There is much talk, and Russian President Vadimir Putin has sparked some of it and engaged it cryptically, that Putin wants to ‘reunite’ Belarus and Ukraine with Russia. But what does unification mean? Eugene Rumer and Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment recently argued that Putin seeks the return of Ukraine to the Russian “fold,” claiming most erroneously and deceptively that Putin’s July article on Russian and Ukrainian history was about “denying Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent country” (www.wsj.com/articles/for-putin-the-great-prize-has-always-been-ukraine-11637332184?page=1). A writer from the NATO-tied Atlantic Council concludes “that Putin will strike Ukraine again, and soon” (www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/ukraine/2021-11-19/ukraine-crosshairs). In reality, there is virtually no scenario in which Putin would seek to incorporate into Russia by force all Ukraine or even all of eastern Ukraine up to the Dnepr River or even so-called ‘Novorossiya’ or southeastern Ukraine.
Bershidsky, in making a point I made months ago – that Putin does not want to do anything to give the West the motivation or pretext to halt Nord Stream 2 – writes that Putin would like to bring Ukraine “back into Russia’s fold” and given his advancing age “may feel the urge to move before it’s too late for him personally” (www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-11-18/putin-s-top-priority-is-selling-gas-not-waging-war-against-ukraine?sref=3HD2Fyvy). Only the former analysts state outright what ‘returning to the Russian fold’ means (no independent Ukrainian state), while Bershidsky leaves the meaning unclear, as is often the case in Western analyses if they do not assert the Rumer-Weiss position of Ukraine’s complete absorption into the Russian Federation.
Perhaps Bershidsky is more attuned to the subtleties of Putin’s thinking than the others, but I doubt it. However, like almost all Western analysts, Bershidsky ignores the fact that Putin’s ‘moves’ in Georgia and Ukraine were countermoves, responses to aggressive actions by Russia’s neighbors supported by the West and in both cases occurring in countries the West most wants to see in NATO and, less importantly, the EU. In Georgia, the Georgians started the August 2008 war by killing 19 Russian peacekeepers and tens if not hundreds of South Ossetiyan civilians in indiscriminate missile attacks. In Ukraine, the West backed a nascent ‘color revolution’ that was hijacked by Ukrainian ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists in the 20 February 2014 false flag terrorist attack in which the radical groups’ snipers shot and killed both police and their fellow opposition demonstrators to spark the final revolt and storm of the government’s buildings and thereby seize power. The West then claimed, knowing of or unconcerned over the Ukrainian opposition’s false narrative that President Viktor Yanukovych ordered his ’Berkut’ security police to fire on innocent civilians. The entire West continues to hold to this lie of the century fostered by Ukrainian extremists and the Obama Administration, despite irrefutable evidence showing that the snipers’ were the opposition demonstration’s ultranationalists and neofascists (https://gordonhahn.com/2016/03/09/the-real-snipers-massacre-ukraine-february-2014-updatedrevised-working-paper/ and Ivan Katchanovski’s monumental work on the Ukrainian neo-fascist terrorist attack on Maidan). It was these events in February that provoked Putin’s rather surgical if nonetheless aggressive responses in Crimea and Donbass; the latter limited largely to support for rebels and some Russian military intervention after the new Maidan regime declared war on an almost entirely peaceful – much more peaceful than Maidan’s opposition and snipers – if in places armed seizures of local power across the Donbass. This suggests that Bershidsky’s thinking differs little if at all from Rumer and Weiss.
The myth that Putin is chomping at the bit to reincorporate all Ukraine into the Russian ‘fold’ is a manufactured crisis. The most Putin wants is a friendly Ukraine, perhaps one perhaps willing to join the Eurasian Economic Union or even rejoin – however unlikely – the CSTO. Beyond that, any additional partial or full reintegration will be undertaken only as a matter of necessity created by Western actions, as occurred in the case of Crimea’s annexation and support for the Donbass separatists (but, notably, not for actual separatism/separation thus far). Putin had all the opportunity in the world to seize all Georgia – an easy target compared to Ukraine – in 2008, and he did not take it. There is no evidence that he even considered the idea, despite the opportunity hare-brained Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili offered him by invading South Ossetiya.
