On Saturday the British government announced that their most recent intelligence points to a Russian plan to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with a puppet regime controlled by Russia. Former Ukrainian parliament member Yevheniy Murayev, leader of a small pro-Russia political party was identified by the British Foreign Ministry as the likeliest candidate to lead the puppet government. Murayev wasted little time in distancing himself from both Russia and Western Europe on social media. On Thursday, the United States leveled similar accusations at Russia, claiming that Russian intelligence services were spearheading an effort to recruit Ukrainian politicians to take over the government and gain control of the nation’s infrastructure in the opening hours of a Russian invasion. If the coup attempt fails at the start of an invasion, then Moscow will still have enough pro-Russian politicians to form a core government to run the Ukraine after hostilities draw to a close. Whether or not Yevheniy Murayev is selected to become a twenty-first century Viduk Quisling remains to be seen. The US and British governments have warned that an overt Russian invasion is not the only act that will bring on severe economic sanctions. A coup, followed by the subsequent installment of a pro-Russian puppet regime in Kiev will also result in significant economic sanctions.
Ireland has been informed that a Russian naval exercise will occur in February 240 kilometers southwest of the Irish coast. A live-fire segment will be included in the exercise, which will take place in international waters but also inside of Ireland’s excusive economic zone. The Irish Foreign Ministry has raised the issue “ at senior level with the Russian authorities and will continue to do so in the week ahead.” The Russian naval units that will be involved in the exercise will most likely come from the Northern and Baltic fleets. It’s worth paying attention to how these exercises develop in the coming days and weeks as they could give fresh clues about what Russia’s intentions really are.
It has been a long day. I was hoping to get a second update posted in the afternoon, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Things are happening now and it appears the final stages of preparations before hostilities commence are either underway or about to be. We’ve discussed Russia’s movement of more troops and equipment into close proximity of the Ukrainian border. The arrival of Russian army units in Belarus has also been mentioned. Ostensibly they are there to conduct exercises with Belarussian forces. Thursday saw Russia announcing that major naval exercises will be held at the end of this month and in February across a large swath of the world’s oceans. The exercises will take place in parts of the North Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans, as well as the Mediterranean Sea. 140 warships and support vessels and 60 aircraft will be involved, along with an unknown number of submarines. This constitutes a considerable amount of the Russian Navy’s inventory. At first look, the primary purpose of the maneuvers seems to be to provide cover for potential naval movements into the Black Sea to coincide with operations against Ukraine. The worldwide scope of the maneuvers though, lead me to suspect there’s another element at work here. A projection of Russian sea and air power in areas where NATO and Russian navies operate in close proximity to each other. Intimidation tactics, for lack of a better term. Another possibility is that Ukraine is not the only area that Russia has plans for. Maybe the exercises are indeed cover, but for Moscow to strategically position its naval and air forces across the global gameboard. In the event NATO stands up militarily to Russian aggression in Ukraine, these forces could be utilized to cause serious damage to NATO naval forces and land installations in the first hours of hostilities. An improbable prospect, but a prospect, nonetheless.
Russia is not the only country that announced military moves today. Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles told reporters that her country will be deploying warships to support NATO forces in the Mediterranean and Black Sea. A minesweeper is moving east at present and a frigate is expected to sail within 3-4 days. The Spanish government is also close to a decision on sending warplanes to Bulgaria to help bolster NATO’s Southern flank as tensions with Russia continue to rise.
On Monday, NATO began its annual Black Sea naval exercise. Sea Breeze ‘21 is underway with this year’s exercise being co-hosted by the US Sixth Fleet and the Ukrainian Navy. It is scheduled to run until 10 July and the multinational exercise will include forces from thirty-two nations. 5,000 troops, 32 ships, 40 aircraft, and 18 special operations and dive teams will be involved in the exercise and related operations. This makes Sea Breeze ’21 the largest installment of the annual, multinational exercise, which first began in 1997.
