A week into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the attempt to understand what is happening politically is still developing.
Analysts grappling with how the status quo on the European continent was so rapidly and comprehensively overturned have looked to Syria, Russia’s last major military intervention, for clues. In doing so, they have consistently linked Moscow’s incursions in both countries to a theory for how Russia’s role in Syria prepared the ground for the Ukraine war.
The theory has two variations. In the first, it is that Barack Obama’s inaction on the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in 2013 – when Assad violated Obama’s “red lines” without consequence – made America seem weak, and led – six months later – to Vladimir Putin annexing Crimea.
In the second, Russia, having seen the opportunity to remake the politics of Syria through military means, has attempted to do the same thing a second time – first threatening Ukraine in the hope of bullying the government into concessions, and then, when that didn’t work, launching a full-scale attack with the aim of regime change.
The trouble with both these theories is that they elide parts of Russia’s recent history to make the theory work. There is a link between the military missions in Syria and Ukraine, but it is not the one Moscow is often accused of.
In the first case, there is no comparison between America’s president issuing “red lines” to Syria and the hypothetical scenario where an American president issued “red lines” to Russia over Crimea. The threats are not the same. In the first instance, if Obama had decided to enforce those red lines, the maximum he could have tried was an attempted decapitation of the Assad regime, for example bombing the presidential palace in Damascus. But enforcing “red lines” on Russia by military force is of a different order: It would inevitably provoke a war between two nuclear-armed adversaries.
In the second case, the idea that Putin felt his actions in Syria offered a green light for an invasion of Ukraine overlooks a decade of military action along Russia’s periphery. Putin made his reputation as a tough politician in the Caucasus wars – Chechnya was the first conflict he was involved in, almost from the moment he became president. His 2008 lightening war in Georgia – which was all over in barely five days – is a much better analogy for a test-run for the invasion of Ukraine than Syria.
It wasn’t that the Russian intervention in Syria convinced Putin he could reorder the politics and future direction of nations by force – he already knew that from Georgia. No, what Syria proved was that you could do that openly, in full view of the world, and it didn’t matter.
That was Syria’s great lesson to Moscow: That the US-led order, despite being backed by immense military hardware, was fragile. There was no will to enforce it.
Of course the debacle of Obama’s “red lines” played a pivotal role. But it was also a result of Putin’s constant testing of the boundaries of the West and its appetite for military action. The missions in Georgia and Crimea were carried out quietly; in Georgia, it was a lightning strike; in Crimea, the use of “little green men,” Russian soldiers without insignia, gave plausible deniability.
The Syria intervention wasn’t like that. Conducted 18 months after the annexation of Crimea, it took place without pretense. This was the first time that Russia had openly challenged the West, openly used its military hardware to try for an alternative result to what the West wanted. And yet it worked.
What Russia proved in Syria was that the Vietnam argument – that superpowers would inevitably get bogged down in insurgencies – wasn’t always true. Instead of proving to be Russia’s Vietnam – or a second Afghanistan, after the Soviet defeat in the 1980s – in fact the intervention was a blistering win for Moscow. Russia stabilized the regime and formed a close alliance with Damascus that will last decades, as well as giving it leverage over Turkey, Israel and Europe. From Moscow’s perspective, a win many times over.
No doubt, Russia’s president is hoping to do the same thing in Ukraine, to reorder Russia’s periphery, regardless of the desires of the West.
This is where the analysts who claim that if Putin is not stopped in Ukraine the whole of Europe is under threat are correct. What Putin is seeking to do is upend the strategic order of the European Union. But crucially, he’s not trying to usurp that order. The world that Putin imagines is not one where Russia, rather than the US or the EU, sets the global rules. Instead, what he is seeking is something more limited – and precisely because it is more limited, it is more likely to happen.
What Putin is seeking is a way of defying the US-led status quo without consequences, or at least without consequences that Moscow cannot bear.
