August 29, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Implausible Deniability: Russia Moves Against Ukraine

 • Russian artillery and tanks are now operating openly in southeastern Ukraine, with the rebels claiming 4,000 Russian troops are supporting them

• First it was tracksuits to disguise Russian personnel, then it was ‘retired’ Russian soldiers, now the fiction is Russian troops ‘on vacation’ as the Kremlin uses increasingly implausible deniability for its actions

• NATO released satellite imagery showing columns of Russian military equipment moving into Ukraine near Novoazovsk; the Russian response was in effect “that’s not us,” taking the diplomatic farce to new heights

• Russian president Putin has inexorably moved ahead in Ukraine despite international sanctions, making the next move by the EU and US problematic to say the least.


Keeping pace with the rapidly deteriorating situation in southeastern Ukraine, Russia’s pretenses and denials of its military personnel and equipment are also deteriorating from the barely plausible to the implausible and now the laughable.

On Thursday, NATO released satellite imagery showing columns of Russian artillery moving into Ukraine, corroborating the statements by both Ukrainian officials and the opposition rebels that Russian personnel and equipment are openly operating in the area. Ukrainian President Poroshenko has accused Russia of sending thousands of soldiers, along with tanks and self-propelled artillery, to support rebels who then seized the town of Novoazovsk. In response, Ukraine has reinstated military conscription to bolster its forces, while the UN security council held an emergency meeting. In a significant response, NATO announced it would position troops at new bases in eastern Europe, to which Russia will certainly object.

The Russian response, however, was to simply deny any of its troops were in Ukraine. Dismissing photographic and satellite imagery that clearly showed Russian tanks and other equipment inside Ukraine with the Orwellian statement that the “information doesnt correspond with reality,” Russia has shown no sign of backing down from its five-month push against its neighbor. Russian UN ambassador Churkin said that any Russians fighting in Ukraine were merely “volunteers,” not even bothering to account for the tanks and Grad missile batteries these volunteers were manning.

Slightly contradicting Moscow, the new self-declared prime minister of the contested Donetsk region, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, said that there were up to 4,000 Russian troops fighting alongside the rebels, but that these troops were “spending their vacation” helping their Ukrainian “brothers,” so it was not an official incursion.

Putting aside the notion that Russian troops can take their advanced heavy weapon systems with them on vacation, the statements by Moscow shows that Russia has no intention of backing down in the short term. It appears committed to shoring up its faltering proxy through brazen direct intervention and the most ludicrous denials. Russian president Putin appears intent on moving quickly enough to set a favorable reality on the ground before perhaps pushing for a cease-fire, with the goal of tying annexed Crimea with Russia through an occupied corridor of southeastern Ukraine.

Where this leaves the West in terms of the next move is unclear. Russian denials are no longer plausible even by the loosest of international norms that are designed to avoid confrontation at the cost of accountability. Sanctions have hurt the Russian economy to a noticeable degree, and the instability has caused its financial markets to drop significantly. The aim of those sanctions were to persuade Putin that the costs of his current aggression was more than its worth. It is clear Putin is using a different calculation, as he not only refused to back down but has escalated the conflict dramatically.

Addressing the rather novel and supremely frustrating hybrid type of warfare that Russia is waging in Ukraine, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen described it as a “sophisticated combination of traditional conventional warfare mixed up with information and primarily disinformation operations” that NATO alone can’t counter. Given Russia’s veto power over Security Council actions, the UN will also find it frustrating to address Russia’s actions, which helps Putin solidify the status quo in the contested areas.

A reflection of this reality is that NATO is making moves elsewhere to pressure Russia on Ukraine. Secretary General Rasmussen stated that NATO will, for the first time, position its troops in new bases in eastern Ukraine. This is a significant development and will generate a Russian response that will likely not be the intended one. This assessment is based on the consistent behavior of Putin pushing ahead when told to step back. How Russia will react to new NATO troop positioning and to possible new and harsher sanctions will be the most important geopolitical assessment for the foreseeable future.



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