Today’s fear-mongering

Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail newspaper writes some good op-eds. But like a lot of commentators he seems to go completely off the rails when the subject of Russia comes up. His latest piece entitled ‘Is Putin scoring political goals on an empty net?’ had me spluttering over my breakfast cereal this morning, and merits a detailed response.

Saunders writes that during the past week,

After his U.S. success, the Russian President appeared to launch a two-pronged assault on the stability of Europe. On its eastern front, it took a violent form. Starting Sunday, after Mr Putin’s very cordial phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian forces began attacking Eastern Ukraine … This, military observers said, was Mr Putin’s new push to destabilize and gain influence over Europe’s eastern flank. … On Wednesday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer, when asked about this apparent Russian invasion, declined to mention Russia.

Although I cannot prove it, I’m pretty sure that the Russian Federation has supplied most of the shells that the armed forces of the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic are using in current battles. I don’t see where else they could have come from, it being a long time since the rebels overran any Ukrainian supplies. But Saunders talks about ‘Russian forces … attacking Ukraine’, and an ‘apparent Russian invasion’. That implies that troops of the Russian Army have entered Ukraine in recent days and are leading the fighting around Donetsk. Not even the Ukrainian government has claimed that! Saunders is making this up.

Moreover, his claim that it was ‘Russian forces’ who ‘began’ the recent combat doesn’t fit the facts. As I pointed out in a recent post, even some very pro-Ukrainian sources admit that the Ukrainian army has been consistently breaking the ceasefire in order to conduct a ‘creeping offensive’ against the rebels in Donbass. Meanwhile, Ukrainska Pravda, which can be taken as reliably reflecting the official Ukrainian position, depicts a rather more nuanced story than that described by Saunders – namely that a minor clash between Ukrainian troops and a rebel reconnaissance unit escalated out of control.  If that is the case, the current fighting isn’t the product of any grand strategic design at all. Saunders quotes a former deputy secretary-general of NATO as saying that Russia started the combat in order ‘to test’ the Trump administration. But he fails to point out this is mere speculation without any factual basis.

Next, Saunders continues:

On the Western front, the Moscow incursion took a now-familiar political form. France’s presidential election campaign was tripped up by the sudden leak of thousands of candidates’ private emails, the largest pile of them from conservative candidate Francois Fillon.

Saunders blames Russia for this leak. But why would Russia try to harm Francois Fillon? The international press repeatedly refers to him as ‘pro-Russian’. The main beneficiary of the leaks appears to be independent candidate Emmanuel Macron, the one serious contender for the French presidency who is not considered ‘pro-Russian’. Why on earth would the Kremlin manipulate the French election to help Macron? It doesn’t make any sense. But Saunders fails to mention this. Rather, alluding to potential Russian interference in other European elections, he says:

The chaos serves the interests of those political parties … that regularly express support for Mr Putin and his agendas. … Their leaders all model their political agendas on Mr Putin’s combination of ultranationalist militancy, racial intolerance directed at religious minorities and opposition to the liberal democratic institutions of international cooperation.

Putting aside the obvious objection that far-right political parties in Europe developed their own agendas by themselves and not by copying Putin, this statement reveals a stunning ignorance of what Putin has actually said about nationalism, racial tolerance, and international institutions. Far from preaching ‘ultranationalist militancy’ and ‘racial intolerance’, Putin has often denounced these things, stressing Russia’s multinational and multi-confessional nature. Take, for instance, a speech Putin once gave in Kazan, in which he said:

Without exaggeration the principle of toleration, both national and religious, was central to the formation of Russian statehood. … Thanks to its multiethnic unity our country withstood many trials … the preservation of social, interethnic, and inter-religious peace is the basic, fundamental condition of Russia’s successful development. … In opposing nationalism and extremism the state must rely on all the Federation’s subjects.

This is fairly typical of Putin’s rhetoric. Has Saunders ever read Putin’s speeches? Has he studied Russian nationality and immigration policy under Putin? If he had, he couldn’t possibly make these claims.

Of course, we all have our biases; we all weigh some evidence more heavily than others; we all interpret evidence in a subjective manner. But at the same time, we have an obligation to check the facts, and not to make them up. We also have an obligation not to stoke fears based on ignorance. Journalists writing for a prestigious newspaper ought to do a better job than this.