The invasion of Ukraine doesn’t mean that, in a matter of years, there will be a new Soviet Union, stretching across eastern Europe. But it does make another, limited, war much more likely.
If Putin gets away with invading Ukraine and changing the politics of the country, whilst managing to weather the storm of sanctions, it will make many other countries on Russia’s periphery targets.
What Moscow learned in Syria was that the West’s mettle was fragile; he is testing it once again, in the most public way imaginable.
By Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.
The Two Wars Taking Place in Ukraine
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been ongoing for a full three weeks now. That is already a military success in itself for Ukraine: Many analysts (and the Kremlin itself) expected that lightning Russian operations could score a victory within days. Ukraine’s dogged resistance, however, has changed the narrative. The war has been costly for Moscow with more than 1,300 pieces of Russian military hardware destroyed or captured. One US estimate placed the number of Russians killed in action between 6,000 and 8,000 – a staggering number when compared to the 2,401 military deaths suffered by the US during 20 years in Afghanistan.
But this hardly means the war’s end. Russia still possesses almost nine-tenths of its deployed combat strength in Ukraine, with significant territorial gains to show for it. The war in Ukraine has come to resemble two parallel, largely divergent stories: The war in the cities, and the war in the countryside.
The fight for Ukraine’s cities has received most of the attention thus far, and for good reason. Unable to seize key cities by quick special forces actions, Russia’s army has instead turned to its old playbook: Level them. This is perhaps most apparent in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, close to the Russian border in the northeast. After failed thunder runs into the city by Spetsnaz special forces and paratroopers in the opening days of the war, Russia has deployed artillery and multiple rocket launchers on Kharkiv’s northern and eastern outskirts. They are currently blasting entire apartment blocks into rubble, inflicting heavy civilian casualties while degrading Ukrainian defenders in the city.
A similar story is playing out in the western and eastern approaches to Kyiv, where Ukrainian forces have thus far managed to contain Russian attackers to the city’s edges. The most brutal urban combat is happening in Mariupol, the southeastern port city where Russian forces are slowly advancing amid massive bombardments that have reportedly killed thousands of civilians.
But there is another war playing out in Ukraine as well, one on which we have far less information: The war of maneuver in the Ukrainian countryside.
The primary axis of this fight is taking place in Ukraine’s east. There, the bulk of the Ukrainian army remains deployed along the front lines with the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, arrayed against joint Russian-separatist forces. The Ukrainian high command has been loath to abandon this region, for good reason: It is the most fortified in the country, having remained a semi-active but static front for the past eight years, while to withdraw would mean ceding large areas of Ukraine’s east. Well-supplied and experienced Ukrainian forces here have done well to date, containing any direct Russian advance punching forward from the east.
Recent developments, however, indicate that this force is increasingly in danger. Russian forces have linked up in the southeast, with units advancing from Crimea connecting with troops pushing out from the Donetsk region in a move that has isolated Mariupol. They continue to push northwards, recently capturing the town of Volnovakha after heavy fighting. To the north, Russian units moving from the Russian border are making significant inroads, reaching the outskirts of Severodonetsk (the regional headquarters of a number of Ukrainian formations) and seizing the junction town of Izyum, through which runs one of the key Ukrainian supply lines to the Donbas region. Russian forces are punching into rear areas now, in open terrain where only mobile Ukrainian armored units can check their advance. With no cities to block their way in this area, if current trends continue, the Ukrainian high command will soon be forced to make a difficult decision: Withdraw its Donbas forces towards the Dnieper river, essentially ceding the region to Russian control, or fight on and risk a double encirclement of the cream of the Ukrainian army.
