Impossible victory

It’s always a pleasure to read the words of former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, so imagine my joy at breakfast this morning when I opened up the Globe and Mail and found his latest article, entitled “Peace in Ukraine requires a carrot and stick approach.” You get a sense of where it’s going from the very first sentence, which says: “I just returned from the contact line in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia, which separates free Ukraine from the Russian-occupied parts of the Donbass region.” I suspect that a lot of Irrussianality readers would have stopped right there and turned instead to the sports section, but it’s my job to read this guff, so I ploughed on. And what great reading it made!

It’s pretty clear how Rasmussen sees the war in Donbass: Ukraine v. Russia, not Ukrainians fighting Ukrainians. “Nearly three million Ukrainians in the Donbass region live in fear,” writes our friend Fogh. True enough, perhaps, but I don’t think that for most of them its Russian artillery that they’re afraid of. But Rasmussen doesn’t let such little details bother him. Apart from spelling Donbass with two s’s, what follows in his article could pretty much have been written by the president of “free” Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, as if Rasmussen had just jotted down some Kiev briefing notes and recycled them for the Canadian press.

The core of the article is Rasmussen’s proposals for a “political solution” to the war. This involves “providing defensive equipment to the Ukrainian soldiers,” and “deploying a robust United Nations peacekeeping force to the Donbass region.” The former should include “night-vision goggles, signal-jamming equipment and radar to detect enemy firing positions.” Quite why this is purely “defensive” military equipment, Rasmussen doesn’t explain. It can just as easily be used for offensive purposes. As for his peacekeeping proposal, it fits exactly with what Kiev has been suggesting – not a mere protection force for OSCE monitors, as Russia has proposed, and not a larger force to separate the sides and patrol the area between them, but a mission which “stretches all the way to the Ukraine-Russia border to avoid turning the contact line into a de facto new border,” and which should also “protect the population and the infrastructure.” In short, it would be a UN occupation force, a bit like the one NATO sent to Kosovo in 1999. We all know how that ended up. In essence, this is a proposal for the Donbass rebels’ surrender. It’s also contrary to the Minsk Agreements, which stipulate that Ukraine should regain control of its border only after it has granted special status to Donbass and carried out local elections.

But good old Anders has some carrots to offer as well – “full sanctions relief”, when and if “Russia delivers on the withdrawal of troops [who these are he doesn’t say] and the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty … when all of Russia’s obligations are met.” No mention here of Ukraine’s obligations under Minsk, you will note. It’s not much of a carrot. “Give in to all our demands and then we’ll be nice to you,” is what it amounts to.

For that reason, Rasmussen’s proposal doesn’t have a chance of succeeding. When a war reaches stalemate, you can’t get peace by demanding that one side makes all the concessions. It won’t agree to it, and because the war is stalemated, you can’t force it to do so. In such a situation, the only way forward is something which takes both sides interests into consideration. Rasmussen seems utterly uninterested in that.

So what’s the alternative?

In another new article, Mark Galeotti cites the Chief of the Ukrainian General Staff, General Muzhenko, as saying that, “Kyiv’s military is now in a position to retake Donbas in as little as ten days – if it is willing to suffer 10,000-12,000 casualties, including 3,000 fatalities, as well as more than 10,000 civilian deaths.” I don’t doubt the last bit of that statement – “more than 10,000 civilian deaths.” Any attempt to retake the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics by force would be extremely bloody. 10,000 civilian deaths would be the minimum, I suspect. But as for the General’s confidence that he could do the job, and in just ten days, then I have to say that he’s living in cloud cuckoo land if he actually believes that. The Donbass rebels have about 40,000 troops and hundreds of heavy weapons systems. Take a look at Syria and Iraq, and how long it took to capture cities such as Aleppo, Mosul, and Raqqa, against armies much smaller and less well-equipped. Donbass contains at least two major cities, and many other large towns. There is no way that they could all be captured in street by street fighting in 10 days. This is just ridiculous.

Any talk of a military victory should be dismissed out of hand. The Ukrainian Army probably isn’t capable of it, and even if it were, it would take it months and would cause a vast humanitarian catastrophe. And this is where Rasmussen’s proposal to arm the Ukrainians is positively dangerous. Galeotti gets it right when he says:

Those who advocate arming Ukraine, generally with the very best of intentions, risk distorting the political calculus for Kyiv by encouraging the belief that there can be a purely military solution to Donbas. It also will hand President Poroshenko political capital that, based on past experience, he will spend on fudging rather than accelerating reform. A lack of conditionality attached to Western support has instilled the notion in Kyiv that the West will look after Ukraine even if its own government will not.

This is spot on. What’s wrong with the West’s unconditional support for post-Maidan Ukraine is that it encourages it in its worst behaviour and provides no incentive to change that behaviour in favour of something more likely to bring peace.

