Ukraine Update: 6 February, 2022 (Noon)

In past twelve hours we’ve seen a consistent stream of reports from Russian media outlets about alleged Ukrainian military actions going on around Donetsk. Twelve hours ago, Russian claimed Ukrainian armed forces had commenced a ‘massive artillery bombardment of separatist Donetsk.’ This was followed up later in the day (Moscow time) by TASS reporting the death of a Donetsk People’s Republic soldier from Ukrainian sniper fire at the line of contact in Donbass. In the past few hours, similar reports of contact in the Donbass region have been appearing on  social media platforms. Unfortunately, the news tweets and posts have not been followed up with any official confirmation from either the Ukrainian or Russian governments. In other words, it cannot be determined if these alleged skirmishes and artillery ‘barrages’ actually occurred. If they have, however, it could mark the start of Russian efforts to carve out a pretext for broader military action in Ukraine at some point in the near future.

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The White House has warned that a Russian invasion can take place at any time. In a tour of the Sunday Morning news show circuit, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said, “We believe that the Russians have put in place the capabilities to mount a significant military operation into Ukraine, and we have been working hard to prepare a response.” On Friday, US officials stated that Russian has 70 percent of the troops, weapons and materials needed to launch a full-scale attack. It was also revealed that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley told lawmakers in a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill that Kiev (Kyiv) will likely fall within seventy-two hours of the start of a Russian attack. It is refreshing to see Milley present a realistic assessment which accurately displays the danger facing Ukraine if war breaks out.

Author’s Note: There will be a second update published later today. Likely in the early evening.

Russia-Ukraine Tensions Renewed

Surreptitiously, tensions between Russia and Ukraine has been rising in recent weeks. While the rest of the world’s attention has been transfixed elsewhere, Kiev and Moscow appear to be gravitating towards another standoff at the very least. Or, perhaps the beginning of a new phase of the War in Donbass which is now threatening to reignite after an extended period of dormancy.

Last month, senior Ukrainian military leaders publicly expressed concern that Russia’s moves in Donbass were a threat not only to Ukraine, but also to NATO. Last week four Ukrainian troops were killed by artillery strikes fired by Russian forces. Then, earlier this week, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Ukraine, Ruslan Khomchak warned that a steady buildup of Russian forces is taking place in close proximity to the border.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has suddenly become chatty on the topic of eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to his German and French counterparts on Tuesday and discussed the escalating tensions with Ukraine. Putin views it as Kiev’s refusal to honor ceasefire guidelines agreed to last July. Yesterday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov expressed concern about the tense situation in that area and expressed concerns that Kiev might be looking to restart the conflict. “We express concern over the growing tension and express concern that one way or another the Ukrainian side could take provocative actions that would lead to war. We really don’t want to see that.”

Russia’s words reinforce a growing feeling that the Moscow is probing the resolve of the West, perhaps in preparation for a move in the near future. For the first time in years, Vladimir Putin and his government are facing substantial domestic issues. Upcoming legislative elections later this year and the Alexey Navalny situation continue to influence the Kremlin’s thinking. Rekindling the conflict in eastern Ukraine and causing an escalation that ultimately leads to Russian gains would go a long way towards placating nationalist voters and ensuring a wide victory at the polls in September.

There are also a host of other factors to be considered. However, at the moment anxiety is rising over the eastern Ukraine as the prospect of renewed fighting there has sudden become very real once again.

Future DIRT Project: Reevaluating the Crimean Annexation & War in Donbass Four Years Later

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Four years ago this week, events were taking place in Ukraine that would pave the way for a new era in Euro-Russian, and US-Russian relations. The Maidan revolution in Kiev had reached its zenith. Vikor Yanukovych was removed from his post of president of Ukraine by the nation’s parliament. The deposed former president fled the capital and made his way to the eastern Ukraine, expecting to be welcomed with open arms. To his surprise, the reception he received was cold, and it was made clear that his presence was not welcomed. Days later, Yanukovych turned up in Russia. The general consensus is that he fled Ukraine to avoid prosecution, however, he publicly stated the reason for fleeing had more to do with self-preservation, claiming that his car had been attacked by armed men when leaving Kharkov for a meeting.

