Ukraine Update 17 July, 2022 (Brief Update)

  • Russian cruise missiles struck the southern Ukrainian port of Nikolayev (Mykolaiv) on Sunday, marking the second missile attack against the city in two days. Ukrainian military officials reported the attack damaged industrial infrastructure in more than one part of the city and caused damage and fires to civilian neighborhoods. There was no official word on casualties. Nikolayev is a coveted objective for Russian forces in southern Ukraine. The city has endured several air and missile attacks in recent weeks as part of a Russian effort to soften the city’s defenses. Last month, Nikolaev’s mayor urged the remaining populace to leave the city if possible, citing a depletion of resources.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has sacked two of his government’s most senior ranking officials. The prosecutor general and head of the domestic intelligence agency were unceremoniously fired on Sunday. Zelenskiy claims the move was made as a result of the large number of treason investigations started on employees of law enforcement agencies, including the prosecutor general’s office and the domestic security agency. 651 cases of high treason had been opened against law enforcement personnel and at least 60 employees of the prosecutor’s office and the Security Service of Ukraine have remained in occupied territory and are working against the Ukrainian government.

Thoughts on the US Strike Against Syria Last Night

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As a strong supporter of President Trump and his policy goals I was surprised by the talk of military action against Bashr al-Assad and his government that started to emanate from Washington DC beginning Wednesday night. Most Americans recognize the debacle that Syria has become and regard the mess as partly the result of the previous administration’s failed foreign policy. The last thing we want is to become embroiled fully in the tinderbox which Syria has become.

As a foreign policy advisor and geopolitical expert, on the other hand, I agreed with the tone and message on Syria that was coming from Secretary of State Tillerson and President Trump. Bashar al-Assad crossed a line by using chemical weapons against his own people. His actions demanded a firm, immediate response which would affirm that further use of chemical weapons by Syria will not be tolerated.

As an American I fully support the cruise missile strikes against targets in Syria. After eight years of the previous administration’s penchant for leading from behind, last night the United States of America reclaimed its place as leader of the Free World. The military action ordered by President Trump was measured, limited, and delivered the proper message to Assad, Russia, and our allies across the globe.  It was not a shot across the bow, or the implementation of a ‘red line,’ but a justified punishment and message to Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.

What comes next is not as clear-cut as last night’s US action was. Tillerson spoke in broad terms yesterday about a coalition forming to stop Assad. He also said Russia has been either complicit or incompetent in reining in the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. The cruise missile strikes certainly raise the prospect of the proxy war in Syria heating up and will certainly raise tensions before Tillerson leaves next week for a visit to Moscow.

On the topic of Russia, today Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the attack as “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law.” Russia’s Ministry of Defense also stated its intention to increase the capabilities of Syria’s air defense system following the attack. At current, Syria’s air defenses are centered around single-digit Soviet manufactured Surface to Air missiles from the Cold War era like the SA-5 and SA-4. These systems are very limited in their abilities to contend with cruise missiles such as the Tomahawk. In comparison, Russia’s newer double-digit SAM systems such as the SA-21 Growler, which is currently defending Russian forces in Syria, has the ability to detect and engage low flying cruise missiles.

Over the weekend we’ll take a look at some of the other topics emerging from the US strike, as well as try and chart in more specific detail what might come next in Syria, and for US-Russian relations.

A Brief Summary: INF Treaty Violations and the Future of US-Russian Relations

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During the 1980s ground-based mobile missile systems became a major arms-control topic for the United States and the Soviet Union. The rationale of the superpowers on the matter was uncomplicated: both sides wanted them in Europe, yet each side was scared of the other possessing them. The US systems in place in Western Europe at the time probably worried Moscow more than the Soviet systems concerned Washington. The reason for this was the superiority of the US missile systems. The Pershing 2 and BGM-109G, the Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) system were newer and more advanced than their Soviet counterpart, the SS-20.

Those mutual fears and anxieties led President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to hammer out a treaty that eliminated all nuclear and conventional missiles with ranges between 310-620 miles (short range systems) and 620-3,420 miles (intermediate range) as well as their launchers. The treaty was named the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty for short. It was signed by Reagan and Gorbachev in December, 1987 and went into effect in June, 1988. At the time, the treaty was heralded as a major step forward towards eventual nuclear disarmament and peace. Then the Cold War came to an abrupt, unforeseen conclusion in 1991 and the treaty was largely forgotten for a long period of time.

In 2007, INF was again in the news. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that it no longer served the purposes of the Russian Federation. Putin’s chief military officer supported the statement by hinting that whether or not Russia remained bound by the guidelines of INF would depend on the United States intentions with the Ground Based Midcourse Defense missile system, which the US had planned to deploy in Eastern Europe. Those plans were eventually halted and replaced with a combined sea-land based system. The very system now becoming operational, with ground locations in Romania and soon Poland.

In 2017, The US/NATO missile defense system in Eastern Europe is not yet entirely online, however it continues to be a thorn in Russia’s side. For years Russia has spoken of the potential vulnerability which the system casts upon Russia and its strategic arsenal. In spite of countless assurances by the United States and NATO that the missile defense system is designed to counter missile threats from Iran, Russia has not backed down from its position. The West has not backed down from its commitment to the system. In fact, since the events in Ukraine and Crimea in 2014, NATO and the US have become more determined to field the system as soon as possible. Russia views this reality as an indication that the true purpose of the missile shield is to neutralize Russia’s strategic arsenal.