So, we are back to our previous question, “what’s the alternative?” Galeotti suggests “Cleansing the political system, constraining oligarchic power, streamlining the administration … creating a working, law-based, economically-vibrant and genuinely pluralist Ukraine.” Superficially, this makes sense. It’s something I’ve said myself. Three years ago, in a long conversation with the Ukrainian ambassador in Ottawa, I told him that if his country wanted to get back Donbass, its best hope was to make a success of itself, so as to make Ukraine an attractive choice. But let’s be realistic. Three years on is there any evidence to suggest that there is any chance of this actually happening? A recent opinion poll gives us a sense of just how attractive Ukraine is to those of its citizens it currently controls, let alone to those whom it doesn’t.  Take a look at the following charts:

ukrainepoll1

ukrainepoll2

ukrainepoll3

ukrainepoll4

Let’s be brutally honest. Ukraine isn’t an attractive place. It isn’t going to be able to win Donbass back by being a model of super-dooper wonderfulness. It’s just not going to happen. Ukraine also isn’t going to win Donbass back by means of military conquest. And it isn’t going to win it back via some harebrained scheme involving arming the Ukrainian army and some UN peacekeeping mission.

So what’s left? If Kiev really truly wants Donbass back it has no choice. It has to negotiate with the rebels and come to an agreement on autonomy and amnesty which satisfies the rebels (or at least satisfies them enough that Moscow can force them to swallow it). In short, Kiev has no practical option other than following through with its Minsk obligations. I’ve said all this before, but it’s worth saying again. This is the only way for Ukraine to regain its lost territories. This isn’t a conclusion based on moral reasoning. It’s just practicalities. And practicalities matter. So, if we in the West want peace in Ukraine on terms which sees Ukraine reunited, then instead of encouraging Kiev to believe that it can find an alternative solution, we should be making all aid entirely conditional on it taking the steps required to make peace. And that means a policy very different from that proposed by Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

24 thoughts on “Impossible victory”

  1. This is an interesting insight into a mindset from mr Fogh; that is not looking at what is actually going on in Ukraine – but what his anti Russian politics tells him is going on.

    There is going to be no resolution because the western powers don’t want there to be.

    That leaves Ukraine to go full speed down a path that will cause the total break up of their country.

    -The recent language law criticised by PACE; which seeks to irradiate Russian also impacts negatively on Hungarian, Polish, Romania and Greek communities.

    – One only has to look at the torch light parade over the weekend and the open support of nazi collaborators to see that this Ukraine is not a country that Donbas could fit back into. How will the other communities fair?

    – the overdependence on IMF money; the ongoing corruption they don’t bother to hide – they just declare their new riches openly and transparently!

    Ukraine I’m sad to say is killing itself.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The cliche has it that you could always trust the Americans to do the right thing after they had tried everything else. No more — now they just keep trying everything else, full stop.

    Excellent essay and analysis, Paul.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “We all know how that ended up”

    Most splendidly! There was a gay parade in Kosovo! A triumph of Freedoom and Mockracy!

    Oh, and black market for weapons and body parts. Yeah…

    “Mark Galeotti cites the Chief of the Ukrainian General Staff, General Muzhenko, as saying that”

    1) Galeotti has no military background whatsoever, is a “Crussionality” fanatic who passes feverish dreams for “predictions” and “analysis”, yet who is still treated as reputable “Russia Watcher” in the West, due to his incessant Russophobia.

    2) Jaśniewielmożny pan Muzhenko also claimed that:

    mysterious spacecraft were respinsible for “diversion” in Kalinovka ammo depot

    – Still can’t decide if he believes or not in the presence of Russian Army in Donbas.

    3) Meanwhile, the Head Military Attorney of the VSU Matios explains, that they can’t provide photo-proof of Russia Army’s presence in Donbas because Russian hackers delete photos.

    SUGS!

    “But as for the General’s confidence that he could do the job, and in just ten days, then I have to say that he’s living in cloud cuckoo land if he actually believes that”

    Reminds me of late and unlamented Yeltsin era general and Minister of Defense Pavel Grachev, who promised to retake Grozny in just 2 hours by deploying “a single paratrooper regiment” (c). This promise of his became toxically memetic even to this day.

    “A lack of conditionality attached to Western support has instilled the notion in Kyiv that the West will look after Ukraine even if its own government will not.”

    Uhm, wasn’t it like that for a long, long time and in different countries as well?

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    1. “Jaśniewielmożny pan ”

      Neither Russian, nor Ukrainian but Polish. However, should be “jasnie wielmozny ” – two words.

      Kind regards,

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      1. Neither Russian, nor Ukrainian but Polish.

        “ясновельможный” (that’s is – in one word) is both legit word in Russian and Ukrainian.

