10 very good reasons not to believe Vladimir Putin when he says he's totally not going to invade eastern Ukraine.
- By Michael WeissMichael Weiss is the editor in chief of the Interpreter, an online journal that translates and analyzes Russian media. Follow him on Twitter: @michaeldweiss.
Late on Friday afternoon, news broke that Russian President Vladimir Putin had called President Barack Obama to discuss the possibility of a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Crimea. The two agreed to dispatch their chief emissaries to talk details about how to diffuse the situation. But while a settlement might now be a possibility, United States and NATO intelligence assessments agree that the likelihood of Russian troops crossing the border into eastern (and possibly northern and southern) Ukraine grows by the hour. So, is this another Putin psych-out? It may well be.
Here are 10 facts on the ground that add up to a very real chance that Russia might still invade Ukraine:
1. The size of troop movements, and the field hospitals.
As of this writing, Russia has amassed as many as 50,000 troops at various points along the Ukrainian border, including in Russian-occupied Crimea. Videos uploaded to the Internet show armored vehicles being taken off flatbed freight trains in Voronezh, a city northeast of Ukraine’s Kharkiv, and in Novozybkov, which is 50 miles north of Kiev. (Tanks there are already rolling on the ground, in fact.) The Russians have also moved food, medicine, and spare parts into position, which would not be needed for any short-term military "springtime exercises," as the Defense Ministry now claims is all they’re up to. A field hospital has been erected in the Bryansk region, as Voice of America reported: that’s just 12 miles away from Ukraine’s eastern border, which is now heavily monitored by Russian drones. Furthermore, Moscow has resorted to subterfuge to hide its activities — not a terribly good sign of its sincerity. U.S. signals intelligence has been hindered by old-school tactics, including the use of couriers who deliver messaging from the army’s High Command to commanders in the field. A senior U.S. military official told the Wall Street Journal: "They have moved into concealed positions," almost certainly to evade American spy satellites. If Russia wanted to reassure Washington that it was only staging drills, it would broadcast its movements and activities, not conceal them. "We’ve seen no specific indications that exercises are taking place," said the Pentagon press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, on Thursday. Russia has enough men and firepower to reach the separatist region of Transnistria in Moldova, according to NATO’s supreme allied commander Europe, Gen. Philip Breedlove. Meanwhile, Moldova Prime Minister Iurie Leanca sees "provocations" by the illegal statelet-within-a-state as likely. Let’s not forget that the last time Russia held an impromptu military "exercise," it invaded and lopped off Crimea.
2. Putin enjoys embarrassing the United States, and especially its current commander-in-chief.
On Feb. 28, Obama warned that "there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine" — before high-tailing it to a Democratic National Committee cocktail party at the Washington Hilton. The next day, the world awoke to a Russian invasion of Crimea. "Rarely has a threat from a U.S. president been dismissed as quickly — and comprehensively — as Obama’s warning on Friday night," the Washington Post‘s Scott Wilson reported. And let’s look at the laundry list of American desires and warnings the Kremlin has brushed aside: Russia has dramatically increased its arms transfers to Syria since the chemical disarmament deal was struck last fall. It continues to host fugitive NSA spy Edward Snowden. And during the midst of the Maidan protests, Russia’s own spies intercepted a phone call between a top U.S. State Department official and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, then leaked the contents of it to Kremlin-controlled media. Moreover, neither Putin nor his inner circle seem terribly aggravated by the current suite of U.S. or EU sanctions or the blockbuster admission by the Treasury Department that Putin — now a staunch patriotic proponent of the "de-offshoreization" of the Russian economy — personally controls assets in Swiss oil commodities giant Gunvor.
