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Eerik-Niiles Kross: Ukraine facing a hot August

Eerik-Niiles Kross PHOTO: Peeter Langovits / Postimees

What might be Russia’s next military move in Ukraine? At the moment, the question causes sleepless nights in Kiev and, hopefully, in NATO and Washington too, writes security analyst Eerik-Niiles Kross (IRL). And offers three main versions of what might be in store.

On basis of Moscow’s rhetoric, Russian aggression against Ukraine launched in February may be divided into four stages. All four are characterised by denial of Russian involvement in active stages at least, and the blurring of actual goals by total separation of activities and rhetoric. What Russia says is in no way related to what it does.

For starters, Crimea was conquered and annexed; this was a classic special operation where Russian invasion was denied until the festive annexing-ceremony of Crimea – then, the participating troops were handed medals and awards.  

Then came the escalation-stage in Eastern Ukraine where, as supported by imported special units, a separatist network was created. Dozens of cities were seized in three East-Ukrainian oblasts. Painstakingly, an impression was created of the impotence of Ukrainian central powers. The great hope was to derail presidential elections in Ukraine. The main element of this stage of operations was the threat of direct military force. Behind the Ukrainian border, about 40,000 of troops were amassed, and lots of equipment. Russian tanks rode the highways along the border; helicopters were lined up and flown around. Kiev and the West alike held their breath, expecting a Russian invasion.

Till the presidential elections, a total phantom war was going on. Russia, as if, was threatening with troops at the borders and the world was begging Moscow not to attack; meanwhile, Russian special units carried out military operations in Lugansk and other places.

As the presidential elections were drawing nigh, Moscow begun a game even more sophisticated. There was a change of gears in diplomacy; they started to talk about negotiations and easing of tensions. Moscow fed hopes it might recognise results of the presidential elections; troops started to be removed from the borders. Probably, the Kremlin saw the impossibility of derailing the presidential elections; and, without a public invasion, separatists were not able to hold all of the territory seized – even if supported by special units.

Kiev started to show its initial military gains against the separatists. Even by default, Moscow could not let itself be linked to defeats. By Moscow agreeing to negotiations and a «diplomatic solution», the Western states were expected to apply pressure on Kiev to halt military activities. In that, Kremlin has indeed achieved a measure of success. The West’s decisiveness in imposing sanctions, small as it was, has come to a total halt; both Berlin and Brussels are telling Kiev it needs to negotiate. With whom exactly, remains quite a mystery.

Meanwhile, Russia has intensified conventional arms assistance to the retreating separatists. A couple of weeks ago, the third stage of the war started where, on the one hand, Russia is demanding that Kiev stop its anti-terror operation, talks about civilian casualties and is worried about abuses, while daily sending new armoured vehicles, tanks and heavy weaponry across the border, uses modern antitank weapons and reactive missile launchers Grad. This is the «real war» arsenal.

It is obvious by now that by its current tactics, Moscow has not attained to its main goals. A large part of the territory has been taken back from separatist hands; in Kiev, the government has rather strengthened and stabilised, it is getting increasingly harder to conceal Moscow’s direct military activities on Ukrainian territory. Separatists might indeed hold some mine throwers, but the Grad are simply not used by anybody else than the Russian army.

In the war, a new stage is about to begin, as Russia will either have to retreat or go on the offensive. Obviously, should current activities continue, the Ukrainians will soon achieve a situation where they control almost the entire territory and the only issue remaining to be solved are the separatists besieged in Donetsk. Combatants hiding amid civilian population in a major city is a serious problem, of course; even so, it is by nature a local issue and if Ukrainian forces are able to control entrances to the city, the time will be on the central government’s side.  

At the moment, Russia is clearly worried about the success of Kiev’s offence and the failure of its own phantom war. The latter has proven far less hidden than was hoped for. Russia’s intervention is so glaringly obvious that even Brussels will soon be unable to pretend it doesn’t notice it. 

Probably, in April or thereabouts when the Ukrainians first succeeded in mobilising their men and started to send more combat-ready units east of the Dnepr River, Moscow decided to cancel a quick attack across the borderline. The 40,000 troops amassed there were no longer enough. Therefore, the seeming easing of tensions and pullback of troops that followed should rather be read as regrouping – not retreat. 

It would be naive indeed to assume that after months of testing various versions of operations, Moscow has suddenly given up on its strategic goal i.e. gaining control over Ukraine. We can be quite sure they are weighing new military options.

Until now, Mr Putin has constantly managed to serve surprises with the timing of his steps and direction thereof. The only thing I dare to predict with assurance is that he will definitely take the next military step. The question what it could be like is currently causing sleepless nights in Kiev and, hopefully, in NATO and Washington as well. Also, with the next step Russia will at least partly come out of the closet militarily, so to speak.

Three main versions might be offered. Firstly, Russians might bring the troops currently left at the borders in as peacekeepers. (Moscow’s recent days’ super sharp rhetoric regarding a missile allegedly flown from Ukraine into a dwelling in Russia sounds like a fitting pretext indeed.) Clearly, these troops will not be enough to occupy Eastern Ukraine; even so, the invasion would upset the Ukrainian offensive and would provide some significant breathing space for separatists who, in the two main centres that they have, are being surrounded by Ukrainians. Also, the Ukrainians would be forced to bring extra troops from the North, which would leave the North very vulnerable. If the success of Ukrainians continues in its current tempo, in a couple of weeks it will be too late for an operation like that. Therefore, if the Russians will indeed invade Lugansk and Donetsk Oblasts, they will do that within days.   

The second possible step, which is basically possible in combination with the former, would be imposing a so-called no-fly zone over Eastern Ukraine. Namely, in the recent weeks it has mainly been the Ukrainian air force that has been most effective against the separatists. Increasingly, the semi-official Moscow rhetoric has suggested «strategic strikes». No-fly zone would mean that Russia renders Ukrainian air force unable to act. That would take missile and bomb attacks against Ukrainian airfields and air bases west of Dnepr.

In rhetoric, an attack like this could be explained as «self-defence» and «protecting civilian population». Also, Mr Putin would be able to bring parallels with NATO’s anti-Serbia operation (which Moscow never tires to recall) and to claim that «we are protecting ourselves just like Israel».

An operation against Ukrainian air force would significantly slow Kiev’s anti-separatist offensive; even so, it is difficult to see how it would turn the war around without Russian ground forces intervening or Russian air force also used against Ukrainian units and logistics.

The third option is the most worrisome. For some reason, almost no attention has been paid to Mr Putin’s directive dated June 27th. By that, he ordered army and internal troops’ reservists mobilisation for 60 days. The mobilisation directive carries two classified clauses, the content of which is not publicly known. It is almost impossible to imagine the directive not to be linked with events in Ukraine.  

According to analysts, the mobilisation should result in about 200 army, special forces and parachute manoeuvring battalions, which would be three times more than was amassed at Ukrainian border by end of March. This force should be assembled by end of August i.e. before the NATO summit in Wales. Putting it softly: it remains a mystery why the West believes that Moscow is seeking a diplomatic solution for the crisis if, at the same time, a major mobilisation is underway. 

Even if Putin would never use this force, for Ukraine it would constitute a fatal threat.

Summing it up: even with Western politicians and the media weary of the Ukrainian crisis, we ought to keep our eyes worriedly open. This war is far from over.