This same story is playing out on a smaller scale in other areas of the country. In the south, Russian forces moving northwards from Crimea are making progress on both sides of the Dnieper, closing on the city of Zaporizhye to the east and Kryvyi Rih, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s hometown, to the west. Further west, Russian forces appear to have halted outside the city of Mykolaiv, not attempting to push through it and onwards towards Odessa as envisioned. They are instead taking a similar approach as Kharkiv: Shred the city with fire from multiple rocket launchers at nighttime while bypassing it with their main units. In this case, that force is now moving northward into Ukraine’s soft underbelly, pushing not only towards Kryviy Rih but into the heartlands of central Ukraine as well.
It is yet unclear which of these two sides of the war will prove decisive. Russia’s advances deep into Ukrainian territory provide many opportunities for the defenders as well: Russia’s notoriously poor logistics have already been exposed and hampered further by repeated skillful raids by Ukrainian special forces and irregulars, capturing and destroying supply convoys and isolated units. Moscow also does not possess the manpower for a sustained presence deep in Ukraine’s rear areas, having struggled already to commit enough forces to occupation efforts. Either way, the next week in the Donbas region in particular will bear close watching, and will play a significant role in determining whether Russia can defeat enough of the Ukrainian army to force some sort of settlement, or whether Moscow’s increasingly battered forces will be ground down short of their goal.
By Neil Hauer is a security analyst currently in Kyiv, Ukraine. Usually based in Tbilisi, Georgia, his work focuses on, among other things, politics, minorities and violence in the Caucasus.
Why Europe Needs to Take a Hard Look at Itself
Europe needs to take a hard look at itself. Because it has proved to be incapable of dealing with the causes of the Ukraine crisis, Europe is now condemned to deal with its consequences.
Although the dust of this tragedy has not even begun to settle, we are forced to conclude that Europe’s leaders did not and do not have what it takes to deal with the situation at hand. They will go down in history as Europe’s most mediocre leaders since the end of the Second World War. They are now making sure that they do their best in terms of humanitarian assistance, and their efforts in that regard should not be questioned. But the reason they are doing it is to save face in the light of the biggest scandal of our time. Over the last seventy years they have ruled over populations who have been at the forefront in terms of organizing themselves and demonstrating against war wherever it happens to be waged. But it turns out that they were not able to defend those same populations from the war that had been brewing at home since at least as early as 2014. The European democracies have just shown that they have a government without the people. There are numerous reasons for coming to this conclusion.
Both Russia and the US have been preparing for this war for some time. In the case of Russia, there had been clear indications, in recent years, that the country was accumulating huge gold reserves and giving priority to a strategic partnership with China. This was especially noticeable in the financial sphere, where a bank merger and the creation of a new international currency are the ultimate goal, and in the sphere of trade, with its Belt and Road Initiative and the tremendous possibilities for expansion that it will open up throughout Eurasia. As regards relationships with its European partners, Russia has proved to be a credible partner, while making clear what its security concerns were. These were legitimate concerns, if we only stop to think that in the world of superpowers there is neither good nor bad, only strategic interests that need to be accommodated. That was the case with the 1962 missile crisis, when the US drew a red line in respect of the installation of medium-range missiles 70 km from its border. Let it not be thought that the Soviet Union was the only one to give in, because the US also removed its medium-range missiles from Turkey. Trade-off, accommodation, lasting agreement. Why wasn’t it possible in the case of Ukraine? Let us turn to the preparations on the US side.
Faced with the decline of the global dominance it has enjoyed since 1945, the US is trying at all costs to consolidate its zones of influence, so as to maintain its advantages in trade and access to raw materials for US companies.
What is written below has been gleaned from official and think tank documents:
The policy of regime change is not aimed at creating democracies, but rather at creating governments that are loyal to US interests. Not a single democratic State has emerged from the bloody interventions in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya. The promotion of democracy was not what led the US to actively support coups that deposed democratically elected presidents in Honduras (2009), Paraguay (2012), Brazil (2016) and Bolivia (2019), not to mention the 2014 coup in Ukraine. China has been the US’s main rival for some time now. In the case of Europe, the US strategy rests on two pillars: to provoke Russia and to neutralize Europe (and Germany in particular). In 2019, the Rand Corporation, a well-known organization dedicated to strategic studies, published a report entitled “Extending Russia,” produced at the request of the Pentagon.
