For weeks, if not months, Kiev has indicated the recapture of the southern city of Kherson will mark the start of a long-awaited counteroffensive aimed at turning the tide of the war. Despite the assurances and claims by the Ukrainian military and government, the counteroffensive has not taken shape. The heavy attention given to artillery and rocket attacks in the southern Ukraine, coupled with attacks against Russian military installations in Crimea last week certainly give the indication of a major counteroffensive kicking off. Unfortunately, the sound and fury of last week appear to signify nothing. There are no troop movements underway or shifting of supplies. The Ukrainian air force, despite government claims, has not played an effective role in the fighting for weeks.
Kherson remains in Russian hands. Despite the heavy impact Ukrainian artillery and rockets have had on the city, Russian troops are dug in and resisting in kind. The fight for the city has devolved into a stalemate with no signs of a counteroffensive evident. In fact, Kherson mimics the strategic situation entirely: Long term stalemate with no signs of decisive progress looming on the horizon.
Ukraine has been in the periphery for me this summer, admittedly. Between the Western Pacific flaring up and professional obligations demanding to be met, I have not had the time to go into deep analysis of the war in Ukraine. I am planning to address Kherson and the strategic stalemate which now seems set to impact the war and remain an unpredictable element for some time to come. Hopefully Sunday at the earliest, barring any major developments in Ukraine, the Pacific or anywhere else in the world.
Following the lead of Finland earlier this week, Swedish leadership has thrown its support behind Sweden joining NATO. Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson will submit a formal application likely by the end of the upcoming week. After decades of staunch neutrality, Sweden is choosing a side in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, Stockholm’s Road to NATO Membership did not start in late February of this year when the first Russian troops crossed the border. The process began in 2014 with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its aggressive posturing towards NATO and the West. At this time Moscow’s relationship with Sweden and its neighbor Finland started to deteriorate. The security of the Baltic Sea region and Northern Europe became a major concern. Over the next seven or so years, Sweden and Finland enjoyed a closer relationship with NATO member-states in the Baltic Sea region. Mutual security concerns led to increased defense preparations and military exercises with the armed forces of neighboring nations. Over time, concern over Russia diminished. Then in late 2021, with Russia massing troops along Ukraine’s border, Sweden and Finland each started to reexamine the NATO Membership matter. Early this year, the push towards NATO membership slid into overdrive following a blatant show of force around the Swedish island of Gotland by Russian naval forces, followed a short time later by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the weeks leading up to the war, there were other matters that helped Stockholm and Helsinki come to the conclusion that NATO membership was the right choice for both nations, like Russia’s demand that NATO halt its eastward expansion.
Ukraine was the final straw for Sweden and Finland, however.
I wasn’t expecting to write on this topic today, but somehow I ended up doing just that. I was originally going to discuss India’s decision to halt wheat exports, unrest over food prices in Iran and other related matters. I will post on that either tomorrow or early Tuesday.
The current crisis in Ukraine has revealed glaring holes in NATO’s readiness and strategic planning, especially with regards to its Eastern Flank. If anything, the events of the last two months should serve as a catalyst for renewed efforts to prepare the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria to be the vanguard against future Russian designs on Eastern Europe. The growing importance of the Eastern Flank is not up for debate. The bone of contention is in the lack of commitment to build the infrastructure for a sizeable and permanent military presence on the Eastern Flank.
Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the alliance realized how exposed it truly was in the east. Plans for a permanent military presence in Poland, the Baltics and Romania were drawn up. The United States developed Atlantic Resolve, a series of military activities aimed at enhancing NATO military capabilities in Europe. NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence was also developed along similar lines and guaranteed a semi-permanent alliance military presence in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. Unfortunately, as time went on, the importance initially attached to the Eastern Flank missions waned. Ukraine cooled down to an extent and Russia’s Crimean Anschluss was tacitly accepted. Although Atlantic Resolve and Enhanced Forward Presence continued on through the years, NATO’s attention turned to other areas.
I believe it is imperative for NATO to begin thinking about what it will take to establish a large and permanent military presence on its Eastern Flank for an extended period of time. During the Cold War, the Inner-German Border served as both the physical and psychological frontier between East and West. Central Europe became an armed camp with hundreds of thousands of troops stationed on either side of the border. When the Cold War ended, there was no need for NATO to sustain such a large force. The Soviet threat was gone and governments from Bonn to Washington were eager to reap the benefits of the peace dividends. Now, NATO finds itself needing to make up for lost time, so to speak. The Eastern Flank now requires the necessary military command structure and framework to sustain a multi-division force on the ground. A structure similar to what NATO had in West Germany through much of the Cold War. Specifically, an army group set up along the lines of NORTHAG and CENTAG back in the 1980s.
This morning, I began writing the first of what will be a series of posts on the strategic considerations NATO is now forced to look at carefully in light of what’s happening in eastern Ukraine. After the events earlier today, I planned to set it aside, but decided to post at least the first entry. Provided things quiet down a bit in Ukraine through the rest of the week, I’ll post the second one around Friday. Between now and then, the focus will be on Russia and Ukraine.
Although Russia claims to have started withdrawing forces from the Ukrainian border in the past 24 hours, no proof of this has yet been presented. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. NATO’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said this morning “We have not seen any withdrawal of Russian forces. And of course, that contradicts the message of diplomatic efforts. What we see is that they have increased the number of troops and more troops are on their way. So, so far, no de-escalation.” Russia’s Ministry of Defense has published video of tanks, self-propelled artillery and other armored vehicles leaving Crimea. However, it was not made clear if the equipment was permanently departing the peninsula or simply being repositioned elsewhere. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken supported the NATO claim, saying the United States has yet to see concrete evidence of a Russian withdrawal in progress.
In Kiev and around the rest of the country, Ukrainians are celebrating Unity Day. The holiday was created by Ukraine’s leader Volodymir Zelenskiy to mark the day US intelligence believes a Russian invasion will begin. Ukrainian flags are flying from nearly all government buildings today, the national anthem was performed in cities and towns at 10 AM and the day is being marked by a number of speeches and rallies. Even though the true intent of the holiday remains unclear to many citizens, Ukrainians appear enthusiastic to take part. The threat of war did not appear to deter them from partaking in holiday events.
Ukraine will enjoy at least one more day of peace it seems.
Russia has announced it is prepared to target and engage foreign warships found to be violating its territorial waters following yesterday’s encounter between a Royal Navy warship and Russian air and naval units in the Black Sea. HMS Defender, a Type 45 destroyer sailed close to Crimea’s Cape Fiolent, using an internationally accepted sea lane. Russia regarded the maneuver as a deliberate attempt to challenge Russia’s annexation of Crimea and responded predictably, claiming it fired warning shots and swiftly drove Defender away from the area it was sailing in. Britain denied this version of events and insisted its warship was sailing in Ukrainian waters. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson supported Defender’s voyage, stating earlier today that “The important point is that we don’t recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, this is part of a sovereign Ukrainian territory.”
Despite the maneuvering of warships and slightly sharp rhetoric, neither side is looking to spark an armed confrontation. Moscow understands the purpose behind Defender’s maneuvering was to offer a symbolic challenge. London, on the other hand, clearly predicted the Russian reaction and subsequent warnings issued by Moscow. Each side went to bat and publicly tried to frame its actions in a positive light while simultaneously painting the other nation’s actions as overly aggressive. It has happened before, and this is simply another example of the discursive statesmanship which has become more prevalent in international politics over the last decade or so. By all indications, we will be seeing more cases of this in the future and likely stemming from similar encounters.