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.

Approaching The Apogee In The Eastern Ukraine

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‘Amateurs study tactics,’ an old military adage goes. ‘Professionals study logistics.’ The military situation in the ground in the Ukraine exemplifies this adage almost entirely. The pro-Russian separatist forces have a secure, uninterrupted supply line that stretches from the eastern Ukraine to the Russian side of the border. Not only are they able to replace material loses from Russian stocks at a fast rate, the tacit participation of Russian military forces in the fighting has guaranteed success on the battlefield as well as ensuring the security of the supply line.

On the other side of the line, Ukrainian forces have not been able to even marginally stem the flow of supplies coming west. Nor have they been able to resupply at the same rate as their opponents. Their stocks are finite and resupply from the West has come in dribs and drabs instead of a consistent flow. Even worse for the generals in Kiev is the realization that material aid from the United States and European nations has not included large amounts of military goods. The US and Europe are taking every step possible not to escalate the fighting.

Combat units go through ammunition and spare parts at a very rapid clip when hostilities break out. Armored vehicles, helicopters and aircraft break down or suffer battle damage and have to be repaired or replaced. The Ukrainian military cupboard is growing empty. To say nothing about replacing weapons, aircraft and vehicles that are lost in battle. Kiev’s forces are being bled dry with no hopes of major resupply on the horizon while the separatists enjoy an unfettered supply line with access to every material good they need and more.

US intelligence sources and eyewitness reports from the ground have confirmed the arrival of Russian made vehicles and heavy munitions in eastern Ukraine. On Tuesday, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported that some of its group members personally witnessed a convoy of 43 large green trucks heading towards Donetsk. According to the report, some of the vehicles were hauling 120mm artillery pieces behind them. A similar report was received last week concerning the arrival of tanks and other heavy equipment in the area.

Clearly, something is going on. It appears that the Russians are resupplying the separatists in preparation for the resumption of offensive operations. Ukrainian positions in the eastern part of the country have been enduring artillery fire for the past few days. Preparatory fire most likely. The cease-fire agreement has already been stretched to the breaking point in some respects and broken in others. Fighting is going to resume on a wide scale in the near future. The primary questions right now are: how far do the separatists plan to expand their territorial gains? Will the Russians overtly intervene in the fighting with regular forces this time?

I will explore answers to those questions tomorrow. The coming days are going to be crucial. Expect daily updates at the very least.

A Quick Look Around The World: Ukraine, ISIS and the Baltics

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2014 has been a dangerous year thus far. Crises and conflicts have been cropping up across the globe at an almost regular pace. From the Middle East to Europe, conflicts rage and crises simmer, threatening to explode into regional conflagrations at any moment.  With the final two months of the year approaching, it does not seem that the trend will change anytime soon. At the moment, ISIS and the Ukraine are the two most significant international crises in the world.  Ebola, despite the danger it poses, is a healthcare crisis and cannot be included in the same category as the aforementioned. Recent events in the Baltic Sea area suggest the potential formation of a new regional crisis by the end of the year.

Below is a quick overview of each of the three crises that currently hold the world’s attention.

Ukraine

Destroyed T-72 tanks are seen on a battlefield near separatist-controlled Starobesheve

Putin continues to successfully play the Brinkmanship card in the Ukrainian Crisis.  An energy deal between Russia and Ukraine is yet to be completed with winter fast approaching. Russia is demanding assurances on how Ukraine will find the money to pay in advance for November and December gas supplies. The Ukraine is requesting an additional 2 billion euros in credit from the EU to cover the costs. If Kiev receives the credit, Gazprom is prepared to reopen the gas flow shortly thereafter. There are serious concerns in Europe that energy supplies from Russia to Europe –piped through Ukraine – will be disrupted if a deal is not struck soon.  Putin is threatening an energy crisis in Ukraine and Europe in order to ensure that Russia is paid.  Some would consider this to be a Realpolitik approach to the problem while others consider it blackmail. I see it as Brinkmanship and so far it is working well for Putin.