3. The IMF bailout.
The International Monetary Fund’s assistance package to Ukraine was announced yesterday. It amounts to $18 billion to be dispensed over two years, and to which can be added the $14 billion already promised to Ukraine by other international contributors, such as the United States and European Union. That’s a serious amount of money to help fish a floundering country out of a deep financial soup, and it well exceeds the bribe Putin offered Viktor Yanukovych to scrap the association agreement with the EU, which led to the revolution in Kiev. Yes, the IMF loan comes with conditions, particularly in Ukraine’s energy sector. State gas company Naftohaz will have to be restructured and consumers will have to pay higher energy prices, which might not go down so well in the Maidan. But even so, Putin has been written out of his decade-long role as the dark lord of Ukraine’s volatile and expensive gas industry. I wonder how that makes him feel. Clearly, he would now prefer the total collapse of Ukrainian state institutions and its market economy to an IMF-facilitated stability. And who better to guarantee a reconstruction effort than conveniently located Russian troops?
4. Putin has seen how reliably the U.S. policy establishment has done his work for him already.
How he must love it when the former director of Policy Planning at the State Department Anne-Marie Slaughter publishes an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing, inter alia, that the annexation of Crimea was legally and morally equivalent to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo (conveniently forgetting that the latter stopped a genocide waged by a former Communist apparatchik turned pan-Slavic nationalist). This equivalence is exactly what Kremlin propaganda has maintained. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s vice president for studies, Andrew Weiss, told the New York Times two days ago that Brussels is to blame for precipitating Russia’s aggression by pursuing an association agreement with Ukraine in the first place. Putin couldn’t agree more. All of the Beltway’s best and brightest, who now profess to be in a state of total shock at the erosion of the post-Cold War order, nevertheless agree that the priority for the United States is to mollify rather than antagonize an angry bear. This is not a message lost on its subject. Putin must reckon that if his tanks roll into Kiev next Wednesday, those advising Obama will say, "Well, we mustn’t upset him more because then he might invade Warsaw." (And judging from American rhetoric, Putin might be right about that.)
5. Well, seriously, what are we going to do about it?
As Russian armored personnel carriers and paratroopers move into position, John Kerry’s spokesperson, Jennifer Psaki, tweeted this: "Watching huge Russian military buildup on #Ukraine‘s borders: dangerous intimidation #RussiaIsolated." That’ll teach ‘em. Does the administration not see the futility in accusing Putin of playing by 19th-century rules using 21st-century media he’s looking to censor, disrupt, or eventually shut down? How many divisions has the hashtag? Indeed, no one at any senior level in the U.S. government or NATO is contemplating a military response to an invasion of the Ukrainian mainland and the dismemberment of a European country. And Putin knows it. There’s not even a bluff he has to call.
6. Listen to what the Kremlin functionaries are saying.
Yesterday, as the United Nations General Assembly voted to reaffirm Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, Russia’s ambassador to that body, Vitaly Churkin, accused the U.S. embassy in Kiev of hosting the real shooters of Maidan demonstrators. Last week, Russia’s insane propagandist-in-chief Dmitry Kiselyov took to the airwaves of his brand-new disinformation clearinghouse, Rossiya Segodnya, to remind viewers: "Russia is the only country in the world which is really capable of turning the USA into radioactive ash." Does this sound like a government looking for an "off-ramp" to an imminent confrontation with the West?
7. Russia’s military and arms trade relies on Ukraine.
A little-noticed item in Sovershenno Sekretno, a Moscow-based magazine, authored by Vladimir Voronov, appeared in late February making the case for why Russia would indeed mount incursions into Ukraine. The most salient reason given was that, contrary to conventional wisdom that Ukraine’s military depends on Russia, the situation is actually the other way around: Russia’s military-industrial complex needs Ukraine’s manufacturing resources. "It is difficult to overestimate the significance of Motor Sich for our aviation at least because its engines are used in all our helicopters, including the combat ones," Voronov wrote, referring to Ukraine’s aircraft engine company. "It also remains the supplier of engines for aircraft used by the Russian Air Force and civilian airlines." The Ukrainian city of Mykolayiv alone hosts three different shipbuilding facilities, without which, Voronov says, "Russian shipbuilders cannot handle the ambitious program of rearming their own fleet." And the Ukrainian state-owned design bureaus Pivdenne and Pivdenmash are also necessary for Moscow’s nuclear missile upgrades.
