The Cease Fire and the End of the ATO – September 1, 1939 marked the beginning of World War II. September 1, 2014 marked Ukraine’s Defense Minister Heletei announcing that the ATO (Anti-Terrorism Operation) was over and an active war phase to defend Ukraine from Russian invaders had begun (at this rate, we can only imagine what September 11, 2014 will bring…). Defense Minister Heletei pointed out that over the last ten days, mercenaries had been replaced with Russian regular forces. Suddenly Ukraine’s armed forces were outgunned and pushed back from territory previously liberated including Luhansk Airport on Monday (fortunately Ukraine destroyed the runway before retreating to prevent waves of Russian air lifts of soldiers and supplies). Russia’s army may not be as vaunted as it was during Soviet times, but it is still the world’s second most formidable fighting force on the planet.
Today, a cease fire has apparently been announced. While the details are still unclear, what should be expected from this news? First, does anyone seriously expect the Russian side to NOT attack Ukrainian positions in the Donbass? If and when it does happen though, at least Ukraine will continue to maintain the moral high ground in the eyes of the international community (for whatever that is worth these days). Second, how will the Ukrainian people accept it now with the deaths of at least 3500 Ukrainians and 210,000 war refugees? Poroshenko is hoping that the cease fire will give Ukraine time to regroup and reinforce its weary army in the east. He also is “hoping against hope” to get some anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry from the West from the NATO Summit in Wales tomorrow. Russia on the other hand, will use this opportunity to try to implement its “Transnistria on the Azov” scenario (see Ukraine Update, August 28, 2014: The War & Possible Martial Law) so that the current battle lines are locked into a longer frozen conflict. Russia has a poor track record of relinquishing occupied territories and an industrial gem like the Donbass will likely prove too tempting to give up any time soon. We will soon know what other agreements were made in conjunction with the cease fire but expect Russia to call for federalization and legitimization of their Transnistria team as the “official government” of Donbass. Barring a miracle, the Donbass is lost now for Ukraine. This also further complicates any move towards NATO as Russia is believed to be advocating that any referendum on NATO membership be approved by every region of the country (and not the country as a whole which has been the case in every other country which has joined NATO since 1949).
Why would Ukraine suddenly agree to a cease fire? Word is that Russia was prepared for a full scale invasion and Poroshenko doesnt want to waste lives and risk losing more territory. The scenario that Ukraine’s military commanders fear is as follows: first, Russia would continue to push back Ukraine’s forces from both Luhansk and Donetsk. Second, Russia would make a play on Mariupol to smash the pro-Ukrainian seat of Donetsk government (and local elites who haven’t yet bowed to Moscow’s will). Third, Russia would open other fronts – most likely in Kherson, Kharkiv and Sumy. This will force Ukraine’s army to retreat west to protect Kyiv and territory west of the Dnipro River. Putin already claims he could conquer Kyiv in “two weeks”. Fourth, look for the Russian army to seize the Motor Sich factory (to take possession of the technology and production of airplane motor engines used in almost all of their aircraft) and Europe’s largest nuclear reactor in Zaporizhya. Zaporizhya’s nuclear reactor supplies half of Ukraine’s nuclear energy in a country still feeling the after effects of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown. Fifth, would be an attack on Dnipropetrovsk from north, south and east to capture Governor Kolomoyskyi. The goal here is what Putin wanted in August 2008 when he tried to march into Tbilisi to capture Saakashvili: that is to capture a hated enemy of the Kremlin and take him to Moscow for a “war crimes” show trial. This is all about payback to the Americans for the Iraqis hanging Saddam Hussein. The removal of “habibi” Hussein was a blow to the Kremlin’s ego and image in the region.
In August 2008 however, there were several factors that prevented Putin from fulfilling his fantasy: 1) 100+ US military advisers in Tbilisi (as it only takes one American soldier killed by accident to potentially start a war); 2) American Air Force planes landing supplies in Tbilisi airport on a regular basis as a demonstration of the US backing of Georgia; 3) US naval warships making weekly port calls on Georgia’s Black Sea port cities. President George W. Bush never committed the US military to defend Georgia but he clearly let Putin know that such an option existed if certain lines were crossed. Obviously, Obama is taking great pains to avoid any display and/or hint of the US even contemplating a military option to defend Ukraine. Thus, just like a naughty child who is giggling because he knows the teacher won’t spank him, Putin crosses every “red line” Obama draws with exuberance.
Finally, if Kyiv hadn’t surrendered by this point, then the Russian 14th Armored Division stationed in Transnistria would move east on Odesa to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea port. Throw in an “accidental” bombing of a site in -or near- Kyiv and Ukraine would be on its knees. At least that is the scenario that was feared – and may yet come to pass depending on how well or poorly the cease fire is observed.
All this time, Russia has been using a page from its’ 1993 Abkhazia playbook. In that Russia inspired war, Russia armed the Abkhaz army to help them secede from Georgia. Once the Georgia army defeated the Abkhaz forces, regular Russian forces entered the war and pushed the tired Georgian army back with air strikes and heavy artillery (sound familiar?). Then, with the Georgia army in retreat, the former President Gamsakhurdia seized the moment to hire a Chechnyan army to march on Tbilisi. Left with little army to defend the capital (and no American military help), Shevardnadze was forced to ask for Russian “help” despite the fact that they had created the crisis in the first place. Russia did finally provide troops but at the cost of Georgia having to join the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS, a primitive version of the Customs Union which Russia continues to prod Ukraine to join) and compromising Shevardnadze’s presidency from thereafter. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the multiple roles of Russia in the war with Ukraine as the same initiator, agitator, and resolver of the entire self created conflict. If “Russian peacekeepers” become part of the cease fire deal, Poroshenko may have compromised his entire presidency at this point – just as Shevardnadze did in 1993.
