Decoding the standoff in Ukraine - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Sunday 30 January 2022

Decoding the standoff in Ukraine

Over 100,000 Russian troops remain massed on the Russia-Ukraine and Belarus-Ukraine border and a Russian invasion is feared


by Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 30 January 22


With Russia continuing its military build-up of about 100,000 troops and warfighting equipment in and around Ukraine, the United States (US) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) both conveyed, on January 26, their written proposals to Russia to resolve the crisis.


Moscow has issued a demand list, too, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V Lavrov commented on his ministry website that the American document contained “no positive reaction” to Russia’s main demands, which includes NATO explicitly ruling out the possibility of Ukraine and others ever joining the alliance. Moscow has warned of “retaliatory measures” if Washington and its allies reject its security demands over NATO and Ukraine. The White House has let it be known that President Joe Biden has warned Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a phone call that Russia might invade in February.

With diplomacy making little headway, Russian military manoeuvres are ratcheting up tensions. Associated Press has reported that “Russia has launched a series of military drills involving motorised infantry and artillery units in southwestern Russia, warplanes in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, dozens of warships in the Black Sea and the Arctic, and Russian fighter jets and paratroopers in Belarus (which is a satellite of Moscow).”

 In an evidently tepid response, the Pentagon has put 8,500 US troops on standby for an Eastern European deployment. NATO said it was sending ships and jets to bolster the region’s defences. Manybelieve that President Vladimir Putin is waiting for February, a better campaigning month than January, when the ground is frozen in Ukraine and Belarus.


It goes back centuries


If Russia were to invade, Biden says the resulting suffering would represent “the most consequential thing that’s happened in the world, in terms of war and peace, since World War Two (WW2).”


While post-WW2 map-making is behind many of Europe’s continuing problems, the reason why Putin – as a metaphor for Russia – is behaving aggressively over Ukraine has its roots at least four centuries earlier.


The Russian psyche, moulded bloodily through the centuries, regards European expansionism as an existential threat. Every century, starting from 1708-09, one or another Western European power has invaded Russia, twice advancing up to Moscow. In 1709, an invasion by Sweden, then Europe’s pre-eminent power, was defeated at Poltava by Tsar Peter the Great, who established the Russian empire. A century later in 1812, Napoleon’s “Grand Army” of 600,000 soldiers advanced till and occupied Moscow before capitulating to fatigue, hunger and the Russian winter.


Then, between 1941-1944, Hitler’s armies invaded the Soviet Union in the bloodiest campaign of human history. Millions of Russians, along with millions of German invaders, died in a cruel, scorched-earth withdrawal to Moscow and in the Red Army’s advance all the way to Berlin. Given this calendar – 1709, 1812, 1941 – Moscow predictably believes the next invasion is overdue.


Determined that any future invasion would be met and fought outside of Mother Russia, Joseph Stalin set up the Warsaw Pact to counter NATO and establish his iron-fisted control over Eastern Europe. This created a security buffer for Russia and, for 45 years, maintained a balance of terror with NATO.

This shaky equilibrium was shattered when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1989-90. Mikhail Gorbachev recounts that President George HW Bush (Senior) assured him then that NATO would not expand eastwards. Yet NATO did exactly that, giving membership to East Germany in 1990; to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1999; to Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 2004; and to Croatia and Albania in 2009. Today, NATO has 30 members, up from 16 in 1990.


With NATO now at Russia’s doorstep, American bases in Central Asia and with the prospect looming of US missile defences in the Czech Republic and Poland, Moscow drew its first red line at Georgia. After the pro-democracy “Revolution of Roses” in Tbilisi in 2003, and western blandishments to Georgia to join NATO, Russia invaded in 2008 and created de facto independence for two pro-Russian regions of Georgia – Abkhazia and South Ossetia.


Now Moscow has drawn a second red line in Ukraine, warning Kyiv not to seek NATO and European Union (EU) membership. Since 1990, Russia has gritted its teeth and tolerated NATO and EU expansion, including the admission of the Baltic Republics – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – into NATO. A weak Russia had no other option. But now a hydrocarbon fuelled economy and Putin’s nationalistic politics are driving a tougher response from a military that is eager to show its capabilities.