The report details how to provoke countries in ways that can be exploited by the US. It has this to say about Russia: “We examine a range of nonviolent measures that could exploit Russia’s actual vulnerabilities and anxieties as a way of stressing Russia’s military and economy and the regime’s political standing at home and abroad. The steps we examine would not have either defense or deterrence as their prime purpose, although they might contribute to both. Rather, these steps are conceived of as elements in a campaign designed to unbalance the adversary, leading Russia to compete in domains or regions where the United States has a competitive advantage, and causing Russia to overextend itself militarily or economically or causing the regime to lose domestic and/or international prestige and influence.
“Do we need to hear more in order to understand what is happening in Ukraine? Provoke Russia into expanding and then criticize it for doing so. NATO’s eastward expansion – against what was agreed with Gorbachev in 1990 – was key in triggering the provocation. Another important step was the violation of the Minsk accords. It should be pointed out that when the Donetsk and Luhansk regions first claimed independence, following the 2014 coup, Russia did not support the claim. It favored autonomy within Ukraine, as provided for in the Minsk accords. It was Ukraine – with US support – that tore up the agreements, not Russia.
As for Europe, its number one concern is to consolidate its status as a minor partner that does not dare interfere with the zones of influence policy. Europe has to be a reliable partner, but it cannot expect reciprocal treatment. That is why the EU – to the clueless surprise of its leaders – found itself excluded from AUKUS, the security pact between the US, Australia and the UK for the Indo-Pacific region. The minor partner strategy requires that Europe become more dependent, not only in military terms (something that NATO can always be relied on to ensure) but also with regard to the economy and the area of energy in particular.
US foreign policy (and democracy) is dominated by three oligarchies (for oligarchs are not the monopoly of Russia and Ukraine): the military-industrial complex; the gas, oil and mining complex; and the banking and real estate complex. These complexes yield fabulous profits thanks to so-called monopoly rents, i.e., privileged market positions that allow them to inflate prices. Their goal consists in keeping the world at war and increasingly dependent on US arms supplies. Europe’s energy dependence on Russia was thus something unacceptable. And yet, in Europe’s eyes, it was not a question of dependence, but rather of economic rationality and a diversification of partners. With the invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing sanctions, everything fell into place as planned.
The stocks of the three complexes rose immediately, and the champagne began to flow. A mediocre, ignorant Europe, totally lacking in strategic vision, falls helplessly in the hands of these complexes, which will soon let Europe know what prices it will have to pay. Europe will be impoverished and destabilized because its leaders failed to rise to the moment. Worse than that, it can’t wait to arm Nazis. Nor does it seem to remember that, in December 2021, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution – proposed by Russia – aimed at “combating glorification of Nazism, neo-Nazism and other practices that contribute to fueling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance”. Two countries, the US and Ukraine, voted against it.
The current peace negotiations are misconceived. It makes no sense that negotiations should be solely between Russia and Ukraine. They should be between Russia and the US/NATO/EU. The 1962 missile crisis was resolved between the USSR and the US. Did anyone think of inviting Fidel Castro to the negotiation table? It is a cruel delusion to believe that there can be lasting peace in Europe without any concessions from the Western side. Ukraine, whose independence we all advocate, must not join NATO.
Have Finland, Sweden, Switzerland or Austria ever needed NATO in order to feel safe and to get ahead? The truth is that NATO should have been dismantled as soon as the Warsaw Pact came to an end. Only then would the EU have been able to establish a defense policy and military defense capabilities suited to its own interests rather than those of the US. What threats were there to Europe’s security to justify NATO’s interventions in Serbia (1999), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2004) or Libya (2011)? Will it be possible, after all this, to go on calling NATO a defensive organization?
