Squeezed between Boris Johnson gaffes and cost-of-living crises, finally UK media led with dignitaries meeting in Geneva to talk turkey over growing tension between Russia and Ukraine. This shows this matter might now receive the level of attention it merits. Until now, it appeared Britain has not moved from Chamberlain’s 1938 view of Czechoslovakia as “a faraway country, of which we know little”. Such insouciance resulted in WW2, the Cold War and the brink of nuclear annihilation.
We are far from a repetition, let alone WW3. However, as most Westerners think such paranoia dissolved thirty years ago—along with the Berlin Wall and Soviet tank armies on the Elbe—we are already suffering flashbacks. Within a decade, Vladimir Putin, ex-KGB apparatchik had taken charge, was kicking ass and taking names. The Russian bear was back, showing none of Pooh or Paddington’s cuddliness.
This Bear Has Form
Exactly 80 years ago, three million seasoned soldiers in a dozen armies of the Wehrmacht that had stormed across the frontier six months earlier, were taught a sharp lesson by the sharp claws of that bear. In deep snows before Moscow, two years of rapier blitzkrieg shattered against brilliant counter-strokes from winter-wise Siberian troops under a wily General Zhukov. It would take three more years of horrors and hardships on the “Eastern Front” to dig the Wehrmacht’s, and thereby Hitler’s, grave.
Nor was this unique. Ever since Peter the Great dragged Russia out of the Middle Ages, nobody has tangled with Russia and come off best. Far more astute warlords than Hitler—Charles XII and Napoleon among them—were sent homeward to think again. The Russian character that achieves such deeds is not one easily understood by the West. It is one of gritty resolution, of deep-seated passion, if unyielding stoicism bred from dealing with endless landscapes, brutal climate and fighting off tough invaders, starting with Vikings and Mongols.
An unabashedly macho Putin plays to this with a gusto that may seem comic to us. His crude, authoritarian rule is more popular than we can explain. But that does not imply Russians are stupid or cowed. It means they like their leaders strong and regard the Merkels and Bidens of the world as “soft”. They have responded well to Putin’s slavic version of “Make America great again.”
Technically, the Soviet Union is history. But Putin is on a mission to piece it back together again. The latest jigsaw piece fell back into place earlier this month, when riots over fuel prices consumed oil-rich Kazakhstan so that President Tokayev called on Russian “peacekeepers” to restore order. This has been common in former Soviet republics, both in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Russian units of their Southern Military District are based in such non-Russian places as South Ossetia (693rd Motorised Brigade) or Dagestan (136th Motorised Brigade).
A Faraway Country
The largest piece still missing from Putin’s jigsaw empire is home to the 41 million people of Ukraine. After independence in 1991, when Ukraine started looking to the West, even toying with the idea of joining that kryptonite of Soviet ambition—NATO. That set alarm bells ringing in the Kremlin, much as they rang in the White House in 1960 when Castro planted communism 90 miles from Florida. Both alarms had less to do with doctrine and more to do with suddenly finding cosy spheres of influence pricked by hostiles in your back yard. Soon after becoming President in, Putin set himself to correct such outrages.
The independence of Ukraine is largely recent and somewhat artificial. Originating as the Viking settlement of Kiev Rus, it was soon referred to as “Little Russia” and bound to Muscovy by culture and language. Its wide open spaces made it subject to Polish, Swedish, Lithuanian and Turkish rule at various points but its longest stint was as provinces of Imperial Russia. It was Stalin’s attempt to secure multiple votes at the UN that it was resurrected as the second-largest republic in the USSR.
By 2014, with Ukraine asserting more and more autonomy counter to Russia’s interest, Putin had both the power and the motivation to act. He engineered, first the “independence”, then the prompt absorption of Crimea into Russia after a “plebiscite”. At the same time, a revolt broke out “spontaneously” among ethnic Russians in the rich industrial region of the Donbas.
