Ukraine Navy remainder drills with US Navy

Arsenal Bolt: Quick updates on the news stories we’re following.

“US trains in Black Sea with Ukraine’s depleted navy” –

The United States is co-hosting drills in the Black Sea with what is left of Ukraine’s devastated navy, which lost about two thirds of its sailors and ships after Russia seized Crimea last year.
Ukraine’s naval force was eviscerated when Russia seized the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March 2014. Moscow snatched much of the fleet moored in strategic ports, and convinced thousands of sailors to jump ship.


Is Crimea Russia’s albatross? Or vice versa?

Things in Russian-occupied Crimea are (still) more than a year later going super poorly.

Maybe not as poorly as things in rebel-occupied Donbass war zones, but about as bad as peacetime can get. They very badly underestimated the level of economic integration between Crimea and Ukraine / the rest of Europe (and by extension the economic and fiscal catastrophe that awaited a walled-off version of the peninsula). Crimea is in a crunch with no end yet in sight, and Russia is stuck with a very expensive bill its population and budget officials have already begun indicating they’re ready to skip out on.

Whether or not an overwhelming majority actually favored Russian annexation at the time — we don’t know how far off the hasty / sketchy referendum was from the truth — it’s pretty clear now that many voters would have at least reconsidered their pro-Russian instincts had they had better access to a realistic assessment of their prospects … or, at the very least, the benefit of hindsight from today.

Nostalgic Soviet pensioners and Russian-friendly organized crime thugs were never really a good foundation for the future, it turns out.


Despite the war, Ukraine is digging itself out

Alexei Bayer for The Globalist (and the Kyiv Post) on the state of Putin’s war in Ukraine:

After [the capture of Crimea], the war has not been going especially well. On the contrary, all of Putin’s plans have failed. After the flight of buffoonish Viktor Yanukovych, Ukrainians have been able to elect a legitimate government and to build a stronger, battle-hardened military.

Ukraine’s economy is struggling, but it has not collapsed and bankruptcy is now unlikely, given the $17.5 billion aid package approved by the International Monetary Fund earlier this month. Slowly but surely, the Ukrainian economic system is undergoing the necessary reforms that have been delayed by a quarter of a century.

Meanwhile, Putin’s Novorossiya project, had envisioned annexing eastern and southern portions of Ukraine to connect by land to Crimea and to link with the breakaway Transnistria region of Moldova. The project has failed miserably, shrinking to the size of two small, lawless and starving “People’s Republics.”

Russia might win individual battles, but the goals of seizing territory permanently and fundamentally destabilizing the Ukrainian governmental system for years to come are not coming easily or quickly…and might not come at all.

Arsenal For Democracy Background Reports on This Topic:

Putin’s Novorossiya Project
Get to Know a Geopolitical Flashpoint: Transdniestria
Ukraine: In defense of a “total war” in the east
Rebel offensive targets corridor to Crimea

Novorossiya/New Russia in the Russian Empire in 1897. (Credit: Dim Grits - Wikimedia)

Novorossiya/New Russia in the Russian Empire in 1897. (Credit: Dim Grits – Wikimedia)

Lithuania reactivates interwar paramilitary

Following Poland’s recent lead with re-mobilizing the Home Army, Lithuania has reinvigorated its interwar paramilitary from club status to a more quasi-official force, in a bid to be prepared if Russia begins a stealth invasion to “protect” ethnically Russian residents as it did in Ukraine:

Lithuania revived its pre-WWII Riflemen’s Union to help deter the threat of both conventional and hybrid warfare. The citizens’ militia boasts over 8,000 members in the nation of three million people, a number almost on par with its 8,000 military personnel and 4,500 reservists.

Technically, at least according to Wikipedia, the latter-day Riflemen’s Union has been around since Lithuania’s departure from Soviet control, but — as with similar forces in Poland — it had been a small, informal organization until its recent elevation.

Not mentioned in the article quoted above, however, is the note from the Wikipedia page that most of the members under the club version were teenagers or “youth” members. That means they would essentially be child soldiers if actually deployed to resist a Russian intervention.

The group has been hoping to recruit more (adult) members since last summer, in light of recent events. Estonia’s paramilitary recruitment reportedly swelled significantly in the aftermath of the Crimea annexation.

The Baltic states, now part of the European Union and NATO, are particularly worried about the prospects of a secret Russian invasion. They were the last to be annexed to the Soviet Union and the first to try to leave it after the Berlin Wall fell, and (like Ukraine) they still retain large Russian minorities. Plus, they have already faced electronic attacks from Russia in the past.

While a full-scale invasion is improbable now, hybrid meddling and destabilisation tactics designed to test NATO’s commitment to collective defence are not.