In September 2013, the Washington-based arms watchdog c4ads published a brilliant report called "The Odessa Network," which showed how a serious portion of the global arms trade was being conducted out of Odessa and Oktyabirsk, two Ukrainian port cities that now sandwich Crimea. Oktyabirsk is where the Soviets sent nuclear missiles to Cuba from in 1963, and, as of last year, was "functionally owned by Russia — the port manager is a former Russian a navy captain, and the port owner is a Kremlin-linked oligarch," as authors report Tom Wallace and Farley Mesko wrote. Odessa is home to the shipping companies that handle the logistics for weapons transfers, particularly by Russia’s state-owned arms dealer Rosoboronexport which controls 80 percent of the country’s arms exports. In the last several years, Rosoboronexport has dispatched Kh-55 cruise missiles to Iran, Pechora-2 SAMs to Eritrea, T-72 tanks to Venezuela and — very likely — other forms of hardware to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria from this southeastern city on the Black Sea. Rosoboronexport had $34 billion in weapons contracts as of June 1, 2013, with sales inked with 66 countries.
The company has two other maritime ports through which it likes to ship its materiel to paying customers: St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad. But look at a map and weigh for yourself the differential cost in time, money, and insurance in transporting cargos from those ports to, say, countries stationed along the Mediterranean or the Horn of Africa versus from the Black Sea. With a new pro-American, pro-European government now convened in Kiev, do you really think Putin will allow his Odessa network to be disrupted or cancelled?
8. The Kremlin lies shamefully and farcically.
Putin insists to this day that Assad didn’t unleash poison gas in Syria’s capital city last August — despite the Kremlin’s brokering of a diplomatic accord to dismantle and destroy Assad’s poison gas stocks. Putin also insists that there is no Russian military presence in Crimea. Rather, pro-Russian "self-defense" militias — "little green men," as Ukrainians call them* — have somehow assumed total strategic control over a European peninsula the size of Wales, equipped with toys such as the VSS Vintorez sniper rifle, which is only given to elite units in the Russian military. So measure this track record of bare-faced mendacity against assurances given by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that Russia has no plans for an invasion of east Ukraine. Some 80,000 Russian soldiers could march into Donetsk and Kharkiv tomorrow, and we’d no doubt hear for the first 24 hours that news of such belligerence was a sinister U.S. conspiracy designed to distract attention from Detroit’s bankruptcy.
9. Kombinatsiya is very much in evidence now.
This under-employed but still extremely relevant concept was defined by Vasili Mitrokhin, the former senior archivist in the Foreign Intelligence Directorate of the KGB, in his KGB Lexicon: The Soviet Intelligence Officers Handbook thus: "Operational combinations to create the right conditions for carrying out overt measures to disrupt enemy subversive activity (by catching the enemy red-handed, by the ‘chance’ discovery by people who can be questioned as witnesses of material evidence of subversive activity…" Kombinatsiya also means disseminating "disinformation of the enemy, recruiting agents, planting them on the enemy, creating conditions required for the effective use of technical operations equipment, etc." Saying that homosexual neo-Nazis financed by the State Department are in charge of Ukraine is one interlocking maneuver. So is releasing compromising or embarrassing phone conversations between European foreign ministers, American diplomats, and Ukrainian opposition figures; embedding FSB and GRU agents in the now-disbanded Ukrainian riot police Berkut or in the still-active Ukrainian security service SBU; egging on pro-Russian mobs to provoke pro-European Ukrainians into acts of violence in Kharkiv and Donetsk is yet another. And turning the lights off on Russia’s independent media in the very same week you invade its neighbor is part of the domestic operation.
Putin doesn’t want the truth to penetrate his national Potemkin village because the lie needs to be sold complete: the narod (similar to the German volk) must understand that its ethnic kin is under systematic assault from Tallinn to Sevastopol and that, if anything, it’s the Americans who are the ones invading another country — Russia. One also sees a bit of kombinatsiya in the incredibly successful boost to Putin’s popularity (itself a function of a carefully scripted and acted-out propaganda narrative), which jumped 20 points since the Crimean adventure got underway and now hovers at around 80 percent. If Russia invades eastern or southern Ukraine, that figure will go up even higher because the excuse for protecting the Fatherland and its far-flung and imperiled diaspora has been cultivated in advance.
