Eighteen days into Russia’s ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine and a clearer picture is emerging of Vladimir Putin’s objectives. Russia’s main offensive is in the north, with the 104th Guards Air Assault Regiment and the elite 76th Air Assault Division opening a 100km corridor from Belarus to Kyiv and the 74th Armour (of the 41st Army) punching hard towards Chernihiv. In 2005, Sergei Ivanov, the then Minister of Defence, noted that this was one of the most combat ready brigades in Russia. Significant territorial gains have been made along Ukraine’s eastern border and from a number of pushes from Donbas, and most of the Black Sea coast has been captured by air and armour divisions from Crimea — depriving Ukraine of its ports.
But this has not been the swift invasion for which Putin had hoped. Russia’s is an army heavily dependent on its artillery, which has been largely redundant in the early days of this assault; likely the result of an effort by Russian commanders to limit collateral damage. Yet, this failure to utilise its combined strength and a surprising level of Ukrainian resistance has produced an awkward and lumbering invasion. President Putin’s frustration with developments was made obvious by the arrests in Moscow of the chief and deputy chief of the FSB’s foreign intelligence branch, Sergey Beseda and Anatoly Bolyukh. It would appear to be the case, then, that Russian intelligence of the situation on the ground in Ukraine was lacking, or that CIA and NATO covert involvement had prepared the ground better than Russian strategists had imagined.
There can be no doubt Russia’s initial assault has been a disaster, and the Ukrainian defenders have not hesitated to capitalise on this mistake. In the long-term, however, the Russian army is not going to withdraw until its objectives have been achieved. Therefore, in the coming days we can expect to see a rethink of the invasion plan and a much more determined and forceful restatement from the invading forces. Regardless of this faltering start to Putin’s offencive, the outlook for Ukraine is not good. The Russian naval base at Sevastopol ensures a complete blockade of the Black Sea ports and these ports will soon be taken by Russian forces, leaving only the vulnerable land route from Lviv on the Polish border open for arms deliveries from NATO member states. The missile attacks yesterday on the Ukrainian garrison near Lviv would strongly suggest this supply line is next on Russia’s agenda.
The US strategy of ‘bleeding’ Russia with a long insurgency, for which the CIA has been training Ukrainian far-right paramilitaries stateside for the last eight years (code named ‘Ground Department’), is unlikely to work. Russian forces have surrounded the Nazi Azov battalion at Mariupol and will in all probability, given that these ultra-nationalists are determined to fight to the last man, capture or kill all of the city’s defenders. The Ukrainian army will put up a good fight, but it will eventually run out of arms and ammunition. Without NATO intervention, Ukraine is in a losing position.
Overall then, Russia’s designs for the future of Ukraine are becoming clear. Other than Kyiv, the capital (a target for obvious reasons), the focus of the Russian invasion is Ukraine east of the Dnieper and the Black Sea coast. Most analysts are of the opinion Russia is not overly interested in territorial conquest. In fact, John Mearsheimer, an expert in International Relations Theory at the University of Chicago, has convincingly argued that an occupation of Ukraine would ultimately weaken Russia. Aware of this, Mr Putin will almost certainly opt for a hybrid approach; territorial gain in safe regions where there is enough pro-Russian and ethnic Russian support and submission and regime change in northern and western Ukraine — in what will become a landlocked Ukrainian rump state.
Looking at the map of Ukraine and noting the popular resistance to the 2014 far-right Maidan coup, it is possible — to a fair degree of accuracy — to delineate the dismemberment of Ukraine. Donetsk and Luhansk will most certainly be absorbed into the Russian Federation. The Russian majority of the Donbas has been subjected to almost a decade of a state-sponsored terror campaign at the hands of ultra-nationalist units of the Ukrainian army. Like majority Russian Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk will be taken by Russia — never to be returned. As an extension of Donbas, the Kharkiv oblast — where in 2014 anti-Nazi protesters occupied the regional administrative buildings to protect them from the far-right coup — will probably be annexed. Across the rest of the south of the country — in the oblasts of Odessa, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Zaporizhia, and Dnipropetrovsk — there is powerful popular resistance to the Kyiv coup government. Ukrainian Nazi threats to ethnically cleanse the ethnic Russian population and the memory of Nazis burning thirty-eight Russians to death in the Odessa Trade Unions Building in the aftermath of the coup have done little to win these provinces over.
In all, we can expect to see these eight oblasts — or most of them — annexed to the Russian Federation, leaving the remaining sixteen to form a reduced Ukrainian state very much subject to the oversight of Moscow. What this means for what will be left of Ukraine in the post-war settlement — which will be entirely on Russia’s terms — is exactly what Vladimir Putin said it would mean at the start of the invasion; the complete demilitarisation and ‘denazification’ (qua regime change) of the state. While this is a catastrophic scenario for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, the priority of Russia is to eliminate any possibility of Ukraine joining the European Union and NATO.
There can be no question that this new configuration will establish the territorial boundaries of the new Cold War. And nothing of this should come as much of a surprise to anyone in Washington or Brussels. George Kennan and Henry Kissinger warned that NATO expansion into eastern Europe would provoke a conflict with Russia. Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and Vladimir Putin each expressed their concerns over the extension of US hegemony in the region, and in 2015 Noam Chomsky reminded the West what the end of Ukrainian neutrality would trigger. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has systematically broken every territorial agreement it has made with every administration in Moscow, and so it is difficult to see why the US and its NATO client states are feigning shock at Russia’s aggression.
In the final analysis, this is a disaster for Ukraine and a war that need never have happened. The time to prevent this from happening was in March 1999 when the US broke its 1991 commitment to Russia that NATO would move ‘not one inch to the east.’ The inclusion of Czechia, Hungary, and Poland into NATO on 12 March 1999 set in motion a series of measures and countermeasures in Washington and Moscow that have brought us to this point. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a simple matter of Russia coming good on the promise it made to Secretary of State James Baker in 1991 when German reunification was traded for the US’ promise to fix the boundary of the NATO alliance. Ukraine’s fate was sealed on 23 December 2014 when its parliament voted to end the country’s neutrality, preparing the way for it to join the US-led NATO alliance.
Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.
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