Ignored in Western analyses of a Russian buildup of forces near Ukraine, which is also partially a troop rotation, is that there has been no shortage of aggressive moves by the West over past months and year. NATO member Turkey sold Azerbaijan Baktayar drones, which used Bayraktar drones purchased from Turkey to defeat forces of Russian ally Armenia and achieve a decisive victory in a brief re-start of the ‘frozen’ Nagorno-Karabakh war. Now Turkey has stepped up military operation with Kiev, including selling Kiev the same Bayraktar drones, which the Ukrainian military used in recent attack on Donbass in violation with the Minsk 2 accord (https://time.news/ukraine-in-spite-of-the-ban-used-a-combat-drone-in-donbass-news-from-germany-about-ukraine-dw/). NATO is building a military base for Ukraine on the Black Sea that could have a NATO component. The U.S. has just sent a shipment of patrol boats for the Ukrainian navy and is preparing a new package military arms assistance including Javelin anti-tank missiles and, according to rumors, tens of combat helicopters left over from the abandoned operation in Afghanistan. The latter would allow the Ukrainian army to drop many hundreds of paratroopers deep into Donbass, giving Kiev a new capability for any push into the region. This month U.S. bombers rehearsed a nuclear strike on Russia from two different directions, leading Russian Defense Minister and potential Putin successor Sergei Shoigu to complain that the exercise had been carried out too close the Russian border.
NATO naval forces (American and British) have been entering the Black Sea challenging the Russian Navy there as the Ukrainian navy is rumored preparing to breakthrough the Kerch Strait as a challenge to Moscow’s post-annexation ‘territorial’ waters washing Crimea’s shores. The October appointment of the neofascist, terrorist organization Right Sector leader Dmitro Yarosh as an advisor to the chief of the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces and the presence of ultra-nationalist and neofascist units all along the Donbass front raises the specter of provocations os separate military or terrorist actions there. President Biden has called Putin a “killer,” but maybe he check out the biography of Mr. Yarosh, who was tied to the ultra-groups that carried out the Maidan snipers’ terrorist massacre and whose Right Sector group he led at the time organized the 2 May 2014 Odessa pogrom, burning and shooting at least 42 people to death in a building (http://www.fairobserver.com/region/europe/the-ukrainian-revolutions-neo-fascist-problem-14785/; www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2014/05/ukraine-unwittingly-becoming-sponsor-of-neo-fascist-terrorism-in-ukraine.html; http://gordonhahn.com/2014/07/14/war-from-below-and-the-warlords-of-ukraine/); http://gordonhahn.com/2015/03/15/everyday-neo-fascism-in-ukraine/; and https://gordonhahn.com/2015/05/02/ukraines-neo-fascist-right-sector-claims-responsibility-again-for-2-may-2014-terrorist-pogrom/). I assure you there are many killers in Ukraine and per capita they are no less abundant than in Russia.
More troubling than Yarosh’s appintment perhaps, neo-fascist battalions incorporated into the Ukrainian army claim they continue to receive training from Western, specifically Canadian forces (https://ottawacitizen.com/news/national/defence-watch/far-right-extremists-in-ukraine-brag-they-have-received-training-from-the-canadian-forces-report?fbclid=IwAR3Mpd0OQrJTdyputSPPZJu6Ab7snVpWKvzEPHc-ApFuFofdBi3-fJn_wqs). Thus, the Ukrainians could restart the war even without an official decision or policy from President Volodomyr Zelenskiy, especially as Kiev is being egged on by Western claims a Russian invasion of Ukraine is coming this winter. At the same time, Ukrainian military officials are egging on the West. Ukraine’s military intelligence told the American portal Military Times recently that Russia massed more than 92,000 troops at Ukraine’s borders and was preparing for an attack in late January or early February (www.militarytimes.com/flashpoints/2021/11/20/russia-preparing-to-attack-ukraine-by-late-january-ukraine-defense-intelligence-agency-chief/). This was preceded by U.S. claims of impending Russian military action against Ukraine (https://www.ft.com/content/d4eada1f-2849-4d3a-9c40-be797addd8cb?fbclid=IwAR33MDyoInyGIU8OaHdHleq_CUuYQeMACpim1sWKJd23S0nDrr6BxVoloq8). Oddly, just a little more than a week prior, General Sergei Shaptal, chairman of the Ukrainian armed forces’s general staff denied Russia was massing troops on Ukraine’s borders (https://vesti.ua/politika/genshtab-vsu-prokommentiroval-styagivanie-vojsk-rf-u-granits-ukrainy?fbclid=IwAR2xyfhdXNeHlV11vXuDtjcwGBqFaA9juVHmUa-okrh91J6brSX-AVvCal4).
The situation in Ukraine is being compounded by the tense situation at the Polish-Belarussian border created by Aleskdandr Lukashenka’s attempt to use immigrants pressuring the East-West border to get Europe to pay attention and negotiate with him as the legitimate leader of Belarus, after the West’s unabashed moral and logistical support for the aborted Belarus revolution of the last year. On such the above background, Russia’s deployment of additional troops to the Ukrainian border might seem prudent. Further escalation came last week when Russia staged military drills in the Black Sea, saying it was honing the combat readiness of its conventional and nuclear forces because of the heightened NATO activity near its borders. Exercises included fighter planes and ships practicing repelling air attacks on naval bases and answering with air strikes. For its part, Ukraine deployed 8,500 troops on its border with Belarus and staged exercises of its own near the border with Belarus, including drone exercises and military drills for anti-tank and airborne units, claiming it fears being drawn into the migrant crisis.