This year there is considerably more attention on the exercise given recent events in the Black Sea. Last week’s encounter between a British destroyer and Russian air and naval forces has raised tensions in the area. As anticipated, Russia will be monitoring the exercise closely and is likely to run a short-notice exercise in the area as well. In fact, Russian forces held snap naval and air exercise in the eastern Mediterranean on Friday, not long after the incident with HMS Defender. The eastern Med has become more congested with an increased number of Russian warships and aircraft operating in close proximity to Syria. Encounters between NATO and Russian forces have become almost routine of late.
As China’s transgressions have consumed more headlines and attention on the international stage, Europe’s hands are tied somewhat. With the close economic relationship between Beijing and the EU, applying major economic sanctions is next to impossible without attracting significant blowback. The Union appears to have found a compromise, however.
Today, EU leaders have agreed to levy limited sanctions on China over its human rights abuses. The measures will be formally agreed upon and set later in March when EU foreign ministers meet. These sanctions will be the first imposed on Chinese officials since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. They will include travel bans and asset freezes, but not actions that will be felt by the entire Chinese economy. And this is where the problem is for Europe. Sanctions are a form of punishment, applied to drive home a point and entice a nation-state to change its position on a particular issue. Weak sanctions like these, however, generally encourage continued noncompliance. When it comes to China, Europe consistently wants to have its cake and eat it too. This means confronting China on human rights violations and other issues while simultaneously pursuing deeper economic ties with Beijing.
In the last six months, considerable backlash has taken shape in Europe against China concerning its crackdown in Hong Kong, as well as the human rights violations continuing to take place in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. China’s aggressive posture in the South China Sea has also begun raising eyebrows across the Continent. There is a mixture of alarm and frustration in the capitals of EU nations not only over Beijing’s actions recently, but also concerning the lack of a cohesive EU policy concerning the People’s Republic of China. Whereas China is pressing forward with a strategy centered on driving a wedge between Europe and the United States, the EU has failed to create a strategy to counter that. Instead, Brussels has dithered, unable or unwilling to place an appropriate title upon China. Instead, it has chosen a variety of more generic labels to describe China. Economic competitor and systemic rival are but two.
In the midst of the mixed messages doled out by the EU, Germany, and Great Britain are planning naval deployments to the Western Pacific later in the year while France has already sent two warships to the region in what can realistically be described as modern-day gunboat diplomacy. In February, a French frigate conducted a joint naval exercise with US and Japanese forces off the coast of Japan. Also last month, France revealed it had sent an attack submarine to patrol the South China Sea. The deployment, and public admittance of it by Paris, serves as a clear warning to China that the European powers will be a part of the naval calculus should China provoke a confrontation in the South China Sea or elsewhere in the Western Pacific in the coming months and years.
Monday marked the start of the world’s largest international naval exercise off the coast of Hawaii. RIMPAC 2020 is a large multi-national biennial exercise hosted by the United States. The US Navy, are joined in the exercise by warships, aircraft, and submarines from the Pacific Rim nations. RIMPAC promotes regional stability, and interoperability among the navies. The COVID-19 pandemic is having an effect on the exercise this year. All of the exercise will be held at sea. All visiting ships needing to make logistical stopovers at Pearl Harbor prior to the exercise have done so. No personnel were permitted to leave their respective ships.
The number of nations sending warships to attend is less than fifty percent than in 2018. Predictably China is not taking part this year, and Taiwan was not extended an invite. Many close US allies in the region, and around the world are participating though. South Korea, Canada, Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, New Zealand, Brunei and France have all sent ships to Hawaii for RIMPAC 2020.
Current world events will keep the attention off of RIMPAC this year, which is somewhat ironic given the growing Sino-US tensions in the Western Pacific, and the continuing importance of the entire Pacific region. And although this year’s exercise is not as large as normal, it will focus primarily on warfighting. “This year we will focus solely on warfighting in the maritime domain, to include anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare and maritime interdiction operations, as well as some robust live-fire events,” said Vice Adm. Scott Conn, commander of U.S. Navy 3rd Fleet.