Bite and hold

In the First World War, armies developed the tactic of ‘bite and hold’. Rather than trying to break through ‘the mud and the blood to the green fields beyond’ (which almost always failed), they would carry out well-prepared and thoroughly rehearsed operations of limited scope designed to seize (‘bite’) a small patch of enemy territory, after which they would halt and defend (‘hold’) what had been captured against the inevitable counterattack.

Judging from recent reports, the Ukrainian army has adopted similar tactics in its war against the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics (DNR and LNR). Over the past few months, the Ukrainians have carried out what RFE/RL calls a ‘creeping offensive’, occupying ground in the so-called ‘gray zone’ between the Ukrainian and rebel front lines. The Ukrainian attacks are not the result of local commanders getting out of hand and ignoring the official ceasefire. According to one analyst, they are the product of intense planning and rehearsal, and use surprise to bite off a small chunk of the gray zone and then hold onto it. Until recently, the rebels’ response has been fairly limited, perhaps because the DNR and LNR are under instruction from their Russian ‘curators’ not to escalate the conflict. This week, however, the rebel forces reacted strongly to the latest Ukrainian incursion in the area of Avdeevka. The result has been the most severe fighting for several months. Both Avdeevka, on the Ukrainian side of the front line, and nearby Yasinovata, on the rebel side, have been cut off from heating and water. Several soldiers and civilians on both sides have been killed.

There seems to be little doubt that the Ukrainians began the latest upsurge in fighting. Even RFE/RL, which is normally very pro-Ukrainian, admits as much. According to RFE/RL:

Observers say the Ukrainians appear to be trying to create new facts on the ground … since mid-December Ukraine’s armed forces have edged farther into parts of the gray zone in or near the war-worn cities of Avdiivka, Debaltseve, Dokuchaievsk, Horlivka, and Mariupol, shrinking the space between them and the separatist fighters.

Especially following the election of Donald Trump, Ukraine is anxious that it is losing Western support. Some commentators have therefore concluded that Ukraine is trying to provoke to a violent response from Russia and the rebels, in order to confirm its victim status in the eyes of the West and to put pressure on the West not to improve relations with Russia. This may be the case, but I’m not totally convinced, as it implies a capacity for strategic thinking which I doubt Kiev actually has. The fact that the current fighting began while Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko was meeting German chancellor Angela Merkel, and that Poroshenko felt obliged to cut short his visit to Germany, suggests that he was rather taken by surprise by the scale of the fighting. That in turn suggests to me that Ukraine’s ‘creeping offensive’ is more tactical than strategic in nature. It is a case of the Ukrainian army opportunistically seizing territory whenever it thinks it can get away with it, but on this occasion discovering that the rebels were willing to fight back.

Those in the West who are naturally inclined to support Kiev come what may, will no doubt take recent events as an excuse to urge their countries to increase their backing of Ukraine. The Globe and Mail newspaper, for instance, today ran an editorial drawing attention to the fighting in Ukraine and calling for Canada to renew its military training mission in that country ‘perhaps with some adjustment upwards’.

Given that RFE/RL says that one of the causes of the recent fighting is that ‘Ukraine’s army appears to feel emboldened’, emboldening it still further in the manner proposed by the Globe and Mail seems to be a recipe for even more violence.

In any case, Canada is rather exceptional in its pro-Ukrainian stance. Elsewhere, it isn’t obvious that Kiev’s creeping offensive will serve its strategic aims. When even RFE/RL notices that the Ukrainian army is responsible for major violations of the ceasefire, one may be certain that others have noticed too. According to RT:

A report in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung said Berlin is increasingly laying responsibility for such incidents on Kiev. The latest tensions may have been provoked by the Poroshenko administration, which is concerned with a possible lifting of anti-Russian sanctions by US President Donald Trump, some figures in the German government believe, according to the newspaper.

Rather than consolidate international support for its struggle, Ukraine’s military offensives may, therefore, have the opposite effect. This highlights the poverty, or perhaps total lack, of strategic thinking in Kiev, which seems to have no coherent plan for regaining control of its lost territories. The creeping offensive sabotages any effort to find a political solution to Ukraine’s problems, but it doesn’t substitute a military solution. The rate of advance is so slow that the Ukrainian Army can never hope to retake the whole of Donbass this way. ‘Bite and hold’ may recapture small bits of territory, but it cannot end the war.