russia’s use of operational ambiguity to create confusion, mobilizing the populace in support of its objectives, and creating points for plausible disengagement all suggest one thing: Moscow has become far more clever and capable than the West originally gave it credit. Western leaders continue to misjudge the nature of Ukraine, and Russia’s plans for it. That led to the loss of Crimea and may result in the loss of other regions of Ukraine.

Putin learnt and understood the shortcomings of the erstwhile Soviet military adventure in Afghanistan. He has chosen not to rely on overt and brute military force, rather opting to use proxies and Russian intelligence operatives and Special Forces under the garb of separatists in Ukraine. Russia is also using its conventional build-up to deter/counter any direct response from Ukrainian forces or the West. The West has been anticipating a Russian conventional thrust through its armoured column, which is very unlikely. The military build-up and the threat of invasion is leverage. Though Moscow may exercise the conventional option should its current tactics fail to achieve its objectives. By avoiding the use of its conventional forces Russia has given itself the option to disengage and deny any involvement, and the ability to spread disinformation about the conflict to sow confusion. In the intervening period, the plausible threat of an all-out invasion has rendered the West helpless.

Moscow is not keen to overstretch its army, at least not unless its current plan suffers an unexpected setback. However, even if Russia does invade, it will be a short-term push to break the Ukrainian military and withdraw, as it did in Georgia in 2008. Russia has sufficient military power to hand a crushing defeat to Ukraine’s military, but not an occupation force suitable for Ukraine. However, Vladimir Putin’s strategy is not aimed at annexing Ukraine in the short term. The strategy is to breakup, depriving Kiev of sovereignty in the east.

One thing is certain that Moscow has a huge stake in Ukraine and considering the upper hand Russia has today it would be impossible to expect Putin to surrender that advantage. According to Kofman, at a minimum, Putin would want to give political status and autonomy to the separatist-held regions, akin to the relationship between China and Hong Kong.

Ukraine is a lynchpin of Putin's plans for Russia, whether it's reassembling a historical empire or shoring up the Russian economy, Conley says. So whatever happens must support that. Kaplan says Putin can't pull back without gaining assurances that Ukraine will never become part of NATO. Ukraine, he said, needs assurances about its sovereignty and energy security.

Another analyst imagined three possible outcomes: A slow-simmering war that lasts for many years. A ceasefire that doesn't entirely satisfy Moscow and Kiev but essentially creates a frozen conflict for a long time. Or a political settlement where Russia withdraws forces from Ukraine and Kiev recognizes the separatists, Kofman said.

"That is the best likely outcome but most difficult to achieve politically," Kofman said of the last scenario. Just as Putin would find it difficult to fritter the gains of the conflict, it would be equally impossible for Kiev to grant recognition to the separatists.

Latest: CNN has reported that the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany have reached an agreement after marathon talks lasting nearly seventeen hours in the Belorussian capital of Minsk. A ceasefire is slated to come into force on 15th February and an agreement for both sides to pull back heavy weapons.

If the ceasefire holds -- which is far from certain -- it could bring to an end a 10-month conflict that has claimed more than 5,000 lives, many of them civilians, and plunged East-West relations to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Though the details of the agreement are not available it is likely to have in place a much broader demilitarized zone to run along the current front lines.

A deal was struck in September 2014 in Minsk which had also called for a withdrawal of heavy weaponry, self-rule in the eastern regions and a 30 km buffer zone along the Russian-Ukraine border. However, the deal disintegrated and fighting erupted. Only time will tell whether the parties to the conflict truly intend to put an end to the fighting on the ground.


Attreyi Mukherjee said...

Very interesting read.

Kumar said...

Thanks Attreyi.

A cease fire is not like a switch, unfortunately. While by and large the cease fire seems to be holding, in Debaltseve the fighting seems to be continuing. The town of Debaltseve is a strategic railway hub which lies between the rebel-controlled Donetsk and Lugansk and both the sides do not wish to lose control over this town. Unless peacefully resolved, this could trigger off more clashes elsewhere rendering the Minsk 2 nugatory

Meanwhile the EU has sought Indian help to resolve the crisis.

Peter Coates said...

Hi Kumar

A mighty interesting analysis. I don't see peace breaking out other than for a few days and in only some places.

Back to war again . The Ukrainian hope for an intervention by UN Peacekeepers forgets that Peacekeepers are ill-equipped to face Russian tanks (manned by "rebels" or Russian special forces).



Kumar said...

Hi Pete
Thanks for your comments.
The West and the US grossly under-estimated Russia under Putin. The Georgian War 2008 was a wake-up call which US policy makers and experts failed to appreciate. In short US foreign policy is in disarray being unable to comprehend and counter the crisis in the Middle East; the pivot or re-balance to Asia-Pacific is probably stuck and is fast losing leverage in the Ukraine crisis.