ATO, hereafter referred to as “The War” – the open Russian invasion and sack of the border town of Novoazovsk last night marks Russia finally abandoning pretenses and sending regular Russian forces into Ukraine. In fact, US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt accused Russia of being “openly involved” and noted that Russia brought their top air defense weaponry (SA-22) into Ukraine. The air defense units are Russia’s way to protect their gains by preventing Ukrainian air strikes to liberate the town. While the battle for the Azov Sea coastline continues, the Anti-Terrorism Operation (ATO) stands a chance of becoming an Operation to “Defend the Motherland” from a full scale Russian invasion. There is both a danger of Ukraine’s armies used to siege Donetsk being encircled, as well as fears of the Russian army crossing over into Kharkiv, Sumy and other regions. In addition, with the Russian army just 20 kilometers outside Mariupol (the acting seat of Ukrainian government in Donetsk region), they are close enough to use their GRAD rocket systems to level the city of half a million. Only Putin knows his next move but it would be conceivable that his army would then proceed into Zaporizhya region to capture the resort town of Berdyansk (population 120,000 – where there are already unconfirmed reports of skirmishes) and the city Melitopol (population 160,000) which is known as the “Gateway to Crimea” due the fact that 80% of trains going to Crimea transit through the city (including Rostov and Moscow routes). Then Putin would only need to carve off about 50 kilometers of rural Kherson region coastline (where last night there was a border skirmish) to unite his newly occupied territories with the Crimean peninsula. Thus, the military campaign would consolidate the entire Azov Sea coast under Russian control.
What has changed since last week when the Ukrainian army had the terrorists encircled and contained to five remaining pockets of resistance? First the open introduction of regular Russian armed forces into the combat theater (via Novoazovsk). Fighting mercenaries and terrorists is one thing but fighting the world’s second strongest army (after NATO) is another. Second, Putin appears to be implementing his “Transnistria on the Azov” scenario to create a frozen conflict (see Ukraine Update, August 20, 2014: ATO & 7 Dates to Watch). This explains the recent export of 40 top officials from Transnistria into the leadership of the Donbass People’s Republics structures and simultaneous replacement of Chechnyan mercenaries with regular Russian soldiers. After all, if you are going to control an occupied territory, better to use guys with experience –both to occupy it and manage it. Regardless of how this plays out, Putin now has more leverage in the next round of Minsk negotiations because he controls more territory. He can now “compromise” in the minds of wobbly world leaders by “giving back” land conquered near Mariupol while de facto annexing the other parts of the Donbass. The options for Putin have just dramatically increased…
National Security & Defense Council Meeting – President Poroshenko canceled a planned visit to Turkey to chair an emergency session of the NSDC today. This follows the open involvement of Russian regular armed forces in capturing the border seaside town of Novoazovsk last night. The meeting will decide at least three matters. First, how Ukraine will respond militarily to the Russian invasion? Will they call for another mobilization, change strategy, halt the ATO and attack the Russian army positions, etc. Second, will Ukraine impose martial law? The imposition of martial law would force the country to devote all its resources to stopping the Russian invasion and ultimately result in a full mobilization. It would also postpone the parliamentary elections indefinitely. Third, the Russian capture of Novoazovsk is viewed as a failure of diplomacy. Therefore the NSDC is likely to switch to a more aggressive lobbying position to advance Ukrainian national security interests. No longer will “concern” and diplomatic platitudes suffice from the Europeans and the Obama administration. Ukraine is now likely to overtly seek military assistance from any and all countries willing to assist as well as begin to surgically criticize the timidity of Obama’s Ukraine policy. Up until now, Ukrainian leaders were hesitant to criticize Obama -at all- for fear of losing US support. However the urgency of the situation due to the Russian invasion combined with the growth in American grassroots and congressional support has created the needed window of opportunity. Ukraine will aggressive lobby for the sale of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons (i.e. Stingers) from the US that was originally requested in March. Additionally, with US congressional elections two months away and the Democrats in danger of losing seats in both houses, look for increased support for “The Russian Aggression Prevention Act of 2014” which includes $100 million of lethal military assistance to Ukraine in form of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry.
Election Campaign Begins – today is the first day of the parliamentary election campaign. With the election set for October 26, the political intrigues are as thick as ever. However, given that the possible imposition of martial law by the NSDC would postpone the elections indefinitely, we will wait to see their actions before we update on the upcoming elections.
Dates to Watch:
• August 29- IMF Meeting in DC. Ukraine will get approved for $1.4 billion in new loans from the IMF, which cant arrive fast enough in the NBU account (scheduled for September 3) as the hryvna continues to slide on news of the fall of Novoazovsk to an all time low of 14.5 to the US Dollar.
• August 30 – Poroshenko visit to Brussels. Originally this visit was to talk winter gas supplies with the Europeans and secure rebuilding money for the Donbass. Now with the open Russian invasion, the focus will be on Poroshenko begging the Europeans for 1) more sanctions and; 2) military equipment. Today Croatia essentially returned 14 Ukrainian helicopters they previously purchased to help the Ukrainian army which is running low on hardware. While it is not the anti-tank and air-aircraft equipment Ukraine needs to defend itself against Russia, this is an important breakthrough since no one has been willing to supply Ukraine anything with a potentially lethal purpose. Following Merkel’s useless visit to Kyiv last weekend which yielded no tangible results, one is reminded of the old anecdote: “what is the difference between an alcoholic and a drunk? All the damn meetings…” Conversely, what’s the difference between German “concern and promises” versus German inaction? All the damn meetings…
• September 2 – Parliament returns to session in Kyiv. Not that anyone was expecting a debate on the balance of powers and liberal democracies between Jefferson and Madison, but with the open Russian invasion and Election Day just 54 days away (assuming martial law is NOT imposed), expect the parliament to quickly approve needed measures and then get out of town and back to their districts ASAP.
• September 4-5 – NATO Summit in Wales. There is nothing more disappointing than misplaced hope and unfortunately, despite the open Russian invasion, don’t expect NATO to take any measures to either 1) help Ukraine militarily as that is done on a country by country basis, or 2) to concretely halt or slow Russian’s war against Ukraine. The only real action from NATO is expected to be in the form of cosmetically improving their defenses in Eastern Europe and the Baltics.
• September 6 – Next Round of Gas Talks. Ukraine, Russia and the EU will meet again to discuss a winter gas deal. Oettinger has pushed for a “temporary” deal to resolve gas transit to Europe this winter but would allow Ukraine and Russia to continue to negotiate the long term price of gas as it relates to the 2009 Tymoshenko gas deal, Kharkiv discount and Russian annexation of Crimea. In other words, the EU is pushing for a six to eight month compromise price to avoid disruptions in hopes that when real negotiations resume, the situation won’t be further complicated by the ongoing war.
• September 14 – Parliamentary & Local Elections in Crimea. These elections may be slightly more legitimate than the phony March referendum to join Russia. However the end result will be that the Crimean Tatars are removed from all remaining decision making posts in the peninsula and handpicked Kremlin cronies are “officially” placed in positions of power. Not surprisingly, the Crimea Tatar Medzhlis has already announced a boycott of the so called “elections”. Perhaps the only surprise will be which current Crimean officials keep their jobs and why.