Putin’s brand of hybrid warfare also relies on “misinformation, bribery, economic pressure”, which are designed to “undermine the nation”, according to Latvian Defence Minister Raimonds Vejonis.

One has to wonder, though, whether the climate of fear being created — even the semi-regularization of somewhat questionable paramilitary forces — is already undermining these nations without a single shot being fired or paratrooper being landed.

Flag of the Lithuanian Riflemen's Union (via Wikipedia)

Flag of the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union (via Wikipedia)


Ukraine rebel offensive targets corridor to Crimea

Last week, as the “ceasefire” (or mild de-escalation) in eastern Ukraine crumbled into dust, so too did the Ukrainian military’s grasp of the highly contested Donetsk Airport, which had become an intense battlefield during the war and a symbol of national resistance against armed Russian interference in the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and affairs.

Today the conflict shifted southward to the Donetsk oblast’s second-largest city, Mariupol, the government’s temporary oblast capital, while the city of Donetsk itself remains in rebel hands. Donetsk rebel commander Alexander Zakharchenko reportedly told Russia’s Interfax news agency “We have started an offensive on Mariupol.”

Mariupol falling to “separatist” forces now could potentially change the balance of the war, which had slowly been tipping toward the Ukrainian nationalist side until the recent setback at the Donetsk airport. Ukrainian military control of Mariupol until now has been a major obstacle to unification of separatist zones and Russian-occupied Crimea, although the agricultural/industrial-centered Zaporizhia Oblast (and a corner of the Kherson Oblast) would also need to be crossed before achieving unification.

Such a development would (by cutting Ukraine off from the Sea of Azov) link Russia by land all the way to Russian-occupied Crimea in a “corridor” or “land bridge,” using the European route E58 highway (see second map below) and covering much of the coastal edge of the territory known in the Imperial Russian period as Novorossiya or “New Russia.”

Novorossiya/New Russia in the Russian Empire in 1897. (Credit: Dim Grits - Wikimedia)

Novorossiya/New Russia in the Russian Empire in 1897. (Credit: Dim Grits – Wikimedia)

That label, in fact, has been widely adopted by Russian-speaking separatists to refer collectively to the rebel-held territories in eastern Ukraine. The historic term resurfaced in an April 17, 2014 televised townhall-style forum held in Russia by President Vladimir Putin.

A land bridge between Crimea (annexed last year by Russia) and the Russian mainland would, by many estimates, dramatically reduce the cost to Russia of holding Crimea while providing services (including electricity, currently purchased from Ukraine!), food, and other vital goods. Currently those only reach Crimea by ferry from a relatively remote corner of Russia, and an actual bridge — which is going to be very expensive — is not expected to open for several more years (if it ever starts being built).

Donetsk Oblast: Novoazovsk and Mariupol on the Sea of Azov near the Russian border. Click to navigate.

Donetsk Oblast: Novoazovsk and Mariupol on the Sea of Azov near the Russian border. Click to navigate.

Previously, back in May, Ukrainian ultra-billionaire Rinat Akhmetov — now slipped to 117 on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people — ejected local separatists from the government buildings they were “occupying” in Mariupol, and sent his own private workers to start cleaning up so local public functions could resume. He took a firm, public stance against independence or annexation to Russia. As a result, that port city on the Sea of Azov coast, was relatively removed from the center of the clashes between separatists and Ukrainian troops sent by Kiev, until late summer.

It has been under threat since the August 27, 2014 invasion of Novoazovsk by at least a thousand unmarked Russian Federation troops and heavy armor vehicles. The highway between the two nearby cities became a contested area until the de-escalation during the “ceasefire” period.

Today, however, the Washington Post reports the Mariupol itself was hit by shelling shortly before the Donetsk rebel commander Zakharchenko’s announcement of the Mariupol offensive:

Zakharchenko later added that the rebels’ intention was to suppress Ukrainian troops to the east of the city, but not to storm Mariupol.

Ukrainian officials had earlier accused pro-Russian rebels of launching a deadly shelling Saturday against Mariupol. The shelling killed 27 civilians and wounded 99, Andrey Fedai of the Mariupol City Council posted on his Facebook page.

Pro-Kiev forces in Mariupol said Saturday on its VKontake page that the shelling had come from rebel-held territory, while Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, said that “at least three Grad systems” — referring to rocket-launchers — were used in the shelling.

As usual, the separatist forces blamed the Ukrainian military for the shelling as a self-inflicted act to provoke public opposition to the separatist cause — and denied all claims that it was attacking the city at all.

The US and Ukrainian governments predicted a wider operational objective, implying a Crimea corridor though not stating it explicitly:

“Today’s indiscriminate shelling of Mariupol [is] part of an apparently Russian-backed general offensive in complete violation of Minsk agreements,” U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt tweeted Saturday morning.