While the Yanukovych drama played out, and a new pro-West government assumed power in Kiev, Russian special forces were arriving in Crimea. The ‘little green men’ as the global media called them, wearing no identification or insignia, spread out to secure key points across the Crimean peninsula. One of those sites was the Crimean parliament building, where the parliament was in emergency session. With Russian troops in close proximity, the body voted to dissolve the Crimean government and replace Prime Minister Anatoli Mohyliov with Sergey Aksyonov, who belonged to the Russian Unity political party. The die had been cast and Crimea was on its way to being annexed and absorbed by the Russian Federation. On 19 March, 2014, the Russian Duma approved a constitutional amendment establishing Crimea and Sevastopol as federal subjects, and the annexation became official.

The Crimean annexation and Yanukovych melodrama were but separate acts in a much larger theatrical piece; the build up to the climax, if you will. That climax would occur in eastern Ukraine with the outbreak of fighting between pro-Russian separatists, and Ukrainian government troops. What began as a series of small firefights around the Donetsk Airport escalated into a major confrontation that has seen Russian weapons, military supplies, and even troops introduced into the war on behalf of the separatists. The fighting continues on today with no end in sight.

Four years have gone by, and it is time to reexamine the effect those events have had, and continue to have on the geopolitical situations in a number of areas, and world affairs as a whole. Crimea and the start of fighting in Ukraine proved to be the catalyst for a resurgent Russia. From the Baltic, to Syria, Moscow has reaped the benefits of 2014, shaping an aggressive foreign policy based on diplomacy through intimidation, the use of hybrid war, and when necessary, limited overt military action.

*Author’s Note: After the Poland 2022 project I will begin a comprehensive reexamination of events of winter and spring 2014 the effect they have had on the world since.*

Moscow and Kiev Anxiously Await A US Response to the Fighting

Pro-Russian separatists ride on a tank in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine

Kiev and Moscow are waiting anxiously for the US response to the rebirth of fighting in eastern Ukraine. For the Ukrainian government, and its people the primary fear is that US support is on the decline now with Donald Trump in the White House. Another concern is the possibility that Putin is now moving to solidify his grip on the eastern part of Ukraine and use it as leverage over the United States on other issues such as the repeal of US and European sanctions currently in place against Russia. Moscow is watching the reaction from Washington closely as well, for its own reasons. In a best case scenario for the Kremlin, the start of fresh fighting in Ukraine demonstrates Russia’s hold on power in the region and that Russia alone holds the keys to regional peace.

Washington’s response to the fighting has so far been muted. The State Department released a statement yesterday calling for an ‘immediate, and sustained ceasefire.’ There has yet been no comment from the White House on the clashes. The Pentagon has been quiet as well with Secretary of Defense embarking on a trip to the Far East today to reassure US allies in the region and address the North Korean nuclear threat.

The flashpoint of the latest round of fighting is the town of Avdiivka, a northern suburb of Donetsk. For three days, government and separatist forces have been locked in a battle for control of the industrial town. The heavy fighting has severely damaged the infrastructure, resulting in the loss of power and water for thousands of residents at a time when temperatures are dropping to -20C in the evening hours. It is unclear which side is responsible for initiating the fighting with the government and separatists blaming one another.

President Trump has spoken numerous times about his desire for better relations with Russia. Vladimir Putin’s definition of better relations likely includes the dropping of sanctions, which has not happened yet. There was a high level of expectation in Moscow that the sanction issue would be settled when Trump and Putin spoke over the weekend. To Putin’s probable disappointment, it has not happened. A day or so later and fighting breaks out again in the Ukraine. Draw whatever conclusions you wish, however, there does appear to be a higher purpose behind the recent events in Ukraine.

Week In Review Jan 19-24: Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Ukraine

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This past week has been an eventful one. From Eastern Europe to the Arabian Peninsula, the flames of instability are being stoked with a new fervor. In Saudi Arabia, the passing of King Abdullah comes at a time of social unrest in the Kingdom, international concern about oil output, and a potentially explosive situation to the south in Yemen. The new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has decisions to make that are going to reshape the path that the Kingdom is on.