However brutal all this may seem, there are sound reasons for Russia to take control of Crimea. Their Black Sea Fleet is based at Sebastopol, globally more important now Russia has a warm-water base at Tartus in Syria. Together with Taman, Crimea’s Kerch peninsula, means Russia controls access to the Sea of Azov. The mineral wealth of the Donets region and its factories are now denied to Ukraine.
Путин: Mоя Борьба
The present Mexican stand-off should therefore be seen as the opening gambit of the next phase of Ukraine’s re-absorption back into Russia. Just as Mein Kampf laid out Hitler’s ambition to secure lebensraum in the East, Putin has been quite open about his ambitions for Ukraine and his reasoning behind it. The Financial Times has quite helpfully translated a 5,000-word article from him: On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.
“Ukraine’s ruling circles decided to justify their country’s independence through the denial of its past. They began to mythologize and rewrite history, edit out everything that united us.”—Vladimir Putin
Despite several rounds of talks in Geneva between US Secretary of State Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Levrov, there has been no progress towards de-escalation. The Russians are being their usual unreasonable selves, wanting NATO to withdraw from Eastern Europe and permanently refuse membership to Ukraine.
That said, nobody in the West seems to have a grip on either the situation or where the Russians are coming from. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss recently warned Russia that “an invasion of Ukraine would be another Afghan quagmire“. Really? A Foreign Secretary worth their salt should appreciate the military difference between the Hindu Kush and the wide open plains of Ukraine.
For all the stern warnings form the West of serious sanctions, the West are collectively whistling in the wind. Ukraine would be problematic (to say the least) to defend. NATO has wisely said there would be no military intervention if Russia acted. A glance at a map of Ukraine tells you why: it is indefensible. It shares an ill-defined 1,500-mile border with Russia and the same length of coast, vulnerable to the Black Sea Fleet. Ukraine itself is a quarter-million square miles of prairie—ideal country for mechanised operations—a playground for Russia’s 15,000 tanks (that’s 100 times more tanks than the British Army can deploy).
Were Ukrainian forces superior, or even comparable, to those of the Russians, that might be deterrent enough. But they can deploy 13 mechanised, two armoured and two mountain warfare brigades, plus supporting units as a field army. This represents perhaps 185,000 combat troops.
The Russians, on the other hand have 60 active tank, mechanised and special forces brigades, with a similar number of artillery, missile, air defence, ELINT, etc. brigades in support, totaling almost 1 million troops. Though not all units will be full strength and some must guard other borders, a superiority of five to one over the Ukrainians must be anticipated, quite apart from superior weaponry and air superiority. Any conflict would be one-sided and likely to be concluded in days.
We must move fast; Russia is not prepared to let talks drag on indefinitely.—Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Levtov, January 21st 2022
What news we get speaks of 100,000 Russian troops massing “on the Ukrainian border”. The Russians protest that this posture is defensive; that there are no plans to invade; that it is NATO that is the aggressor. Whether this be true or no, it is academic. The West dare do nothing more than observe events. And if events include a Russian takeover of Ukraine, that will be a fait accompli. Ukraine once backed away from an approach to the West, following President Yanukovy’s attempt to be non-aligned, but now it seems too late for any such nuanced positioning to succeed.
Putin has little fear of sanctions. He and his oligarch friends live quite happily with those already in place because sanctions don’t interfere with money launderimg through the Caymans and Panama. And if Western Europe gets to shirty, supplying a third of their gas at already-outrageous prices allows a serious squeeze to be put on their economies—including Britain.
The die may not yet be cast; what Putin is doing may be pure sabre-rattling to eke a few concessions out of the West. It wouldn’t be the first time; the Russians have been hard negotiators since Bolshevik times.
But taking the above and Putin’s article together, the runes say wheels are turning for a takeover of the Ukraine by force is likely before the end of winter and a thaw that would prevent a sneak flanking attack from the Pripyat by Russian troops already “on exercise” with their Byelorussian lackeys.