Election Campaign Continues – as of today, there are 53 days until the election and less than two weeks for candidates to register with the CEC. Parliament is again making an attempt to change from a 50/50 (half of the members elected by closed party lists and half by districts) system to an open list system proposed by Poroshenko. With the cease fire now distracting everyone though, unless a deal is made with the Economic Development and Sovereign Ukraine factions (consisting of almost ¾ members from districts), then the open lists will fail.
While no one knows how the cease fire will affect the election, one key matter to watch is the implosion of Byut and end of the “Byut Triumvirate”. When Tymoshenko was in jail, her longtime “right hand” Turchynov and Yatsenyuk joined forces to defeat Yanukovych. In the same way that the original “triumvirate” of Octavius, Mark Antony and Lepidus fell apart after defeating Brutus and the Senators who assassinated Caesar, the Byut Triumvirate is fairing no better after their main enemy is gone. Tymoshenko has been angered at Turchynov’s failure to blindly obey commands following her return from prison and was further humiliated by a punishing loss in the presidential election on May 25. Turchynov has been emboldened by his time as Acting President and now as Speaker of Parliament. Yatsenyuk is now Prime Minister and given that his coalition with Tymoshenko was situational – no longer needs her. Turchynov, Yatsenyuk and the Ukrainian military commander Semenchenko have been in talks about branching out separately with the “Patriotic Party” label rather than running together with Tymoshenko. This explains their recent resignation from the Byut Executive Council. Tymoshenko will still have a capable team behind her, but the rift with her long time ally Turchynov, is telling that the times are changing…
Dates to Watch:
• September 4-5 – NATO Summit in Wales. When the Americans refuse to lead, NATO becomes an exercise in herding cats – 28 to be exact with each of them representing the members of the alliance. During the Cold War, there was not an iota of doubt that an attack on West Germany would be treated as an attack on the US by the alliance. However today, the failure of American leadership with regard to Ukraine has cast doubt on the alliance’s willingness to defend the Baltics from a Russian attack. Obama’s visit to Estonia prior to the Wales Summit is designed to cosmetically address this issue. With the Kremlin giddy since spring about the development of a new secret weapon (alluded to by Putin on August 14 in Yalta when he said, “surprising the West with our new developments in offensive nuclear weapons about which we do not talk yet”), NATO is expected to develop a new strategy to deal with the Russians which would presumably strengthen the alliance defenses in the east and look for ways to work more closely with the non-NATO allies like Ukraine. Now with the cease fire though, Poroshenko’s weapons hopes will remain as allusive as unicorns and his attendance is likely to result in only tough worded resolutions towards Moscow and hopeful “happy talk” for Ukraine.
• September 6 – Next Round of Gas Talks. Ukraine and Russia finally found something to agree on and it’s the date of gas talks. It isn’t yet clear of the EU Commissioner Oettinger will attend though. She plans an intriguing meeting with Ukraine’s Energy Minister Prodan in Baku, Azerbaijan on September 8 which might signal a dual track strategy or back up plan for Ukraine’s energy needs. Azerbaijan has long been a reliable energy partner for the West and willing to risk angering Moscow to supply allies (like Georgia) with gas and oil. The mystery purpose of the September 8 meeting in Baku will be far more interesting than the pro forma meeting on September 6 which is not expected to yield any concrete results. However, given the cease fire, Saturday’s meeting may make progress than initially expected.
• September 14 – Parliamentary & Local Elections in Crimea. It will be interesting to see if and when new elections will be scheduled in the Donbass following any cease fire. It will also be interesting to see if elections are part of the cease fire deal that was announced and under what terms they will be administered.
• September 18 – Poroshenko Visits Washington & Meets Obama. With the possible cease fire, this visit is now somewhat anti-climatic. Expect many smiles and for Uncle Sam to fill Poroshenko’s hands with some additional financial aid. However, Poroshenko would be wise to use the visit to also meet with Congressional leaders to push forward the “Russian Aggression Act of 2014”. While Russia sees this legislation as a big enough threat to spend $50 million on hiring top DC lobbyists, Ukraine is saving kopeks and not hiring a single DC lobbyist. International goodwill, the Diaspora, and some kind words from the Washington Post aren’t enough to persuade Congress to provide military aid though. If Ukraine is sincere in wanting lethal aid, they need to invest in the professionals who can make it happen. This visit would be an ideal time to hire such help.
• October 26 – Parliamentary Elections. With elections just 53 days away, the cease fire is now likely to be an issue in the campaign. No sociological data has been released lately but the cease fire agreement is not likely to help Poroshenko’s bloc in the election. This could result in an increase in support for Lyashko’s Radical Party, Svoboda and Right Sector. It could also signal a resurgence of the pro-Russian electorate and an increase in the ratings of the Party of Regions, Party of Development and Strong Ukraine. Cease fires typically result in the “center” suffering and both wings of the ideological spectrum being emboldened. We will anxiously await polling data in the coming days.