 

Ukraine

Sergei Prokofiev International Airport in Donetsk is firmly under rebel control. The Ukrainian forces defending the airport’s main terminal building were overrun by a renewed rebel effort earlier this week. The Ukrainian government claims that its forces still control portions of the airport grounds, but that statement has not yet been confirmed. The battle for the airport lasted months. Fighting was fierce and the once modern airport has been reduced to a shell of its former self by months of combat. The spirited Ukrainian defenders had captured the imagination of citizens, repelling dozens of attacks by Russian backed separatist rebels. Control of the airport became a symbol of the Ukraine’s resolve. Now, with it back in rebel hands, it is becoming a symbol of a resurgent rebel offensive.

In the midst of winter, the resupplied and invigorated pro-Russian separatists are launching new offensives on six fronts across the eastern Ukraine. Fighting has broken out from Luhansk to Donetsk and all the way south to Mariupol. On Saturday morning, rocket fire reportedly killed 15-20 civilians in Mariupol.  For weeks, Kiev has warned about the presence of large numbers of Russian troops and equipment pouring into the country. Moscow denied that Russian forces are involved in the fighting. While this statement might be technically true, it’s apparent that the separatist groups have been rearmed to the point where they are capable of undertaking offensive operations once more.

Yemen

The recent turn of events in Yemen are a significant concern for the US. The nation is unstable The resignation of President Abdu Rabbuh Mansour Hadi is a major setback to US operations against Al Qaeda in the region. Hadi was a faithful supporter and partner of the US. Without him in power, the future of US drone-strikes and counter terror efforts are in question. There was no successor to Hadi’s government waiting in the wings. The Houthi rebels have not come through with replacement members yet. In fact, the extent of Houthi control and influence is already being put to the test. Thousands are marching in Saana in protest against the Houthi as the rebels work to consolidate their gains. If Yemen’s people decide not to accept the Houthi’s de facto control of their government, the current instability could lead to a power vacuum.

Right now, Yemen is leaderless and without direction. The Houthi power grab is not yet etched in stone. Iran is the major supporter of the Houthi’s and the Islamic Republic has been keen to find ways to extend its influence on the Arabian Peninsula. The US can ill afford to allow Iran a free hand in the region, especially now with a change in leadership underway in Saudi Arabia. Decisions have to be made in Washington regarding how to best deal with the chaos in Yemen and avoid potential spillover into Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

Saudi Arabia

As mentioned above, Saudi Arabia is undergoing a change in leadership. King Salman is a highly respected member of the royal family. In many ways he is cut from the same cloth as his predecessor King Abdullah. Salman is pragmatic and a prudent reformer. He is taking power at a time when the Kingdom facing social challenges at home. Two thirds of the population is under the age of 30. 1.9 million Saudis are going to enter the workforce in the next decade and the nation’s limited economy is ill prepared to accept them. Unemployment is already high and will only increase unless the problem is addressed. Saudi Arabia has been under close scrutiny for its human rights record. Specifically, the case of the blogger who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes essentially for running a website that is dedicated to freedom of speech has garnered much attention.

Internationally, the Kingdom is facing tests as well. Yemen’s political strife opens the possibility of an unhinged nation-state on its southern border. Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula is tied in here. The Saudis are wary of any Iranian inroads on the peninsula and have to make it a priority to shut down any potential openings for Iran to exploit.

There are concerns about Salman’s health. Many reports have come out regarding the 79 year old monarch’s health condition. Saudi Arabia’s media is under tight state control, so the reports can not be confirmed. Reports that Salman had suffered a stroke are well known, as well as some lesser known ones that he suffers from dementia. Again, there has been no way to confirm or refute these claims.

What is definite is the fact that the Arab World is facing its largest crisis in decades and a strong, stable Saudi Arabia is necessary to keep a foreign enemy from exploiting the situation.

And by ‘foreign enemy’ I am referring to Iran.