Pre-emptive condemnation

Regular readers will know that I have been decidedly sceptical of the idea that the Russian Federation is about to launch a full-fledged assault on the Ukraine. To be quite frank, I don’t want to believe it, as it would be an act of criminal folly – both criminal and folly, to be precise.

It would also be a humanitarian tragedy, as such an assault could not but result in a large amount of completely unnecessary death and destruction. Let us be quite clear, if it happens, I will condemn it totally and unreservedly. At that point, I will terminate this blog, as its mission to contribute to more rational discussion of both Russia and foreign policy in general will have failed absolutely and without any hope of redemption for many a year. It will be time to call an end to it all. Following a Russian invasion of Ukraine, no even remotely nuanced discussion of things Russian will be conceivable for quite possibly the rest of my life. It will be time for me to drop all punditry, cut all ties with Russia (including ending my relationship with RT), and return to being a historian safely digging in the archives of the past.

I’ve often criticized all those politicians, journalists, and think tankers who backed the disastrous invasion of Iraq, the wars in Afghanistan and Libya, and so on, and yet who keep on pumping out hawkish screeds. They will have won the day. I’ve always said that there should be accountability. Well, I will hold myself accountable, and withdraw from public life.

To be honest, it’s hard to remain sceptical about the ‘Russian invasion’ in the face of the absolute certainty of the predictions of impending doom coming out of the United States, and to some degree the UK. I don’t trust such predictions, but things don’t look good. Komsomolskaia Pravda correspondent Aleksandr Kots reports that there has been heavy fighting today in Donbass. Meanwhile, the leaders of the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics have appealed to Vladimir Putin for help to resist the alleged Ukrainian attack. I can’t say that Putin won’t respond as requested. The result might not be a full-fledged assault on the entirety of right bank Ukraine, and might just be an offensive to drive Ukraine out of Donetsk and Lugansk provinces, but even that would be, in my view, unacceptable. I have repeatedly condemned the West’s wars of aggression in recent years. A Russian war against Ukraine would be no worse than, for instance, the invasion of Iraq, but it would be equally criminal.

Let us hope that it doesn’t happen. If it does, you’ve seen the last of me.

Quick reaction to Putin’s speech recognizing DPR/LPR

Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a long speech at the end of which he expressed his intention to recognize the independence of the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR) in Donbass in Eastern Ukraine. Here’s some very quick thoughts.

The speech was a massive outpouring of grievances, beginning with a long diatribe against Lenin, Stalin, and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In a sensible world, that would knock on the head the idea that Putin wants to rehabilitate Stalin and restore the USSR, but of course won’t do anything of the like. After his rant against the communists, Putin then moved on to express all his various complaints about the West and the behaviour of post-independence Ukraine. None of it was new, but it’s rare for it all to coming pouring out at once.

The purpose of the long list of grievances was clearly to justify the final decision – recognizing the DPR and LPR – but it’s interesting that so little of it had anything to do with the situation in Donbass. The overall sense I got was enormous frustration. Putin kept sighing, and every now and then would rap his palm on the table. It was like he was doing something that had very much not been his desire, but that he felt was the only thing left for him to do. I very much doubt that this has been his plan all along, and that all the incidents that have taken place in recent weeks have been carefully orchestrated to lead up to it. Rather, one gets the sense of something having snapped.

Of course, there was in all this a total lack of self-reflection – no indication by Putin that maybe things he’d done might have contributed to the current crisis. It was all kind of self-pitying. In this regard, Putin and his counterparts in the West who similarly swim in a sea of self-pitying grievance strike me as rather alike. Everyone is blaming everybody else for everything. It’s not very healthy.

The question now is what next?

Recognition of the DPR/LPR requires ratification by the Federation Council, but that will just be a rubber stamp and can be expected in the next couple of days. Along with recognition there are to be treaties of friendship with the rebel republics. A lot will depend on what those say and what sort of aid from Russia is envisioned in them. Economic and humanitarian aid will be one thing. Military aid will be another. But the act of recognition will provide legal cover should Moscow decide that military aid is required. For it can say that it is not sending weapons/troops or whatever into Ukraine but into independent states. After all, if Western states could recognize Kosovar independence and then provide Kosovo with support, Russia can do likewise. At least, that will be the argument.

Beyond that, the issue is whether this is a step on the path towards a full-scale invasion of Ukraine or rather an alternative to it. Obviously, those who have been boosting the prospect of such an invasion will believe the former. As someone who has always felt that an all-out attack on Ukraine out of the blue was unlikely, but also felt that it was very probable in the event of a major Ukrainian assault on Donbass, I see this as something of an alternative to war – as one of the ‘asymmetrical’ measures Moscow promised if the West failed to respond to its demands for security guarantees. The danger is that by seeming to rip up the Minsk agreements which looked to reintegrate Donbass into Ukraine, the act of recognition brings Russia and Ukraine more openly into conflict and so possibly raises the likelihood of all-out war between them.

