It’s really hard to know what to say about this. The public rhetoric and propaganda has reached insane proportions, the cartoonish “Russians Preparing to Invade” on one side, the “Nazi hordes joining forces to besiege Mother Russia” on the other, and caught in the middle, the people in the region that is called “Ukraine.” It’s a complex situation, and simplistic, good vs bad, right vs. wrong depictions are not only unhelpful, they are inflammatory and misleading. So recognizing that environment here are a few thoughts.
As an introduction to my view on the background please read this previous post for some notes on the history of how we got here. In short, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the eastern regions of Ukraine should probably have been transferred back to Russia since the old boundaries of the Soviet Republics were in some cases arbitrary, and changed over time. Speaking of which, can you find Ukraine (or any other country) on this map?
But all anybody cared about at first was making sure the nukes and bugs were secured, and to make a buck in the process. The borders of the Soviet Republics were convenient lines for the breakup. Russia was in turmoil, and the nascent government of Ukraine wanted to make sure it had control of the resources located in the east. This put significant areas in Eastern Ukraine that had strong economic, historical, and cultural ties to Russia, not to mention the vital Black Sea bases mentioned in the earlier post, in the new nation-state. All that said, my feeling is that it could have worked had everyone followed the Budapest Memorandum and other agreements in good faith, and just let Ukraine evolve a middle path. But instead the games started, and competition rather than cooperation took over. Trying to force Ukraine as a whole to pick sides has created division, conflict and chaos. And that’s the true tragedy: there shouldn’t have been any “sides”.
Post-2014 revolution/coup Ukraine is a gigantic train wreck. Even with all these words I worry I oversimplify the political situation in Ukraine and LPR/Novorossiya by speaking of the five “sides” (Ukraine Government, LPR, Russia, EU, US/NATO). It is such a mess; and the various factions within Ukraine are complex. There are legitimately pro-EU groups, legitimately pro-Russia groups, etc. You have rampant influence and astroturf organizations sponsored by US entities like NED, Soros funded organizations, etc. all stirring up trouble and anti-Russian sentiment. You have widespread Russian influence operations in play as well, trying to counter those groups. Russian sources speak of Nazis. Certainly within military circles the neo-Nazis are powerful and important, even though they no longer hold seats in the Rada (Ukraine’s legislative body). There are hard-core OUN type nationalists who are not technically Nazis, and they do hold a majority number of seats, but they (like the US) make common cause with the Nazis and use them as their enforcers thinking that they will deal with them “later” (which never ends well). The forces in the east sponsored by Russia aren’t so bad, but aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy either. And caught in the middle are the average people of Ukraine, who would probably have been perfectly happy with a less corrupt, neutral path between the EU and Russia. But I would argue the US is at fault in that we sought to exploit the justified desire for change to destabilize the situation and gain geopolitical advantage rather than strive for improvement and stability. In other words, Russia found itself resisting change out of fears the US would exploit it; the US pushed change precisely to exploit it, and the spiral continues.
As for the immediate situation, Is Russia Preparing to Invade Ukraine? No, with a caveat. As far as I can tell, Russia does not have the intent to “invade” Ukraine in any traditional sense of the word, and if the goal is to conquer the entire territory of Ukraine, I see no evidence they either want to or have put the forces in place to do so. The current hyperbole is only relevant if you haven’t been paying attention; it’s nothing new. But … Russia has in place tremendous military capacity to act in Ukraine. Of course it does; it’s like asking if the US can project enormous military force into Mexico or Canada should it chose to do so. So naturally Russia has had in place significant firepower to be able to project it in to Ukraine should a provocation arise for a long time. Besides, there has been a civil war on their border for the last seven years that threatens to spill over into their country, and Ukrainian radical groups often express the desire to “retake” areas of Russia (which even if not rational or realistic are still threats that have to be considered – especially given the silence of the US on the issue), so the Минобороны России would be incompetent if they didn’t keep forces on standby, and given recent rhetoric, increasing readiness to respond to provocations is both prudent and unsurprising.
Does that mean a conflict is not imminent? Unfortunately, I suspect conflict is on the horizon. I think there is a very high probability there will be an armed conflict in eastern Ukraine/Novorossiya in the coming months. There has been ongoing violence for years now, and potential for it to escalate are increasing. Russia is extremely concerned that Ukraine is becoming the latest, and most dangerous, link in the US policy of encirclement, economic isolation, and “containment.” Here comes the caveat in the above “No” to invasion. At some point Russia is going to feel it has nothing to lose by stabilizing the situation on the border by occupying (liberating, whatever) either directly or more likely indirectly with stand-off fire support the eastern Oblasti (administrative regions). While that will further rupture the already deteriorating situation between the US/NATO and Russia, and will probably wreck the European economies and trigger turmoil, if we survive it might reduce the level of violence and stabilize things in the long run with the remainder of Ukraine becoming more integrated in Europe, and eastern Ukraine/Novorossiya reuniting with Russia. That is, if the US will allow that to happen by not escalating militarily. Here is where the danger lies, because the correlation of forces is such that any attempt by the US or NATO to intervene militarily will end in regional conventional defeat or the use of nuclear weapons. So my bet is that a “gentleman agreement” of sorts will occur to split up Ukraine if things devolve to a military confrontation, and direct conflict between the two (US/NATO and Russia) will be avoided. But it’s a horribly dangerous situation that can easily get out of control.
Given the nature of the US political leadership and philosophy, I’m having a hard time seeing how this ends well. There may well be a collapse of the government in Ukraine due to all of the internal and external stresses. Of course in the Western media it will be portrayed as all Russia’s fault, but while they are certainly involved, in all fairness, and with great sadness, I have to say that most of the blame for the situation there rests with the US.
And the destruction of Ukraine, and a rupture of relations between Europe and Russia, are in some warped perspectives to the short term advantage of the US. I think the US has decided the best way to disrupt what it sees as Europe’s energy dependence on Russia is blowing up relations, and Ukraine is the fuse to do just that. It would make the EU utterly dependent on US energy, give a major boost to defense spending, and a stable Iron Curtain Redux might actually allow the “pivot to Asia” to confront China that many in the US MIC and Foreign Policy community want. I think there are serious flaws in that thinking and worldview, but it’s ship of fools.
To be clear, I’m not saying the Russians are the “good guys” here. What I’m saying is that they haven’t been given the opportunity to do much of anything other than what they are doing. The US is pumping millions of dollars of military aid into a hostile country engaged in a civil war, with an unstable government, and policies that to a neutral observer, and this may seem harsh, were starting to border on ethnic cleansing. Consider what the reaction of the US would be if, say, China participated in the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mexico, then starting pumping in the equivalent over $4 Billion dollars a year of military aid (which in relative terms is what the US is sending Ukraine). I can imagine the utterly epic rending of garments and gnashing of teeth … and not just threats of intervention, but an actual armed response.
So as we watch what unfolds in the coming weeks, realize that the simplistic view being presented by politicians and the media is no where near the whole “truth”, that in perspective there are probably few or no true heroes or villains. And most of all recognize and regret this was all avoidable with some good faith and a willingness to take the long view rather than constantly maneuver as if this were a short term, zero sum game.