Officially, the faltering ceasefire agreement (Minsk Memorandum) is holding. Sporadic fighting between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces has continued off and on, however. Today, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donestk People’s Republic announced that the rebels are ending the ceasefire agreement. With parliamentary elections coming soon, this appears to be an attempt to influence the outcome of the voting, orchestrated by Russia. Ukrainian law enforcement and security apparatuses are increasing their readiness in anticipation of possible terrorist attacks by the pro-Russian separatists.

ISIS

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The light footprint has been a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy doctrine. Militarily, the idea behind a light footprint is to achieve large results with small means. The concept was brought to the forefront by Donald Rumsfeld, yet President Obama has adopted and tailored it to fit not only military policy, but foreign policy as well. The results have been mixed to say the very least. In Libya, a light US footprint helped to remove Gaddafi from power. In Pakistan, a light footprint utilizing mostly drones led to some large achievements in the War on Terror. However, there were pitfalls to the use of drones, namely in the form of collateral damage.

The light footprint behind Operation Inherent Resolve has not yielded significant setbacks to ISIS yet. The reasons for this are diverse. In short, the campaign against ISIS will be almost impossible to win without the introduction of ground forces in substantial numbers at some point. With the exceptions of Desert Storm and Allied Force, airpower alone has never been responsible for singlehandedly winning a military campaign. Iraq in 1991 and Serbia in 1999 were relatively modern militaries. ISIS, despite its claims, is not a modern military force.

Airpower alone is not going to keep ISIS from expanding its influence and territory. The performance of the Iraqi military still leaves much to be desired and the Kurds, while excellent fighters, do not have the numbers to stand up to ISIS on a large scale. ISIS has to be stopped on the ground and eventually it will be up to the US to bear the burden. Unfortunately, the political will for such a move does not exist at the moment. In all likelihood, that will not change for some time, if ever.

Sweden and the Baltic

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In October 1981, a Soviet Whiskey class diesel submarine hit an underwater rock and had to surface a few kilometers from Sweden’s main naval base and in Swedish territorial waters. The event was not the first instance of foreign submarines being detected in Swedish waters. Throughout the Cold War, a number of foreign submarines (For the most part Soviet/Russian) invaded Swedish waters to conduct surveillance and intelligence gathering missions. Now, decades after the Cold War came to an end, Sweden is enduring another submarine ‘chase’ in its territorial waters. Or is it?

The truth is that no one knows for certain. Most people assume the submarine is Russian. Unfortunately, there is no solid proof that the object is a submarine or submersible, let alone one of Russian origin. Civilian sightings, as well as some photographs that show something on the water, have sparked the biggest Swedish naval operation in years. The problem is that defense cuts have all but gutted the Swedish Navy and Air Force. ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) platforms such as ASW helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft are practically non-existent. The Swedish Navy does not have any warships dedicated to ASW.

That is not the only military activity going on in the Baltic neighborhood either. Swedish and NATO fighter jets were scrambled to intercept a Russian Il-20 Coot intelligence aircraft that briefly entered Estonian airspace. Danish F-16s from Denmark, and then Portuguese F-16s, operating with the Baltic air policing program, were scrambled. The Danish F-16s first intercepted the Coot and it turned north towards Swedish airspace. Swedish fighters then intercepted it and the Coot turned south again and entered Estonian airspace. Portuguese F-16s then intercepted it and led the Il-20 away from NATO airspace.

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Since the beginning of the Ukrainian Crisis, interceptions of Russian military aircraft by NATO have become regular occurrences.  This encounter was different in that the aircraft actually violated the airspace of a NATO nation. At a time when tensions are increasing over the Ukraine and the submarine hunt in Swedish waters, encounters like this do nothing to decrease the tension level.

Old Concept, New Packaging: NATO’s Latest Rapid Response Force

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On Friday at the NATO summit in Wales, alliance leaders solidified plans for the formation of a rapid response force in Eastern Europe. The purpose of the new force is to deter Russian aggression. In the event deterrence fails, the force will serve as a fire brigade of sorts, helping to delay a potential Russian attack against a NATO member until reinforcements can arrive and influence the battle.

The rationale behind the new force is far more political than it is military. It’s being created solely in response to Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine Crisis. Since the beginning of the crisis, Russia’s military has moved and operated with impunity. First in Crimea and now in the eastern Ukraine. Although Ukraine is not a NATO member, Russian actions have caused a number of NATO’s eastern members to grow concerned. The new rapid reaction force is being tailored to address and temper the concerns of some member nations while sending a message about alliance unity to Russia.

