Putin’s Unchecked Aggression
Russia has expanded the scope of its military intervention in Ukraine. Following on the heels of its illegal occupation and annexation of Crimea and arming of the separatists fighting the Ukrainian government in eastern Ukraine, Russian regular troops have now joined the separatists’ fight. They are equipped with heavy weaponry, including armored personnel carriers. And a new southeastern front has been opened by the Russian-backed separatists which would enable Russia to gain effective control over a vital land link between Russia and Crimea.
Determined not to allow Ukrainian forces to quell the separatist rebellion, which they were well on their way to doing, Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to use more Russian military might to tip the scales in the separatists’ favor.
On August 26th – the same day that Putin was meeting with Ukrainian President Poroshenko in Minsk, Belarus to talk about peace – satellite imagery showed Russian combat units southeast of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine also detained regular Russian Army personnel from the 9th brigade, whom Russia claimed had mistakenly wandered into Ukraine.
A separatist leader boasted that three or four thousand Russian soldiers have joined their fight, whom he claimed were using their vacation time to help their comrades. NATO has estimated that at least 1,000 Russian troops were present in Ukraine. Dismissing Russia’s “hollow denials,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on August 29th that “it is now clear that Russian troops and equipment have illegally crossed the border. This is a blatant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It defies all diplomatic efforts for a peaceful solution.”
United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, in his briefing to an emergency session of the UN Security Council on August 28th, referred to the “deeply alarming reports of Russian military involvement in this new wave of escalation. If confirmed, it would constitute a direct contravention of international law and of the UN Charter.”
Mr. Feltman added that, “as arms and heavy weaponry reportedly continue to flow unabated into Ukraine from Russia,” illegal armed groups operating in the Donetsk region “have reportedly intensified their activities over the last two days, spreading violence along Ukraine’s southern coast, in the direction of the key strategic port of Mariupol…The southward spread of fighting, along the border with the Russian Federation and the Sea of Azov, marks a dangerous escalation in the conflict.”
After Mr. Feltman spoke, each member of the Security Council, as well as the Ukrainian UN representative, chimed in with their remarks. Lithuania, which had requested the emergency meeting, went first. Its ambassador accused Russia of committing multiple violations of international law in its “aggression” in Ukraine. She demanded that Russia remove its fighters from Ukraine.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power lambasted Russia for ignoring the repeated calls of the Security Council to stop its aggressive actions. “Instead of listening, instead of heeding the demands of the international community and the rules of the international order, at every step, Russia has come before this Council to say everything except the truth,” Ambassador Power said. “It has manipulated. It has obfuscated. It has outright lied.”
Ambassador Power warned that the United States and its partners will work together “to ratchet up the consequences on Russia.” France’s UN representative concurred.
British UN Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, the Security Council president during August, said: “Now we see irrefutable evidence of regular Russian forces operating inside Ukraine.” He reeled off numbers of heavy weaponry in the hands of the separatists, most of which was supplied by Russia, including 100 tanks, 80 armored personnel carriers, 500 anti-tank weapons and more than 100 artillery pieces.
During the Security Council meeting, Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin did his best to fend off the condemnations of Russia’s actions coming from other members of the Council and the Ukrainian representative. Sure, there were Russian “volunteers” present in eastern parts of Ukraine, Ambassador Churkin said. “No one is hiding that,” he claimed. But then, in an apparent game of turnabout is fair play, Ambassador Churkin called on the United States to be more forthcoming about what he asserted to be the presence of 1000 Western advisers in Ukraine. He said that he wanted to “send a message to Washington: Stop interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states.”
Russia will be sending another “humanitarian” convoy into Ukraine, Ambassador Churkin declared. And he challenged the other members of the Security Council to adopt the text of his proposed press statement calling for an immediate unconditional ceasefire, inclusive dialogue and stepped up humanitarian relief. The Lithuanian ambassador said that her country would need more time to review the text, but it appeared to be deficient in not calling specifically for the separatists to stop impeding the flow of humanitarian aid.
Ambassador Churkin tried to maintain an even demeanor as he delivered the official Russian line in response to the sharply critical speeches that preceded his remarks. His strongest rhetoric was reserved for the Ukrainian government in Kiev, which he accused of engaging in “a war against its own people.” Ambassador Churkin also dismissed the Ukrainian government’s call for a ceasefire and for the separatists to lay down their arms as a sham.
