UKRAINE'S ORANGE BLUES - A DONBAS STRATEGY GOING FORWARD

06.06.16


WORLD AFFAIRS.  The following is an interview with George Woloshyn. George Woloshyn is a frequent commentator on Ukrainian affairs. He was the head of the National Preparedness Directorate at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and previously the Associate Director at the Office of Personnel Management during the Reagan Administration. He also served in the Navy Reserves as an Intelligence Officer. 

MOTYL: How would you assess Vladimir Putin’s goals and strategies vis-à-vis Ukraine?

WOLOSHYN: Spring 2014 was a nearly perfect time for an invasion. Ukraine’s government was bankrupt and in disarray, and its military was unprepared. At that time Putin could have launched a conventional attack with seaborne marines, airborne paratroopers, and motorized infantry and armor. Instead, because the Kremlin could not know how the Transatlantic alliance would react to a massive intervention close to its borders, Putin opted for a hybrid strategy that created confusion and a certain (though temporary) plausible deniability in the West that allowed him to achieve through stealth and disinformation what he dared not risk overtly. Despite his bluff and bluster, Putin understands that neither Russia’s economy nor its conventional military would prevail in open conflict with NATO, and that the Kremlin’s pretensions to superpower status matter only in a doomsday scenario where all sides lose.

Putin’s objective was to seize control over Ukraine’s lower half and to formalize it into a “Novorossiya” region that would soon separate from Ukraine, and to be annexed by Russia. The hybrid strategy was designed to achieve that under the cover of a faux civil war by supporting criminal gangs and extremist Russian loyalists within Ukraine to front for the Kremlin as it seized power from weak, corrupt, and disoriented local governments across the region—many of which were sympathetic or bought from the outset. However, Ukrainians confounded Putin’s stratagem, leaving only the Donbas enclave as his consolation prize in place of his grander plan that failed. But the enclave, alone, was not his objective.       

MOTYL: How do you assess the current military standoff between Ukraine and Russia?   

WOLOSHYN: Russia’s annual defense budget is about $60 billion, or 5 percent of its GDP. These funds support a frontline ground force of about 770,000 troops, many of which are poorly trained and ill-equipped conscripts with decrepit, Soviet-era hardware—and most of which are deployed in Eastern Russia. In the aftermath of the dispiriting Georgian conflict, the Russian military launched a significant effort to upgrade its force readiness, but two-thirds of its ground forces still follow the old Soviet model. Only a quarter of Russian forces are fully staffed, well-trained, professional troops.

Much of Russia’s defense industry is also atrophied. It continues to lag far behind in key technologies, and many international sources for components have dried up because of sanctions. Putin’s ambitious $700 billion “modernization” program is now more PR than reality.

Ukraine, for its part, has come a very long way in the last two years. In 2014 its defense budget was $700 million. This year it is $4 billion (4.5% of its GDP) despite enormous war-related economic burdens. Its active ground force of over 200,000 troops, though still very much a work-in-progress, is among the largest in Europe, and is acquiring invaluable combat experience.

Much of Ukraine’s defense industry is undergoing a revitalization and modernization program. It is designing, producing, upgrading, and repairing military hardware and its progress is noteworthy. In 2014, Ukraine produced five “Oplot” tanks. Today Ukraine produces 125 per year. It is mass-producing anti-tank weapons with a 5km range, and its new 120mm mortar can fire 16 rounds/minute a distance of four miles. It is replacing the venerable AK-47 with a lighter and more accurate “Maluk”. Although Ukraine will not match Russia’s full military strength, it will soon be ready to respond to the forces Russia can mobilize in the region. It is estimated that Putin would have to deploy a force twice the size of Ukraine’s forces to launch a successful attack across the border. This would require a substantial redeployment of Moscow’s ground forces—placing a significant demand on the Kremlin’s fragile economy and at the risk of massive casualties—not to mention that the troop repositioning could expose other vulnerabilities on Russia’s other borders.

MOTYL: Do you think Putin will escalate in the Donbas?  

