Putin’s real end game in Ukraine

Rick Francona
Sat July 26, 2014

Editor’s note: Rick Francona is a retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer and CNN military analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) — CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr reported Thursday that the U.S. intelligence community has information that Russian artillery is firing into eastern Ukraine. The artillery pieces shown in the released footage are Russian M-46 130mm field guns with a range of a little over 16 miles.

Why would the Russians do this? Simple — this fits into their plan to support pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The end game? I believe it is the eventual absorption of that region into the Russian Federation.


The area in red on the map is where much of the fighting between the Ukrainian government and the pro-Russian rebels has been occurring over the last month. The separatists have downed several Ukrainian military aircraft in this area as the fighting raged. It is also the area in which Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in what most of us believe was a tragic case of mistaken identity and inept use of modern weaponry.

Over the past month, the Ukrainians have been successful in pushing the rebels into a pocket near the Russian border. One of the key weapons used by the Ukrainians is the Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack/close air support jet fighter. It is heavily armed and armored, meant to fly low and attack personnel and vehicles with a variety of weapons. Flying low makes it vulnerable to ground fire, however, especially shoulder-launched MANPADS, which are the heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles in the rebels’ arsenal (also supplied by the Russians).

To address some of the vulnerability to ground fire, pilots can fly higher than the effective ranges of MANPADS.

Defending against these higher-flying aircraft requires a more advanced and capable air defense system — like the SA-11 (called the "Buk" system by the Russians). From a variety of reports, it appears that the Russians provided a Buk transporter-erector-launcher-and-radar (TELAR) to the separatists. There is footage of an SA-11 TELAR being moved from this contested area toward the Russian border immediately after MH17 was shot down.

Just three days before, on June 14, the rebels shot down a Ukrainian military Antonov An-26 twin-turboprop cargo aircraft flying at an altitude of 21,000 feet. Since this altitude is significantly above the range of the MANPADS in either the Ukrainian or rebel arsenal, the obvious conclusion is that it was downed with a more capable system: the SA-11 system supplied by the Russians.

That event alone should have set off alarm bells in the civil aviation community. The downing of any aircraft operating at that altitude presented a different threat scenario than would an area in which shoulder-fired missiles were the only threat to aviation.

The subsequent — and I believe mistaken — downing of MH17 forced the rebels and their Russian sponsors to remove the SA-11 system from eastern Ukraine, although it is obvious to most observers what had happened.

Without the improved air defense umbrella provided by the SA-11, the separatists found themselves again subject to effective Ukrainian air strikes. On Wednesday, two Ukrainian Su-25 fighters were shot down while operating at an altitude of 17,000 feet — just above the range of MANPADS, yet still at an altitude to deliver munitions with a degree of accuracy.

The Ukrainians believe the aircraft were downed with SA-11 missiles, but this time fired from inside Russian territory. The SA-11 has enough range to reach not only that altitude, but more than 20 miles into Ukrainian territory.

In a further development, on Thursday it appeared that the Russians had also begun fire support for the rebels, firing artillery from inside Russian territory into eastern Ukraine. While the M-46 130mm field gun seen in the photos can reach out to about 16 miles, the Russians have other systems that can reach as far as 25 miles or more.

This represents a significant change in the situation between Russia and Ukraine. Providing material support — the money, weapons and training required to mount an effective insurgency — to groups in foreign countries is a recognized method of assisting groups that are either carrying out your wishes or are furthering a foreign policy objective. We have done it routinely. Afghanistan is a prime example.

Firing artillery rounds into another sovereign nation with whom you are not at war is another matter entirely. This would be an act of war, yes, but it underscores just how seriously the Russians (read: President Vladimir Putin) view the survival of the pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine and their hopes that their continued fighting will achieve a key foreign policy objective.

Putin believes these rebels are his ticket to gradually acquiring eastern Ukraine without a Russian military invasion. This use of artillery in the midst of the international furor over the MH17 incident demonstrates his seriousness.

On Friday, the Ukrainians reportedly responded to the Russian artillery fire with mortar fire across the Russian border. This represents a significant escalation of the tensions along that border — what was once an internal (albeit externally supported) conflict between Ukrainian nationals and pro-Russian separatists now has the trappings of a cross-border fight between two sovereign nations, one of which has immensely greater military power.

Both sides are calculating their next moves. From the Russian perspective, with its approximately 15,000 troops deployed along the border, this artillery fire is logical and almost obligatory support for ethnic Russians who they believe would rather be part of the Russian Federation.

From the Ukrainian perspective, this is Russian meddling in their internal affairs. Military action from the Russian side will draw a Ukrainian armed response. This is understandable, but the Ukrainians need to ensure that they are not playing into Vladimir Putin’s game plan. At some point, the Russians may declare that they need to intervene to protect "Russian nationals in eastern Ukraine."

Sound far-fetched? Remember Crimea.




Putin’s complicated game in Ukraine
Bridget Kendall, Diplomatic correspondent
BBC News | 25 June 2014

What is President Putin up to?

Roll back to late March: President Putin had annexed Crimea while denying Russian troops were involved.