President Putin’s decision to up the ante has reversed the tide of momentum that had been going the Ukrainian government’s way. Now the Ukrainian military forces are on the defensive and at risk of losing control of a wide area of coastal territory. Putin praised the separatists’ resurgence “in intercepting Kiev’s military operation.” He called the separatists the fighters of Novorossiya – meaning the territory Putin likes to refer to as “New Russia,” based on what he claims belongs historically to Russia.
Putin talks out of both sides of his mouth. While single-handedly providing enough weapons and troops to keep the rebellion going against the duly elected government of Ukraine in Kiev, he talks about opening humanitarian corridors and wanting peaceful dialogue. Putin has no interest in peace except on his terms. His goals are to take effective control over as much of the eastern portion of Ukraine as he can, keep the remainder of Ukraine as weak as possible to make it too much of a burden for Western Europe to bail out, and continue to expand the territory of “New Russia.”
“The question is to ensure the rights and interests of the Russian southeast,” Putin said in a nationally televised interview last April after his aggressive occupation of Crimea. “It’s New Russia. Kharkiv, Lugansk, Donetsk, Odessa were not part of Ukraine in czarist times, they were transferred in 1920. Why? God knows. Then for various reasons these areas were gone, and the people stayed there. We need to encourage them to find a solution.”
Expanding the reach of the Russian empire to that of the czarist glory days is Putin’s idea of the right solution. And nobody should even think of taking any military actions against Russia in return. “It’s best not to mess with us,” he warned on Friday. “I want to remind you that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers.”
To justify his imperialistic ambitions, Putin brazenly invoked Russia’s own suffering at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. Referring to Ukrainian current military actions against Ukraine’s southeastern cities, he told students last week that “[I]t reminds me of World War II, when German forces encircled Russian cities like Leningrad and hit residential quarters with heavy artillery.”
Putin’s Nazi reference in his remarks to students is ironic to the say the least, considering that his own Ukraine strategy is an echo of Hitler’s Anschluss. Also, he had no comment on the civilians killed by rockets imported from Russia or the depraved public parading and humiliation of captured Ukrainian soldiers by the separatists in violation of the Geneva Conventions. And Putin has apparently moved beyond the tragedy of the passengers and crew who lost their lives aboard the commercial Malaysian plane shot down by a surface-to-air missile launched from an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
The United Nations Security Council has met 24 times on the subject of Ukraine. It has turned into bad theater. All we hear is the predictable rhetoric from Russia and its critics. Russia’s veto power prevents anything of real substance from being accomplished.
Increasingly severe economic sanctions have been imposed by the United States and its Western European allies against Russian individuals, businesses and the financial and arms industries. However, aside from some tough-sounding rhetoric, European leaders are equivocating on exactly what new stronger economic measures they would be willing to take against Russia and when they would do so, worrying about the impact of such measures on their own economies. President Obama may impose more sanctions on his own if need be, but he would prefer to reach a consensus with Europe on next steps. Either way, as a senior U.S. diplomat told me, sanctions do not appear to be making much of a difference in changing Putin’s calculations.
President Obama has ruled out any direct overt U.S. military confrontation with Russia in Ukraine, which makes sense. But with economic sanctions not fazing Putin and direct military confrontation out of the picture, one U.S. official was quoted by The Telegraph as saying: “If Putin is immune to economic pain and we are not willing to use military force, then he’s got us in check mate, doesn’t he?”
Putin has us in check mate only if we ignore what Winston Churchill counseled about the Russians in his 1946 “Sinews of Peace” speech. He said that “there is nothing they admire so much as strength.”
What we need to do is to find creative ways to display the kind of strength that will get Putin’s attention and give him pause.
First, we can provide more sophisticated arms and training to Ukraine’s beleaguered military forces together with more sharing of intelligence information. Second, we can utilize covert operations in support of dissidents in Crimea and anti-Russian Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine to create a counter-force that would undercut Putin’s assumption of a low-cost occupation.
Third, and perhaps most important of all, Obama should now deploy the mobile missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, which he had mistakenly decided not to do in his first term as part of his failed attempt to “re-set” relations with Russia in a more positive direction. In fact, Obama should add Hungary and the Baltic states to the list. In other words, do to Putin what he has been most afraid of. Contain him with an encirclement strategy.
There are no guarantees that these measures will work. But one thing is for sure. If we do nothing but add a few more sanctions, Putin will not stop his aggression with eastern Ukraine.
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