By Boaventura de Sousa Santos is the Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Coimbra (Portugal). His most recent book is Decolonising the University: The Challenge of Deep Cognitive Justice. (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021).
Independent Media Institute
Zelensky Visits Wounded Soldiers at Hospital
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited wounded Ukrainian soldiers in a hospital Sunday.
What they’re saying: Zelensky awarded the “defenders of Ukraine” with medals for their courage and wished them a speedy recovery, per the country’s government. The soldiers had been fighting in the Kyiv region before they were wounded.
- “I believe that the best gift for your statement will be our common victory,” Zelensky said, per Ukraine’s Defense Ministry.
The big picture: Zelensky’s visit came on the 18th day of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
- Ukrainian officials earlier Sunday announced that a barrage of Russian airstrikes on a military facility in western Ukraine had killed at least 35 people and injured 134. It was the westernmost point of attack in the war thus far.
- Russian forces have also continued their siege on the port city of Mariupol and have come within roughly 15 miles of the capital, Kyiv.
What they’re saying: “The Russian invaders cannot conquer us. They do not have such strength. They do not have such spirit,” Zelensky said in a late-night video address on Saturday.
- By invading Ukraine, Russia has turned itself into a “large area isolated from the rest of the world. Where poverty will reign. Where everything will be determined only by violence.”
Putin Agrees to Idea of Sending Foreign Volunteers to Ukraine
Russian forces, as well as the militias of Donbass continue to advance amid the special military operation in Ukraine. President Putin stated that the goal of the operation is to ensure the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine.
The Russian president stated that volunteers who want to help Russia in Ukraine should be assisted in reaching the area of combat operations.
“If you see people who want – on a voluntary basis, especially not for money – to come and help people living in the Donbass – well, you need to cooperate with them and help them move to the war zone”, Putin stated during a National Security Council meeting.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu noted that there is a vast number of people who want to help the DPR and LPR in the special operation – over 16,000, with many of them coming from the Middle East.
Commenting on the statement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov underlined that the minister specifically meant foreign volunteers, and that he has no information about any plans to attract Russian citizens.
At the same time, Putin stressed that the Kiev regime’s “western sponsors” are actively gathering mercenaries and do not even try to conceal their activity, blatantly neglecting the norms of international law.
The preisdent also approved an idea put forward by Shoigu, suggesting that western-made weapons (small arms, tanks, anti-tank guided missiles and man-portable air-defence systems) seized in Ukraine should be transferred to the troops of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics.
Meanwhile, Shoigu noted that the West is boosting its military presence near Russian territory.
“The General Staff is developing and has practically completed a plan to strengthen our western borders, including, of course, those new, modern complexes, and to move combat units there to protect our western borders”, Shoigu said.
The news comes as Russian forces and the Donbass militias are advancing in Ukraine amid the special military operation, launched on 24 February. Moscow noted that the operation was started in order to protect the people of Donbass, who were suffering from attacks by Kiev’s forces, and noted that the goal of the operation is the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine.
The Russian forces have been targeting Ukrainian military infrastructure with precision weapons: the MoD stated that a total of 3,213 Ukrainian military objects have been eliminated since the beginning of the operation.
The list of destroyed Ukrainian vehicles includes “98 aircraft, 118 unmanned aerial vehicles, 1,041 tanks and other armoured combat vehicles, 113 multiple launch rocket systems, 389 field artillery guns and mortars, as well as 843 units of special military vehicles”, according to an official statement.
Russia Asks for UN Security Council Meeting Over Ukraine’s ‘Biolabs’
Moscow claims Washington has funded and curated alleged bioweapons programs in Ukraine
Russia has called for a UN Security Council meeting to discuss purported US-backed biological weapons programs in Ukraine. Washington has denied that it owns or operates any such biolabs in the country, while Kiev insisted that the facilities were engaged only in civilian research.