Russia’s shiny new military


In Putin’s early years in power in Moscow, the bankrupt economy had reduced the mighty Russian military to a shadow of itself, with unpaid soldiers reportedly begging in the underground metro system. Today, the 900,000-strong military is based around a tough and well-trained core of about 400,000 soldiers, who earn significantly more than the average Russian salary. Last year, Putin stated that a Russian lieutenant earns over $1,000 a month.


Putin’s years in power have restored much of the Russian military’s conventional capability. It has demonstrated its power in the 2014 annexation of the Crimea, intervention in Syria in 2015, peace-brokering between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020 and propping up of a puppet, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in Kazakhstan just recently. Capturing large chunks of Ukraine is well within Russia’s power.


Putin can call on an arsenal of T-72B3 tanks and Iskander-M rockets already deployed on Ukraine’s border; and on Kalibr cruise missiles deployed on ships in the Black Sea. The Russian Air Force can fly in close to 1,000 state-of-the-art fighter aircraft, such as the Sukhoi Su-35S.


Russia’s warfighting doctrine has evolved even more than its equipment. The approach it now follows in fighting such “asymmetrical wars” has been variously called “hybrid warfare,” “grey-zone operations”, or “cross-domain coercion”, in which the use of force – real or threatened – is blended with diplomacy, propaganda and cyberattacks, aimed at causing a collapse of the target audience’s will. 


When it comes to full-scale war, many of the older forces that the Kremlin has deployed to the Ukraine border may not be up to combat with modern armies such as the US military or the forces that NATO could bring to bear. However, Russia’s doctrine aims to achieve political aims through psychological disruption, eliminating unnecessary bloodshed.


The intervention in Syria has hardened Moscow’s soldiers. After the extensive battle experience gained there, Russian Defence Minister Sergei K Shoigu stated that all Russia’s ground commanders, 92 per cent of the air force’s pilots and 62 per cent of the navy now had combat experience.


The path ahead


Ukrainian journalist Veronika Melkozerova argues that Moscow is creating false panic with the threat that “Russia might invade any minute. Run for your life.”


Melkozerova writes: “Russia invaded (the Crimea) 8 years ago and has been leading hybrid warfare against Ukraine, which has already killed 14,000 people. So ‘Russia might renew active phase of war’ would be more accurate.”


In that case, what could happen to Ukraine? Western nations have thrown their support behind Kyiv, but very few of them want to get into a shooting war, or even a hybrid one, with Russia. 


The US and UK have supplied Kyiv weapons. Germany plans to send a field medical facility next month but will not transfer military equipment. This is the advantage of “hybrid war”: It creates deniability, making it difficult for other countries to take tough steps.


Economic sanctions perhaps offer the best route to punish Moscow. The US and its European allies have promised to hit Russia financially. No details have been publicly discussed, so that Putin can be kept guessing.


Washington is considering whether to cut Russia out of the SWIFT financial system, which moves money around the globe. That would strike a blow at Russia’s economy, both in the short and long term, by cutting Russia off from most international financial transactions. That includes profits from oil and gas production, which currently accounts for more than 40 per cent of Russia’s revenue. 


  1. well let us hope our young people studying medicine, nursing, and similar young mostly from gujarat, punjab toiling in 3D menial work [dirty, dangerous, demeaning] hoping to become fabled NRI and build the mansion in ahmedabad, or bhatinda have all been recorded, accounted for, are being provided consular services by our IFS types. if, when things become fraught in ukrayna there will be quite a kerfuffle for the desi community and narendrabhai and his EAM will maybe have to organize a special mission with our air-warriors, blue-water navy, supported by commandos, special forces to bring them home. other countries may have the luxury of thinning out their diplomatic and consular staff, india may have to enhance numbers, open a special help desk in akbar bhavan. unless of course our mandarins, public intellectuals are too taken up with the vicarious pleasures of geopolitics, strategic affairs

  2. Good information. I would like your article. Keep share more articles and pass information. Wow this is amazing blog and I am very happy to read your blog. how to help ukraine army

  3. Good information. I would like your article. Keep share more articles and pass information. Wow this is amazing blog and I am very happy to read your blog. russo-ukrainian crisis 2022


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