The recent fighting would appear to signal the end of the de-escalation achieved by the Minsk agreements as fighting ramped up to a level of violence not seen since the period before the agreements:

The United Nations estimated Friday that almost 5,100 people have died in Ukraine since the fighting began last April — 262 in the past nine days before the updated figure was published, making it the deadliest period since this summer, before the Minsk cease-fire agreement was signed.

Inside the final days of the Yanukovich presidency

Over the weekend, The New York Times published a comprehensive narrative report, based on interviews with various key players on both sides of the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution (and in neighboring countries involved in managing the crisis), to try to get the full story of how President Viktor Yanukovich’s presidency came to an abrupt end last spring.

An investigation by The New York Times into the final hours of Mr. Yanukovych’s rule — based on interviews with prominent players, including former commanders of the Berkut riot police and other security units, telephone records and other documents — shows that the president was not so much overthrown as cast adrift by his own allies, and that Western officials were just as surprised by the meltdown as anyone else.

My main takeaway from reading the lengthy but compelling piece: Not only did two-thirds of eastern Ukrainians and virtually all western Ukrainians support the ouster of President Yanukovich last year (as was known from polls conducted in March, just after it happened), but it turns out all of the elites had abandoned him too — including his own ethnically Russian-dominated political party. Even former diehard supporters in the east were refusing to host him for a tour of factories and other sites, which might have provided cover for temporarily leaving Kiev for a cooling-off period without appearing to flee. (That disappearance, it seems, while not intended to create a vacuum, may actually have triggered the final decision by parliament to remove him from office early.)

By the end, security forces had shot innocent people, and the situation simply spiraled out of control, with Yanukovich unwilling to give orders — either to suppress the protests or to retreat. Whether people were always opposed to him, or were disgusted by the violence against the protesters, or were unwilling to follow an indecisive leader anymore, in the final days, basically nobody except the Kremlin was supporting him — or believed there was a “neo-fascist” coup in progress, as the propagandists continue to insist nearly a year later. In the end, there wasn’t a coup because the security forces simply abandoned the president and disappeared.

All the security commanders began calling the opposition and requesting escorts out of the capital — for as many as 5,000 troops or police — so they would not have to face protesters after 79 were killed and hundreds injured, particularly after Yanukovich promised to investigate and prosecute the very people protecting him for their roles in the shootings. (Unfortunately, a fair number of these people subsequently became separatist commanders and fighters.) Soon, there was nobody left in the capital’s streets to protect key sites — or the president himself.

In his final hours as president, aides say Yanukovich still appeared to have no idea that virtually everyone in the country had abandoned him and was stunned to learn that executive buildings had been taken over by protesters after he left the capital. He had believed, until that moment, that he would be returning shortly and would remain president for several more months until he could make a graceful, face-saving exit.

Euromaidan anti-government protests in Kiev, December 2013. (Credit: Nessa Gnatoush - Wikimedia)

Euromaidan anti-government protests in Kiev, December 2013. (Credit: Nessa Gnatoush – Wikimedia)

Poland readies itself to go deep, if necessary

When your country has been arbitrarily partitioned by its rival neighbors and purported allies at least seven times in the last 250 years, it’s hard not to be pessimistic that it might happen again — and to want to prepare for the worst. According to The Economist, that’s exactly what’s happening in Poland again, in light of Russia’s unexpected invasion and partial annexation of Ukraine:

Now Mr Waszczuk wants to draw on Poland’s history of guerrilla warfare to cope with the challenges of an increasingly unpredictable Russia. “We are the continuation of the Home Army,” he says. The goal is to form light infantry units scattered around the country able to continue the fight “if there is an invasion and the Polish military is destroyed”.
In early December, Poland’s defence ministry approved an upgraded national defence plan that includes an effort to co-ordinate better between the regular military and informal paramilitary outfits. Strzelec counts about 5,000 members; several hundred thousand other Polish civilians, including military re-enactment enthusiasts, are thought to be keen on the programme. The military already aids paramilitary groups with surplus uniforms and training sessions.
“We supposedly had a strong alliance in 1939, and no one came to help us,” says Mr Waszczuk. “Now we’re hearing that Germany is in no shape to help us and that NATO is unclear about sending troops here. In the end, the best defence is to rely on yourself.”

From September 1939 to January 1945, Poland’s armed forces demobilized and reconstituted themselves to exist as the underground, insurgent “Home Army” — Europe’s largest resistance force during World War II until the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia — whose primary directive was to maintain the secret authority of the Polish government-in-exile and continue the functions of the Polish state in daily life (including education) under occupation. They eventually surrendered to the Soviets to avoid a civil war with the communists after the ejection of the Germans.

Flag of Poland's Home Army during World War II. (Credit: Bastianow - Wikimedia)

Flag of Poland’s Home Army during World War II. (Credit: Bastianow – Wikimedia)