Certainly, the situation is far from healthy. As I say, my strong impression is that this is not what Moscow had planned all along. Rather it’s a product of a realization that the West is not interested in meeting its demands (which to my mind were never very realistic) and also that Ukraine will never implement the terms of the Minsk agreements. Blocked from any other path, the Kremlin has therefore taken this one. Where it will lead, I do not dare to predict.

The war in Donbass must end now!

I don’t normally write two posts in a day, but news that the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics in Eastern Ukraine have ordered the evacuation of all civilians forces me to take up the pen again.

I find this deeply worrisome. Personally, I doubt that Ukraine is really planning to assault Lugansk, as the LPR leader claims. The Ukrainian leadership surely knows that the Russian response would be terrible. But, as I’ve long said, this is precisely how large-scale war between Russia and Ukraine will begin – not because one day Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine out of the blue for no reason, but because of something that happens on the front line in Donbass which causes a violent Russian response.

So if we want to avoid war in Europe, we have to eliminate this possibility. Also, from a purely humanitarian point of view, we need to start thinking not of geopolitics, not of NATO expansion/non-expansion, not of glib platitudes of ‘defending democracy’ and the like, but of enabling the people of Donbass to return to their homes and live again in peace. With this evacuation, 100,000s of people will turn into refugees. We have to help them, and that means we have to end the war.

End it. That’s all. Whether the way it ends is just or unjust is at this point no longer relevant. Whether it benefits Russia or the West is irrelevant. This war is a human tragedy and a threat to the wider peace in Europe. It has to be ended. Now. Everything else can come after.

What does this mean? The UN Security Council should meet and pass a resolution obliging all parties to the conflict to cease firing and withdraw a certain distance from the front lines. It should also mandate the immediate dispatch of an international peace keeping force to occupy the territory between the two warring parties. Sanctions, or other forms of coercion, would be enacted against those who refuse to comply.

This would end the war. Would the subsequent peace be a good one? Probably not. None of the main political actors concerned would be very happy. But at least there would be peace, the people of Donbass could go back home, and this blight on international security would be removed, removing the larger prospect of major war between Russia and Ukraine, and with that a major cause of East-West tension.

This war has gone on too long. The UN Security Council should end it, now!

Pictures of an invasion force? Not so much.

Way back in my youthful days as a military intelligence officer, I was trained in imagery intelligence, so it kind of makes me feel young again to see grainy pictures of Russian tanks in Belarus (though in my day, it was the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the tanks were Soviet.) And so my interest was immediately aroused by an article on the BBC website today containing satellite pictures purporting to show the Russian military build-up in Belarus in preparation for an alleged invasion of Ukraine.

Now the thing about intelligence is that it’s more than raw data. It’s a process. Collecting the data is just part of it. What you do with it is equally as important – how you interpret it and how you disseminate it. The frame, or in other words the context in which you discuss it matters too. Russian tanks in Belarus are harmless if your frame is long-scheduled, standard military exercises. But Russian tanks in Belarus are ominous if your frame is an impending invasion.

You therefore need to be very careful about throwing out raw information without thinking it through and doing a proper analysis, and without putting it in the proper frame. Unfortunately, our dear friends in the press are often not very good at this. Twenty or so years ago, when the British government produced its infamous dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, I bothered reading it and realized immediately that the headlines saying that Iraq was knee deep in WMD was false – the evidence just wasn’t there. But the press took the government’s analysis and framing uncritically. The same happened with the Steele dossier that sparked off the Russiagate scandal – obvious garbage, but that didn’t stop people running with it.

In short, there’s a lack of what you might call critical thinking, a rush to publish stuff without stopping to think what it actually means, and a tendency to put it into the most scary sounding frame, even if that is not appropriate.

And so it is with the BBC and its report about Russian troops in Belarus. This says:

“The latest satellite images provided by the US space technology company Maxar show that wide-scale Russian military activity persists close to Ukraine’s borders, despite recent Russian claims of de-escalation and withdrawal. Taken in mid-February, they illustrate that Ukraine remains surrounded on three sides – on its borders with both Russia and Belarus – by Russian military hardware and troop concentrations.”

Note the prejudicial use of the word ‘surrounded’ which immediately suggests a lack of objectivity. But that’s by the by. The important thing are the satellite images. What do they show us?

Continue reading Pictures of an invasion force? Not so much.