He had put tens of thousands of Russian troops on high alert near Ukraine’s border. He was insisting Viktor Yanukovych was still the rightful Ukrainian president even though he had absconded.

He was castigating the new Kiev government as illegitimate and neo-fascist, and rejecting Kiev’s plan for early elections.

And he was warning that if Russian speakers in what he claimed were historically Russian lands in Ukraine were threatened, he might use the authority granted him by the Russian parliament to send his troops in.

His position was one of apparent strength and he was milking the opportunity to demonstrate Russia’s clout.

Three months on the picture looks rather different. President Putin’s position has shifted – so where does he stand now?

About turn

He has contradicted himself by admitting that Russian troops were in fact involved in taking over Crimea and even honoured some of them with medals, although he continues to deny Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine.

He has stopped calling the Kiev government illegal, recognised Ukraine’s new President, Petro Poroshenko, and engaged with him on peace negotiations.

And despite their repeated calls for help, he has not acted on his chilling threat to order a full-blown invasion of eastern Ukraine to aid pro-Moscow rebels. He has not even backed their secessionist moves – either their May referendums, or their proclamations of self styled republics since.

Instead, Russian troops near Ukraine’s border have been ordered back to barracks (though the Americans say some build up may still be going on).

He has even unexpectedly asked the Russian parliament to rescind his authority to invade Ukraine if necessary.

It looks as though, having secured Crimea, President Putin has calculated he has gone as far as he can without bearing too much cost, and the time has come to offer gestures of conciliation, to wind the crisis down.

So is that indeed what is happening? Or is Mr Putin playing a more complicated game?

To many western leaders, Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 now looks part of a pattern

Lessons learned

Well, he has some good reasons to back off. His retaking of Crimea was popular in Russia in part because it looked so painless: a simple bloodless transfer of power.

But eastern Ukraine is different. It is a bloody, murky conflict with mounting numbers of casualties and refugees. This is a war most Russians do not want to see and which they certainly do not want their sons involved in.

Mr Putin needs to cast himself as a peace envoy, not threaten invasion any more.

To add to that, the Ukraine government’s response has probably been tougher than Mr Putin expected. Having learnt a bitter lesson from Crimea that trying to avoid conflict can lead to territory being seized, President Poroshenko has ordered the army in, to push back at the rebels and negotiate a settlement from a position of relative strength.

And the West too has been more robust and less forgiving than perhaps Mr Putin expected, given what happened in 2008.

Then, Russia’s short war with Georgia ended after some EU leaders hurriedly brokered a peace deal which left two chunks – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – nominally independent but actually under Moscow’s thumb.

Mr Putin probably thought that once again EU leaders would weigh their economic interests and conclude that a damaging row with Russia was something they could not afford.

In fact, the experience of Georgia has had the opposite effect. It has made the annexation of Crimea look part of a pattern.

It has made some EU countries fear that Mr Putin plans might extend to seizing further territory. And this time they worry that the conflict is not far away in the Caucasus, but right on Europe’s – and Nato’s – doorstep. Hence the co-ordinated push on sanctions, currently still minimal, but which could become tougher in time.

And it seems that Western governments are no longer inclined to take Mr Putin at face value. Having concealed the use of Russian troops in Crimea, when he protests now that none of his troops are involved in Eastern Ukraine, he sounds disingenuous.

He is instead suspected of conducting another "maskirovka" – destabilizing part of Ukraine by stealth, through irregulars and volunteers who are nonetheless with their heavy weapons allowed free access across the Russian border, at the same time as he loudly appeals to Kiev to halt its advance.

Dodging both ways

So what happens now?

It may well depend on Mr Putin’s calculation about how far Russia and Russians are prepared to stomach further sanctions – and that is more complicated than it seems.

There appear to be two opposing schools of thought on this in Moscow.

On the one hand there are nationalists and conservatives – including many involved in defence and security – who see the West as hostile and unfriendly and welcome sanctions as a means to decouple from it.

On the other hand there are pro-Western liberals and reformers who believe a long term rift with the West would be disastrous for Russia’s economy.

Which side is Mr Putin on? I suspect his nationalist heart is with the anti-Westerners, but his pragmatic head may be with the economic reformers. And perhaps he will use that dichotomy to his advantage.

Years ago, in an interview with the BBC, his former judo instructor noted that one of Mr Putin’s particular skills in judo was his ability to dodge first to the right and then to the left, to keep his opponent guessing.

Possibly this is an apt metaphor for his style as a political tactician.

Maybe his strategy is to seek to ensure that all former Soviet republics are in the hands of rulers who feel beholden to Moscow and can be relied upon not act against its interests. This certainly looks like his overriding security vision.

But if that is not possible, then in the meantime, his tactic may be to keep these countries weak. How?

Well, in Ukraine’s case by on the one hand offering just enough apparent concessions to deter the West from imposing sanctions which would really start to bite, affect Russian living standards, and therefore his own popularity and chances of re-election in 2018.

But on the other hand, he may keep meddling in eastern Ukraine and anywhere else where he will not meet too much resistance, to reinforce his message – that Russia is a country and that he is a leader who is not to be trifled with and expects his viewpoint to be taken into account.



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