Moscow’s deputy UN envoy Dmitry Polyanskiy announced the move early on Friday, saying the mission had requested a Security Council summit for March 11, while citing a Defense Ministry briefing claiming that the United States and NATO allies ran “military biological programs” in Ukraine.
— Dmitry Polyanskiy (@Dpol_un) March 10, 2022
The military briefing went on to claim that the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency is “financing and conducting military biological research on the territory of Ukraine,” citing documents it said it captured at several facilities during Russia’s ongoing attack on the country. Among other activities, the ministry said research was carried out at laboratories in Kiev, Kharkov and Odessa to “study the possibility of the spread of particularly dangerous infections through migrating birds.”
Washington, however, has rejected those charges, with State Department spokesperson Ned Price telling reporters on Wednesday that the US is “in full compliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention, and it does not develop or possess such weapons anywhere.”
Instead, Price argued it was Russia that has been operating “active chemical and biological weapons programs,” though he did not elaborate or provide evidence for the counter-accusation.
Other US officials have offered varying responses to Russia’s claims. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, for example, told lawmakers on Tuesday that Ukraine does, in fact, have “biological research facilities,” voicing concerns that “Russian forces may be seeking to gain control of” hazardous materials from those labs. She stopped short of confirming any American role at the facilities, however, and did not go into details about what kind of work had been done.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has also weighed in on the issue, saying that any biolabs in his country have no military dimension and are “focused on civilian science.” He claimed that most of the facilities have been around since the Soviet era.
“Neither chemical weapons nor other weapons of mass destruction are being developed on our soil,” he said on Friday.
EU Leaders Rule on Fast-Tracked Membership for Ukraine
Assessment of Kiev’s bid to join the bloc will take “months, maybe years,” the Dutch prime minister says
The EU has condemned the Russian offensive and pledged its support to Ukraine on its path to European Union membership, but stopped short of fast-tracking its application to join the bloc.
Kiev submitted its EU application in late February, with President Volodymyr Zelensky asking Brussels to accelerate its assessment of the bid in view of the ongoing fighting in his country.
The bloc’s leaders debated the issue for hours on the first day of the European Council summit, convened at the Palace of Versailles, outside Paris, issuing a joint statement late on Friday.
They condemned what they described as Russia’s “unprovoked and unjustified military aggression” against its neighbor, and demanded Moscow “immediately and unconditionally” withdraw its forces from Ukrainian territory.
Council members pledged to “continue to provide coordinated political, financial, material, and humanitarian support” to Kiev.
As for fast-tracked EU membership, they “acknowledged the European aspirations and the European choice of Ukraine,” and said the European Council had acted “swiftly” in passing Kiev’s bid to the European Commission to elicit its opinion.
However, this is just the first step in what is a lengthy bureaucratic process to join the EU, with the statement containing no hints that Ukraine would be allowed to take any shortcuts along the route.
In a press briefing after the summit, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte clarified that the assessment of Kiev’s bid by the commission would take time – “months, maybe years.” Brussels had nonetheless been treating the application with unprecedented speed, he said.
Despite calling the Ukrainian people “heroic,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda acknowledged that it was “impossible to grant EU candidate status to Ukraine today.”
“We were divided,” Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa said of the summit. The majority of the bloc’s leaders agreed that the Ukrainians needed a “strong political message that they belong to our European family,” but there were also many among the delegates who were “still debating the procedures” by which that might be enacted, he added.
Moscow attacked its neighbor in late February, following a seven-year standoff over Ukraine’s failure to implement the terms of the Minsk agreements, and Russia’s eventual recognition of the Donbass republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. German- and French-brokered proposals had attempted to regularize the status of those regions within the Ukrainian state.
Russia has demanded that Ukraine officially declare itself a neutral country that will never join the US-led NATO military bloc. Kiev insists the Russian offensive was completely unprovoked and has denied claims it was planning to retake the two republics by force.
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