Mocking the Media

There’s a truck outside the Desmarais Building at the University of Ottawa, where I work, which has the words ‘Main Stream Media’ painted on its side, with a big red cross through them. The truck’s part of the so-called ‘Freedom Convoy’ that has been occupying much of our downtown for about three weeks now. I can’t say that I support it, and like most people I know I think it’s high time that the truckers drove off back to wherever it is they came from. But the truck I mentioned raises an important question – why the distrust of the ‘mainstream media’? If you want to know the answer, you have only to look at this week’s coverage of all things Russo-Ukrainian.

Continue reading Mocking the Media

On the bus, off the bus, again!

‘On the bus, off the bus,’ as they say in the army, a phrase that sums up the frustration soldiers feel at the confusing and sometimes contradictory orders that seem to make up military life. It’s felt a bit like that this week with the on again, off again Russian invasion of Ukraine.

We first heard about this invasion back in November, at which point the US government informed us that the Russian attack was likely to come in January. That month came and went without any sight of Russian tanks charging across the Ukrainian border, and as if to acknowledge that reality, the White House eventually backtracked a little and declared that it did not consider the invasion ‘imminent.’

Invasion off, or so it seemed for a bit. But as this week comes to an end, all of a sudden it’s back on again. Western diplomats have been racing out of Kiev in fear of their lives, advising their fellow countrymen to do the same. The United States, Canada, the UK, Israel, and a whole bunch of others have suggested that their citizens get out of Ukraine while they still can.

‘The Russians are coming!’

At least according to anonymous ‘US officials’.

For according to PBS defence correspondent Nick Schifrin, who Tweeted: ‘The US believes Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine, and has communicated that decision to the Russian military, three Western and defense officials tell me.’ Schifrin then followed up with extra Tweets, in which 3 officials miraculously expanded into 6: ‘The US expects the invasion to begin next week, six US and Western officials tell me,’ he wrote, adding that, ‘US officials expect a horrific, bloody campaign that begins with two days of aerial bombardment and electronic warfare, followed by an invasion, with the possible goal of regime change.’

Invasion on!

Or maybe not.

Let’s face it, anonymous officials ‘believing’, ‘expecting’ and ‘anticipating’ isn’t really much by way of evidence. Do these officials actually know anything? Or do they just ‘believe’? I have to say that I was immediately sceptical.

And then, all of sudden, everything turned around 180 degrees. ‘The White House is not saying that Putin has made a final decision to launch an attack on Ukraine, [spokesman Jake] Sullivan says,’ reported the Washington Post’s John Hudson. ‘Sullivan underscores that it’s not the Biden administration’s understanding that Putin has made a decision to invade,’ he added.

Invasion off!

Or maybe not. Who knows. Perhaps tomorrow, they’ll be briefing us that it’s back on again. At this point, one begins to wonder if these people are serious or are playing some sort of weird mind game with us or are just total clowns who don’t know what they’re doing.

Suffice it to say that I’m on the doubtful side when it comes to these invasion stories. My position has long been that Russia will most definitely attack Ukraine if the latter decides to launch a major military offensive against rebel Donbass, but short of that will keep its powder dry.

As I’ve said before, my view is that the problem with the West’s policies is precisely that they do nothing to discourage Ukraine from launching such an attack. I tend to the opinion that the Ukrainians know that an attempt to recapture Donbass by force would result in their utter destruction at the hands of the Russian army, but it strikes me as unwise to test that theory out in practice. As it is, the situation in Donbass isn’t looking good, with a vast recent increase in the number of ceasefire violations (HT to commentator Lola for the graphic below).

All this raises the danger either of a Ukrainian offensive in Donbass which provokes a Russian response or of a unplanned spiralling escalation of violence which gets out of control and produces the same result. Just as the Americans are talking up the Russian threat, Russian intelligence chief Nikolai Patrushev has been issuing regular claims of a build up of Ukrainian forces near the Donbass frontline, sparking speculation that a Ukrainian attack is imminent.

Are his accusations any more plausible? Who knows? But one thing is sure – we are in dangerous territory. It’s just that the danger may not be coming from the direction everyone in the West is expecting. Let’s hope it all blows over and that the troops get back ‘off the bus’ once and for all.

Fascists in Ottawa. None in Kiev!

Writing about Kazakhstan a short while ago, I remarked on the hypocrisy of many who seemed very happy to support what I disparagingly called “the mob” when it’s rampaging through the streets of countries they don’t like but get mega upset when it happens at home. Masses demonstrating on the street and occupying squares and buildings are “democracy” when they happen elsewhere but “anti-democratic” when they happen at home. As I wrote, “The thing is that all those complaining about the efforts to restore order in Kazakhstan aren’t too fond of the mob either, at least when it starts attacking things that they like.”

Well, it’s good to be proven true.

Continue reading Fascists in Ottawa. None in Kiev!