Fast forward to the present day. News broke in the media today that the Russian’s are deploying a cruise missile in direct violation of INF. The news was probably something of a shock to the public, however, the US intelligence community and Pentagon have been monitoring the development of the SS-C-8 ( a cruise missile version of the SS-30A) and surmised that eventually the system would become operational. In fact, in 2014 the Obama administration accused Russia of violating INF by developing and testing this missile.  Russia denies any treaty violation, however, the SS-C-8’s performance characteristics say otherwise. Its range is between 300 and 3,400 miles, a distance covered under the terms of INF. Russia currently has two battalions of SS-C-8 missiles in service. One is operational and deployed somewhere in the Russian Federation while the second unit is still working up.

For the short term, the appearance of the new Russian cruise missile will not affect the military picture or security situation in Eastern Europe. The violation issue will be viewed differently in Washington, however. Specifically, it will be seen as a challenge to the Trump administration at a moment of early upheaval with the resignation of Mike Flynn from the National Security Adviser chair. Further, the violation will make Trump’s desire to improve relations between the United States and Russia all the more difficult. Even though Vladimir Putin has stated a desire to also improve relations with the US, his recent actions suggest otherwise. Last Friday, Russian aircraft buzzed the destroyer USS.Porter while she was on patrol in the Black Sea. The incident was the first of its kind since Trump was inaugurated on 20 January.

Putin might not want a confrontation with the US, however, he is quite blatantly attempting to test the new president and see for himself just how far Trump can be pushed.

Wednesday 23 November, 2016 Update: More Missiles To Kaliningrad

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There has been a great deal of public concern and posturing by NATO over recent Russian military activity in the exclave of Kaliningrad. NATO officials and politicians from member-nations have labeled Russia’s movement of SS-26 Stone (Iskander) short-range ballistic missiles, SA-21 Growler (S-400) surface-to-air missiles, and now SS-C-5 Stooge (K-300P Bastion) land-based anti-ship missiles as ‘destabilizing.’ At first glance, the observation seems accurate. Russia is currently introducing a considerable number of these weapons platforms. The SS-26 Stones are particularly worrisome since they are nuclear capable. All of these platforms can be either offensive or defensive in nature depending on Moscow’s intentions.

Behind closed doors in Brussels, NATO military leaders understand what the motivation behind Russia’s buildup in Kaliningrad. Moscow has initiated it as a counter to the component of the US/NATO ballistic missile defense shield now under construction in Poland. The first site, situated in Romania, became operational in May of this year. That site does not concern Russia as much as the one in Poland does. Geographically, Poland is much closer to Russian territory than Romania. The placement of the Aegis Ashore site in Poland is viewed as a potential offensive threat by Moscow. Aegis Ashore uses the same vertical launch system and magazine that US Navy destroyers and cruisers are equipped with to launch SM-3 surface-to-air missiles. What makes Russia especially anxious is the fact that the VLS can also launch Tomahawk cruise missiles just as easily.

So Moscow’s latest moves are in response to Aegis Ashore coming to Poland, and the recent NATO military buildup in close proximity to Russia’s western border. Eastern Europe has become quite the chessboard in recent years with move and countermove between Russia and NATO continuing at a regular pace. The tension that comes with the situation cannot be discounted or minimized since Moscow’s view of the situation is strikingly different from NATO’s. With that in mind, it also has to be noted that the military buildups by both sides have been, for the most part, gradual and controlled.

The military situation in the Baltics and Eastern Europe could be one of the first challenges the Trump administration finds on its plate in January, 2017. President-elect Trump’s desire for better relations with Russia, Vladimir Putin’s own aspirations, and geopolitical realities will intersect. From that point, we could be looking at anything from a de-escalation of East-West tensions to a sharp rise in them leading to armed conflict.

*Authors Note- Between Thanksgiving and Christmas we will be taking a closer look at some of the foreign policy challenges that await the Trump Administration. Putin and the situation in Eastern Europe will be one of them*

Wednesday 9 December, 2015 Update: Russian Submarine Launches Cruise Missiles In Anger

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Yesterday was a landmark day of sorts for the Russian Navy. For the first time it employed submarine launched cruise missiles in combat. Six SS-N-27A Sizzler (3M-54 Klub) cruise missiles were launched against two targets in Syria by a Kilo class submarine in the Mediterranean. Moscow has claimed that the targets belonged to ‘Islamic State’ positions outside of Raqqa, however, this cannot be confirmed. While Russia has devoted a fraction of its military efforts to hitting ISIS targets, the majority of it appears to be directed against more moderate opponents of the Assad regime.

The strike appears to be part of a major offensive by Russia against rebel targets over the past three to four days. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated that Russia’s air force has flown more than 300 sorties over Syria and struck more than 600 targets of various types. The numbers could be exaggerated considering the number of aircraft that Russia currently has in theater. Also, 600 is a large number, so what Russia considers a target might be up for debate. In this war, though, public relations are nearly as important as the results on the battlefield. Whether or not the Russians are making headway with their effort remains to be seen, but the appearance that they are will score Putin sorely needed political capital at home and abroad. Further, the impression that Russia using some of its most advanced and lethal weapons effectively in Syria is causing consternation among US and NATO officials.

Russia has been using its involvement in Syria as a defense exhibition of sorts, giving the world an up close and personal look at the capabilities of its military. Vladimir Putin wants to portray Russia’s military as being as technologically advanced and capable as its Western counterparts. To the untrained eye it certainly looks that way, but professional military observers are going to be more difficult to persuade. Yesterday’s cruise missile attack is an excellent example. The US has been using submarines to deliver cruise missiles against hostile targets since 1991. It has become a standard part of US doctrine. For Russia, however, this marks the first time it has used them. If anything, the fact that the number of missiles used was limited and restricted for use against undefended ‘soft’ targets highlights the inadequacies of Russian naval doctrine and weaponry.

The Russian military is improving, but it is not yet anywhere near the United States in terms of capabilities and weapon effectiveness.