The Changing Equation of Escalation

IP Journal 28 July 2014

Kiev, not the Kremlin, is now writing the political narrative of the region

by Elizabeth Pond

David is right to defy Goliath with his slingshot – despite the menace of armored Russian troops massing once again on Ukraine’s eastern border, mounting evidence that Russian troops are firing artillery from Russian territory onto Ukrainian military positions in Ukraine,  and an accelerated flow of Russian weapons to separatists in the region.

The most obvious spur to Kiev’s counteroffensive in Donetsk this week is the desire to free eastern Ukraine from rule of the gun by rebels who find it normal to shoot down a civilian airliner by mistake and then violate the dignity of the victims’ bodies that rain down. The more complicated Ukrainian goal involves deterrence and narrative.

The decision to escalate military action does not come lightly to a country whose small and neglected armed forces could not resist any direct invasion from the next-door ex-superpower for more than five days. Ever since Russia suddenly prized Crimea away from Ukraine in March and annexed it, Moscow has held escalation dominance in the fratricidal confrontation by virtue of its superior local firepower and its will to fight for existential stakes. For this reason Washington and all NATO member states, from the beginning, ruled out going to war with Russia to defend non-NATO Ukraine.

It was therefore a huge gamble when President Petro Poroshenko, in his early weeks after taking office, launched Ukraine’s first real counteroffensive at the beginning of July. The military campaign would have to be robust enough to retake territory in the self-declared “people’s republics” that sought to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Yet it should not be powerful enough to defeat the entrenched militias of mixed Russian and Ukrainian proxies under Russian leadership and thereby trigger devastating intervention from Moscow.

When Poroshenko ended his initial unilateral truce with pro-Russian separatists and sent troops to recapture both a Ukrainian customs post on the Russian border and the insurgents’ stronghold of Slovyansk, his chutzpah was three-fold.

First, he dared to assume that the Ukrainian military, purged of the most obvious Russian moles and equipped at last with American kevlar vests and night-sight goggles (and apparently with fuel from some anonymous well-wishers), could actually rout the Moscow-backed militias in eastern Ukraine. His faith belied the army’s inglorious record in failing to resist Russian annexation of Ukrainian Crimea last March and in suffering humiliation in its first attempt to evict pro-Russian mercenaries from Slovyansk last May.

Second, Poroshenko made the bold assumption that if his counteroffensive succeeded, Putin would not react by actually invading Ukraine with the armored troops massed on high alert on Ukraine’s borders to the north, east, and south. Instead, he hoped that flaunting the suicidal resolve of Ukrainians to defend their country against its mighty neighbor would persuade Putin that Kiev has even more of a stake in this contest than Moscow does and will match any escalation by the Kremlin, even if this requires a long guerrilla war.

Third, Poroshenko guessed that enough time had passed to dilute Putin’s raw fury at the perfidy of Ukrainians in wanting to swap their thousand-year East Slav identity under Russian hegemony for a modern, autonomous European identity. If so, Putin might finally be persuaded to reach beyond his inner circle of ex-KGB hardliners and listen to some unemotional cost-benefit calculations by his economic and military advisers of just how much his dream of restoring Russia’s 18th-century core empire in defiance of Western sanctions could cost him economically, militarily, and even politically.

Rejecting the more cautious advice of Berlin and Paris, Poroshenko launched his counteroffensive. The operation indeed exposed weaknesses in the five-month-old covert Russian war on Ukraine. Putin’s expectation that Russian loyalists in all of eastern Ukraine would rise in spontaneous revolt, once Russian military professionals lit the fuse of secession, was disappointed.

Moreover, the shallowness of rebel control in the two oblasts where separatists did declare pro-Russian People’s Republics led to infighting among the insurgent militias and to a melting away by mercenaries once they began losing skirmishes to the Ukrainian forces. The economy of proxy takeovers did work well in Crimea, where the Ukrainian military did not fight. However, it failed in heartland Ukraine, which Kiev’s army is now defending. Already reminders of this failure are coming home to Russia with the repatriation of bodies of Russian citizens who have fought and died in Ukraine to a country that does not want to acknowledge their existence.

As Ukrainian forces gradually shrank insurgent territory at the beginning of July, while the Kremlin remained publicly passive about the loss, some of the Russian military point-men in Ukraine bitterly accused Putin of deserting them. Muscovite Igor Strelkov, identified by Komsomolskaya Pravda last April as the Russian army intelligence colonel in command of the local pro-Russian armed takeovers in Ukraine, issued an “urgent appeal” to Moscow on July 4 to send weapons to prevent the impending surrender of Slovyansk to the Ukrainian army. “Over three months,” he complained, “no real help has arrived.”

By the second week in July, after Ukrainian recovery of Slovyansk, Strelkov’s appeal was answered.  Real Russian help arrived, in the form of multiple rocket launchers, anti-aircraft missile systems, plentiful ammunition, and the powerful Russian ground-to-air BUK missile system that could reach the altitude of 10,000 meters, where Malaysian Air’s Flight 17 was flying on 17 July and was shot out of the sky.

Clearly Poroshenko has lost his third bet. Putin still shows little inclination to listen to advisers who warn him about long-term damage to Russia if he continues to pursue military destabilization of Ukraine and invites more severe Western financial sanctions. There is mounting evidence in Russian social media that Russian troops are firing artillery directly from Russian territory onto Ukrainian territory. The delivery of more and more heavy weapons from Russia to militants in eastern Ukraine continues across the two countries’ porous border.

However, the Ukrainian president has won his first gamble on the capacity of the Ukrainian army. With this, he has demonstrated the suicidal resolve of Ukraine to fight Russian dismembering of Donetsk and Luhansk from Ukraine. Kiev’s army continues to shrink the territory controlled by insurgents, and volunteers continue to line up at the Ukrainian army’s mobilization and recruitment centers.

This resolve – along with international horror over the shooting down of MH17 and its 298 passengers and crew – has changed the equation of escalation. NATO is upgrading its military presence in the Baltic states and Poland. The European Union has stopped dithering and is now heading toward agreement on serious sector-wide sanctions on Russia. The unequal race between Putin’s fast military and political gains and the West’s slow-moving financial sanctions has at least become more equal.

Moreover, for the first time in the confrontation, Kiev – and not Moscow, with its unison media defamation of the Ukrainian government as “fascist” – is now writing the international narrative of developments in the region.

ELIZABETH POND, a Berlin-based journalist, is the author of “The Rebirth of Europe.” She has covered Ukraine for over 30 years.


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