Simon Saradzhyan in an excellent analysis of Putin’s Ukraine calculus that concurs almost precisely with my own writes:
“Should, however, Putin’s meetings with Biden either get cancelled or fail to produce progress toward attaining these two objectives, then Putin may indeed conclude that he has exhausted the non-military options vis-à-vis Ukraine and that use of force is necessary to defend Russia’s interest in a neutral Ukraine. Given the timing of Putin’s planned meetings with Biden, it is likely that Putin will not finalize his decision on sending troops into Ukraine until next year (unless, of course, Zelenskiy makes a first major military move on the ground—or in the air, for instance, by employing all the attack drones his armed forces have to strike targets in separatist-held Donbas)” (https://russiamatters.org/analysis/why-there-wont-be-peoples-republic-left-bank-ukraine-just-yet).
In reality, a Russian invasion of Ukraine remains unlikely in lieu of a Western and/or Ukrainian provocation. I noted the same after a wave of concern and propaganda over a Russian buildup in spring: “Although I do not buy the talk that the danger of a restart of the Donbass war or the beginning of a larger war around Ukraine has passed in recent days, I also do not expect that the low-intensity nature of the war will become a high-intensity one this summer, unless the Russians are provoked” (https://gordonhahn.com/2021/04/16/the-new-east-west-cold-war-ukraine-and-the-nato-russian-western-theater/). Unless I missed Russia’s springtime invasion, that was right. Now, the perhaps 100,000 Russian troops on or near Ukraine’s border are not sufficient to seize all of Ukraine, an operation that would require several hundred thousand troops in order to defeat the 250,000-strong Ukrainian army, deal with partisans, and deter the threat of potential Western intervention in western Ukraine. However, 100,000 troops at the border act as an effective deterrent against any rash decision-making in Kiev, Brussels, or Washington and likely is sufficient in the event of such a decision or an uncontrolled provocation by Ukrainian ultra battalions to seize Donbass in an initial operation; holding would require a matching contingent of reinforcements, if not doubling the initial invasion-occupation force. This would not be difficult for Moscow. As Anatol Lieven notes: “The Russian army outnumbers the Ukrainians by more than four to one (much more if Russia mobilizes its reserves), and Russian combat aircraft outnumber the Ukrainians by more than ten-to-one. Russia has approximately 2,900 tanks to Ukraine’s 800, and more than 400 of the Russian tanks are significantly modernized T90s. Russia also has more than 10,000 mothballed tanks, though how many of these are actually useable is not known” (https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2021/11/24/what-war-with-russia-over-ukraine-would-really-look-like/).
Given Putin’s response in Crimea to the Maidan revolt in Kiev and in Donbass to the new Maidan regime’s talk of civil war against an often unarmed counter-revolt in Donbass, we can expect that any major untoward action by Kiev on the Donbass front would spark a similar overreaction by Putin in which Russian forces would occupy Donbass to protect civilians and strengthen its bargaining position by posing the threat of annexation or establishment of a de facto protectorate with the option of granting Dobbass independence as in South Ossetiya and Abkhazia after the Georgian war. No one in the West will be willing to fight a war in Ukraine to prevent the largely pro-Russian, anti-Kiev Donbass from leaving the Ukranian fold, which it de facto already has done. The provocation will have to be substantial enough to seemingly justify Putin’s overreaction, but Ukraine’s ultranationalist-neofascist battalions – as they demonstrated 7 years ago –are more than willing and even capable of obliging. Hotheads among them – like those of Saakashvili and his allies 13 years ago – may indeed believe that the West will come to the aide of the great Ukrainian last bastion holding back the Mongol hordes from the East.
More troubling is that Ukraine’s post-Donbass war policies in relation to the breakaway region mirror thise undertaken by Georgia after South Ossetiya, Abkhaziya, and Ajariya broke away in the late Soviet era. Rather than maintaining economic and institutional ties such as welfare payments, Kiev has cut them off, forcing residents in the breakaway regions bordering Russia to turn to Moscow for economic and social support. Meanwhile, draconian nationalist language and education laws aimed at eviscerating the Russian language predominant in Donbass from Ukrainian life, further pushing Donbassians into Moscow’s embrace. The result of somewhat similar policies in Georgia was the 2008 war. In Ukraine, they could lead to the re-start of the Donbass civil war, since there are few Donbassians remaining who are willing to return to Ukraine’s fold, such that Moscow would be hard-pressed to ensure Donbass representatives would be able to negotiate any agreement no less implement one without internal resistance that could produce provocations.