The force’s usefulness in a potential future conflict with Russia is very limited. By definition, a rapid reaction force is centered on mobility rather than firepower. Therefore, it has to be light, and effective anti-tank weaponry will be in very limited supply.  In all likelihood, the force will be facing heavy maneuver Russian forces in a future conflict. The Russian’s are firm believers in combined arms. One look at the Russian army’s history and current day doctrine confirm this. Any force that NATO puts in the field to confront the Russians needs to be tank heavy instead of light and mobile.

This is not NATO’s first attempt at a fire brigade. The alliance has fielded rapid reaction forces in the past and at present has one operational. The first force was created by Allied Command Europe (ACE) and designated as the ACE Mobile Force (AMF). On paper, the idea behind the AMF was to be deployed anywhere in theater to show NATO solidarity and resist aggression against member states. In reality, AMF’s purpose was to reinforce the Northern or Southern flanks ( Norway and Turkey respectively) in a time of general war against the Warsaw Pact. AMF was a brigade sized land force with an attached air component. It survived the end of the Cold War, and made its first deployment (the air component) to Turkey during Operation Desert Storm to conduct surveillance of Turkey’s border with Iraq. In 1999, AMF was dispatched to the Balkans during the Kosovo Crisis. AMF hung on until 31 October, 2002 when it was disbanded and replaced by the new NATO Response Force.

NATO Response Force (NRF) was a different animal all together. The force was significantly larger than AMF, numbering 17,000 when it achieved an IOC in 2004. Defending member states was one of NRF’s intended missions. However, it was designed specifically to support NATO “Missions.” The deployments have mostly been outside of Europe. It assisted with security during the Iraqi elections that followed the end of major combat operations. NRF also deployed to provide humanitarian relief in Afghanistan, Pakistan and even to the United States in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Details about the new rapid reaction force should be coming this week. Given what’s taking place in the Ukraine, it is safe to assume that NATO will be prioritizing the creation and deployment of this force.

Russian Goals And Influence Dictate The Direction This Crisis Will Take

 

A fighter jet flies above as Ukrainian soldiers sit on an armoured personnel carrier in Kramatorsk

*Authors note- This article was written yesterday, prior to the ceasefire agreement.*

It is useless for Russia to continue denying that its military is not playing an active role in the Ukrainian conflict.  Russian military equipment and soldiers are on the ground in the eastern Ukraine. Earlier in the week, Ukraine’s National Security Council released a statement indicating that Russian military forces have been seen in Donetsk, Luhansk, and other rebel controlled areas in the east. Kiev has complained to anyone listening that its military now has to fight the Russians as well as rebels. This statement is true and false. Granted, Russian combat units are not directly engaging Ukrainian forces, they are taking part in the fighting to an extent. Rebel leaders have ‘confirmed’ that Russian soldiers on leave make up the over 4,000 strong contingent of Russian citizens fighting in the Ukraine.

Over the past week, rebel forces have seen a reversal of their fortunes with the addition of Russian equipment, and presumably, soldiers and advisers to their ranks. The opening of a second front along the Sea of Azov coast has diverted Ukrainian assets and attention away from what had been the main area of focus farther north. Until a week ago, Ukrainian forces had been recapturing towns and areas that had been under rebel control for months. Offensive operations have now been halted because of much stiffer resistance and an urgent need for friendly units along the coast.

The pro-Moscow rebel victories have changed the face of the diplomatic game as well. A new peace plan is on the table, one that was put forward by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Two weeks ago such a move would have been impossible. However, with the separatists regaining the initiative, due in great part to Russian military assistance, Putin is ready to negotiate, and to do so from a position of strength. There are indications that a cease fire between Ukrainian and rebel forces could come as early as Friday.

From the beginning of this crisis, Putin’s goal has been to partition the Ukraine.  If a ceasefire takes place and the peace plan eventually becomes a reality, Putin wins. The Ukraine’s choices are simply not palatable. Kiev can either continue fighting a bloody, expensive war in the east against an enemy that is increasingly well supplied by Moscow, or it can quietly agree to the terms of a Moscow supported peace plan.