WOLOSHYN: Nobody can predict what Putin will do. But, he knows that he is running out of time. Generally speaking, Ukraine has withstood his assault; vastly reduced its dependence on Russia; and Kyiv is determined more than ever to join the West. Its military build-up, economic and fiscal reforms, and anti-corruption efforts are beginning to show results and will likely take off within a year. If Putin is to reconstitute the USSR and reverse his decline in the polls, he will feel pressure to act within the next 6-12 months while one US president is packing up, another is settling in, and at a time when there is no effective leadership in Europe.

Ukrainian Intelligence reports that there are approximately 40,000 Russian and mercenary troops in the enclave and that stockpiles of Russian armor, troops, artillery are increasing on expanding bases in the Donbas, Crimea, and along the border. Putin may be bluffing to extract maximum concessions before a settlement, or he may be preparing to shred the Minsk agreement in a bloody bid to secure a land bridge to Crimea and expand his enclave. If Russian forces penetrate as far as Transnistria, they will have reached Europe’s soft underbelly and friendly Balkan countries.

MOTYL: What should Ukraine do to forestall such a scenario?

WOLOSHYN: Ukraine, alone, may not be able to forestall it; but Ukraine, in conjunction with its European and American partners, may. The Kremlin, having greatly underestimated Ukrainian resistance to “Novoroissiya”, is likely to very cautiously evaluate the risks. It will assess Ukraine’s civil and military readiness, including its deployment of forces to the various staging areas and potential airborne landing sites. It will calculate Ukrainian determination to “dig in” through civil defense preparations and activation of “homeland defense” (partisan) units in the potentially affected provinces. And, of course, if an invasion seems imminent, it will watch to see if Ukraine’s one million member reserve force is mobilized. A calm, disciplined and confident response to the Kremlin’s threats is the greatest deterrent.

Equally important, Ukraine will have to mount an intensive diplomatic effort to ensure that its Western partners understand the ramifications of a Russian invasion. To thwart Putin, the West will have to be prepared to block Russia’s access to SWIFT and sources of credit; to freeze and confiscate assets that belong to Putin’s inner circle of decision-makers and oligarchs; to impose crippling sanctions leveled at key Russian industries; and, to take determined action to reduce its dependency on Russian oil and gas. In short, the Kremlin must be faced with a clear choice between a peaceful, constructive, and mutually respectful relationship with its neighbors, or having its empire reduced to a politically and financially isolated pauper state.

MOTYL: What should Ukraine’s general strategy be regarding the Donbas?    

WOLOSHYN: In order to regain control of the Donbas, I would recommend that Ukraine continue to regard the Minsk Agreement as a process that gives it “borrowed time” to reform and build its military and economy. The agreement restrains Putin and offers him a face-saving option to exit, while keeping Europe and the US at the table. Second, Ukraine must devote greater resources to secure the defensive line by providing harder and more habitable bunkers, more frequent troop rotations, and upgrading the training of its officer corps. Third, Ukraine should increase its overall troop strength to a 300,000 combat-ready force with a capable special forces component and an enhanced capacity for rapid-reaction. Fourth, Ukraine should defend its troops and increase the enemy’s loss by responding to enemy shelling quickly, decisively, and with pinpoint accuracy, but otherwise comply fully with the Minsk agreement. In addition, Ukraine should make life uncomfortable for the occupiers by infiltrating snipers and special forces to target odious officials, military transport, and depots; as well as rescue hostages and disrupt communications, etc. And fifth, I would urge Ukraine to organize a network of agents, disseminate information and disinformation, encourage espionage, sabotage and resistance, and wait for an opportunity to settle with Russia when Russian resources are tightly engaged elsewhere.

MOTYL: Won’t these measures provoke Putin?

WOLOSHYN: Perhaps, but I believe Putin would respect Ukraine’s determination and these tactics increase his costs that they will eventually help to persuade him that a settlement is in his interest -- provided the agreement appears to be voluntary, in the interest of peace between “fraternal” nations, and include obligatory face-saving concessions that would satisfy Russian citizens. Putin has spent much of his life in the company of gangsters, thugs, and criminals, and some of that would have rubbed off. Like a thief in the night, he came without provocation and carved out a Connecticut-sized piece of Ukraine in the Donbas, with no legal, moral, or humanitarian justification or authority. He knows this even if others tend to forget. If Putin insists that Ukraine stop meddling in “his” enclave, Ukrainians should calmly respond that it is not his and they want it back. The important thing is to stay the course.

Alexander J. Motyl


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