Putin told the Valdai Discussion Club in October 2021: “[Ukraine’s] formal membership in NATO may fail to take place, but military development of the territory [by NATO] is already in process. And this really creates a threat to the Russian Federation.” In other words (and there is some sense to them), there is an ongoing de facto, as opposed to de jure ‘NATOization’ of Ukraine, with an implied and sometimes verbally expressed defense guarantee of Ukraine’s defense against any Russian invasion or something that can be spun as a Russian invasion; invasion is not defined in NATO statutes. Imagine Kiev declares an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ to retake Donbass and begins slaughtering civilians there, while at the same time neofascist groups attempted to penetrate Crimea to attack the population or Russian troops there and simultaneously begin pogroms in Ukrainian cities, say in Odessa. Precisely all this happened in spring 2014 after the Maidan violent, terrorist overthrow of Yanukovych by way of the above-mentioned sniper provocation. If you think something like this cannot happen again, then you do not know Ukraine. All you need to know to understand that potential is to understand the creeping authoritarianization being carried out by Zelenskiy and the increasingly draconian and discriminatory education and language laws targeting ethnic Russians, Russian speakers, and the Russian language in Maidan Ukraine. Add to this the authoritarianization of the U.S. under Biden (see below) and the deepening authoritarianism in Russia, and you have a perfect storm for war created by the vacuum of democratic constraints on all the key decision-making parties.
It still remains true that the only exit from the inevitability of some kind of new war in Ukraine is, first, direct talks between Kiev and Donbass leading to considerable autonomy for Donbass within Ukraine and, second, a ‘Austriazation’ or ‘Finlandization’ of Ukraine as a neutral state without membership in any military bloc, precluding any realization of Russian hopes that Kiev will return to the CSTO and of plans in Washington and Brussels for Ukraine joining NATO.
Unfortunately, there is no prospect for the kind of statesmanship this would require emerging from Washington in the next three years. Lieven notes in the recent article mentioned above: “President Biden now has the chance to prove that impression [of absent statesmanship] ]wrong.” Biden has no such chance to do this. It was he, former President Barack Obama, and their decayed and radicalized Democrat Party that waged a relentless coup against President Donald Trump, beginning with false Steele dossier and DNC hack and continuing in an attempted ongoing revolution from above against the U.S. constitution under Biden. The coup and revolution were undertaken in large part to block any Trump effort to create something resembling a semi-normalized relationship with Moscow and settle the Donbass crisis on the basis of a compromise.
This means that the danger of war in Donbass or along a larger front will hang over Ukraine, Russia, and the West for the next three years. Fortunately, the Biden administration’s intensifying and dangerous efforts to authoritarianize America are leading to crippling disunity in the country and the growing unpopularity of his cultural Marxist rule. On the other hand, perhaps a new ‘Russian threat’ would produce a ‘rally around the flag’ needed to overcome the mounting American opposition to the Biden administration’s anti-constitutional, illegal, and radial policies—from massive Democrat fraud in, and possibly outright theft of in the 2020 presidential election; to the Mexican border; to the Afghanistan withdrawal; to the Rittenhouse and upcoming 1/6 Select Committee show trials against ‘white supremacism’; to the Waukesha African-American racist mass murder or terrorist attack; to the Justice Department’s witch hunts against parents opposing transgenderism and ‘critical race theory’ neofascism being taught to primary schoolchildren as well as against conservative opposition’ journalists such as Project Veritas; to the uncovering of the Obama administration-FBI-intelligence agencies’ Russiagate fraud and 1/6 false flag operation; to upcoming revelations from Hunter Biden’s lost and recovered laptop that will complete the picture of VP Biden’s illegal use of his office for profit in the Obama White House (see https://gordonhahn.com/2021/11/20/working-paper-comparing-the-russian-and-american-revolutions-from-above-part-2/; https://gordonhahn.com/2021/11/04/working-paper-comparing-the-russian-and-american-revolutions-from-above-part-1/; https://gordonhahn.com/2020/12/29/the-authoritarianization-putinization-of-america-parts-1-and-2-complete/; https://gordonhahn.com/2021/11/06/clinton-fbi-russiagate-hoax-the-danchenko-indictment-and-the-steele-dossier/; https://gordonhahn.com/2021/11/14/update-clinton-fbi-russiagate-hoax-the-danchenko-indictment-and-the-steele-dossier/; https://gordonhahn.com/2021/11/24/the-siloviki-to-russiagates-rescue/; and https://gordonhahn.com/2021/11/24/the-siloviki-to-russiagates-rescue/).
Perhaps 2022 holds the answer to the deepening American and Ukrainian crises. But watch out for neo-fascists bearing drones, Javelins, and helicopters in a far off place where you have no vital interests.
JUST RELEASED – THE RUSSIAN DILEMMA – AVAILABLE ON AMAZON AND ELSEWHERE
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021), Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018), The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.