10. Modernizatsiya isn’t just for show.
Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has only been in the job for little over a year and already he’s polled as the "most efficient" minister in Dmitry Medvedev’s cabinet. His portfolio was also the most scandalized, as Shoigu’s immediate predecessor, Anatoly Serdyukov, was sacked in 2013 owing to corruption charges involving Oboronservis, a Defense Ministry-owned real estate firm that appears to have been largely managed by Serdyukov’s 33-year-old mistress, who allegedly embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars out of it. (It didn’t help Serdyukov’s case that his wronged wife is the daughter of Viktor Zubkov, a former prime minister and close confidante of Putin’s.) But Shoigu wasted no time in establishing himself as a national hero. He has overseen the largest and most ambitious re-armament and modernization program of the Russian military since the fall of the Soviet Union. As my colleague Andrew Bowen has noted, Moscow plans to spend $773 billion by 2020 equipping the majority of its armed forces with the state-of-the-art weapons such as T-50 fighter jets, Borei-class ballistic missile submarines, and RS-26 inter-continental ballistic missiles. Shoigu is also responsible for expanding the ranks of contract soldiers (kontraktniki) who are seen to be more reliable than conscripts. By 2017, the goal is to have 425,000 kontraktniki trained and ready to deploy (Russia currently has less than half that number).
Plenty of military analysts are skeptical that these blue-sky reforms can ever be realized, but consider the exhibitionism that Shoigu’s army and air force have resorted to in the last year. Zapad-2013, another military exercise — this one waged jointly with Belarus — last September, featured as many as 70,000 troops including paratroopers, Spetsnaz (Special Forces), and paramilitary servicemen from the Interior Ministry. It’s had "counterterrorism" exercises with India, and a large-scale naval exercise with China. Russia also conducted its own much-vaunted war game in the Far East, with what it claimed was 160,000 troops, 70 ships, 130 aircraft, and 14 separate army brigades, although, as deputy editor of the newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal Alexander Golts pointed out at the time, these advertised numbers simply didn’t add up. But they really didn’t have to: it’s the plumage of the fledging modernizatsiya that matters most of all. "The objectives have been achieved, and the exercises have been more than satisfactory so far," Putin declared upon the completion of the Far East exercise. More ominous have been the serial violations of Swedish, Norwegian, Estonian, Japanese, Colombian, American, and Ukrainian airspaces by aircraft that include long-range strategic bombers — the kinds that would, say, reduce a country to radioactive ash.
The Russian armed forces aren’t being revamped and expanded and better equipped for showroom purposes; they were being taken out for a test drive. Recall, too, that Putin, who was appalled at the bumbling and bungled 2008 war with Georgia for which he exclusively blames his former marionette, President Medvedev, has yet to have his own uniquely personalized war in well over a decade. It’s been a long time since the scorched-earth campaigns in Chechnya. And the timing couldn’t be more right. The U.S. Department of Defense is mired in sequestration blues; the White House is catering to a war-weary and isolationist electorate (which may resent being given what it’s asked for), and John Kerry is racking up air miles pursuing phantom "peace" deals around the globe. (He even met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague on March 24.) Meanwhile, Russia’s spending a mint on its own war-making capability, scoring diplomatic victories over Kerry whenever it can, cleverly exploiting the deterioration of traditional U.S. alliances in the Middle East (whether Egypt or Israel), and now looking to ensure that Ukraine — which Putin considers "not even a state" — of the former Soviet "near abroad" doesn’t stand a chance of existing without a little help from old friends.
It doesn’t bode well, either, that the Kremlin’s read-out of Putin’s phone call with Obama emphasized the "rampage of extremists" in Kiev and beyond, or the "blockade" of Transnistria. Both are clearly pretexts just waiting for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
*Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Putin refers to pro-Russian "self-defense "militias as "little green men." It is Ukrainians that call the militias "little green men," not Putin.