        Kindest regards as well

        Like

  4. An interesting and amusing article- and I can report that, especially for a scholar, you are reaching a broad readership, for I am your one millionth reader.

    Like

  5. Any talk of a military victory should be dismissed out of hand.

    Why not? Here’s the thing: Even if you’re very corrupt and in economic freefall, raising military spending from 1% to 5% of GDP is going to seriously augment your military capabilities.

    Ukrainian volunteers are now well paid, well motivated, and well equipped – they are not the ill-prepared force of 2014. Don’t ask me, ask this blogger at Colonel Cassad.

    http://colonelcassad.livejournal.com/3598435.html

    And Alexander Zhuravlev, whom one has good reason to suppose also knows things, thinks that a Ukrainian victory within 7 days is perfectly doable.

    Я сам большой патриот ДНР и наших ВС, но надо здраво рассуждать. Абсолютно любому здесь понятно, что сами по себе мы без помощи России и недели против ВСУ не продержимся, если они бросят все силы на захват ЛДНР. Не потому, что мы чем-то хуже (мы лучше), а просто потому что “силы несопоставимы”.

    A recent opinion poll gives us a sense of just how attractive Ukraine is to those of its citizens it currently controls, let alone to those whom it doesn’t.

    Sure, Ukrainians don’t much like each other, but 80% agree that they like Russia even less. So this is largely irrelevant. If it hasn’t collapsed of this in the past three years, it’s not going to do so now. The Donbass might be an open wound on Ukraine, it is a very manageable one; meanwhile, it is Donbass itself that is bleeding out, stuck as it is in legal limbo between Ukraine and a Putin who was bold enough to give them hope in 2014 but too cowardly since to even recognize them. The Ukrainians don’t have to do much more than wait things out.

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      1. I also would not be surprise if the general staff gave similar advice back in April 2014, when there was just a handful of insurgents armed only with automatic rifles. “It’ll all be over in a week.”

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    1. It isn’t the war that is the real drain on today’s truncated Ukraine, its PeetyPorkyChocko & his buddies, and even the AFPE&P is starting to notice what a pack of reckless, rapacious, ravening oligarchs they have backed there.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Not the ill-prepared force of 2014? They’re still led by most of the same people and they’re the same army that was happy to leave munitions out in the open to rot.

      Ukraine wages war like it ‘fights corruption’.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. As I said, you can’t capture 2 cities manned by 40,000 men in a week, at least not unless you have a couple of hundred thousand of your own and great technical superiority. Urban warfare ain’t that easy, and the DPR and LPR are largely urban.

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      1. All of these predictions and chestpumping both by Svidomites and Russian “punislivshiks” do not count for one inevitable, that 100% sure gonna influence the outcome of any such attempt by Kiev to reach a “final solution”.

        “The Northern Wind” 😉

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  6. Paul,

    As others have commented, Fogh of War, like the the Anglosphere Foreign Policy Elite & Punditocracy (AFPE&P) that pays him wants only Russia’s defeat, and cares not what Ukrainians suffer in the meantime.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You really can’t make some of the drivel that passes for expert opinion up. Leaving aside the practical dimensions of urban warfare, my brief experience as an enlisted man tells me that it’s really impossible to get soldiers to do anything passable as a decent job without maintaining minimum levels of morale. Ukrainian soldiers are underpaid, poorly trained and most importantly, have little faith in their government (beings themselves Ukrainians). By its own admission, at the height of the crisis, the Ukrainian army failed in its mobilisation drives by somewhere in the region of 50%. These people are probably struggling to maintain basic cleanliness standards, the notion that they could storm an industrial and urban environment in ten days is comical.

    Second, the naive conviction in ‘speeding up reforms’ is so silly as to beggar belief. What does that even mean except for the circular notion that, ‘in order to succeed, you must succeed!’. And reforms to what end exactly? Ukraine was a fully industrialised country integrated with Russian supply chains. It made things like jet engines. The reforms are meant to remove Ukraine from the Eurasian economic network and integrate with the EU. Leaving aside the fact that the EU is hardly interested in providing any assistance in this, what exactly would be the terms of this reorientation? Ukrainian industrial products do not really fit in the European economic environment, at least not in a way that is profitable. So what is Ukraine’s place in this future division of labour? Net exporter of sunflower oil? What great victory! A bright future awaits.

    One also wonders where 2019 fits in this type of analysis. When Russia starts to export gas around, rather than through Ukraine, what will be the effect of the giant hole in the country’s budget on its mission to become ‘successful’. Is the EU prepared to plug the hole? How about Canada and the US?

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    1. Might as well admit, with the Boeing actions against Bombardier, and the US governments position on the Canadian car industry, that the US is quite happy to work towards de-industrializing Canada. We have been in similar periods before, and here we are again.

      Like

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