US policy toward Ukraine in the remaining years of the Obama presidency

[The following is an expanded version of a talk I gave at the Kyiv School of Economics on October 22, 2014.]

I started a blog earlier this year, the intent of which is to try to predict major developments in post-Soviet space, including of course in Ukraine – so the emphasis is on what I think will happen, not what I want to happen. That’s the spirit of my talk today as well: I’m going to tell you what I think U.S. policy will be toward Ukraine in the remaining years of the Obama presidency, not what I think it should be. I will focus first on domestic development in the U.S., because domestic political factors inevitably influence a president’s foreign policy. I will then turn to U.S. policy toward Ukraine, beginning with some general points and then addressing the particular issues shown in Slide 1. Continue reading

Eastern Ukraine: A slow and painful freezing of a not-yet-frozen conflict

The strategic situation in eastern Ukraine is little changed from where it was on September 5 when the “ceasefire” was announced. A line of control has yet to be agreed to, and while the level of violence is much lower than it was over the summer, fighting continues, particularly in Schastiya (north of Luhansk), Debaltseve (a strategic crossroads between Luhansk and Donetsk), and in and around the international airport in Donetsk. Continue reading

Ukraine and the War of Recessions

The “ceasefire” in eastern Ukraine is still very precarious, but at some point we may see a stabilization of the military standoff, after which the crisis in Ukraine will likely enter a new phase in which economic war replaces actual war as the main instrument of contestation. If so, we are very likely to witness a costly and prolonged game of beggar-thy-neighbor economic policies between Russia and the West. In my previous post, I argued that the Russian economy is in serious trouble, and that in the long run Russia is unlikely to win this game. But the game is going to be painful for all parties – first and foremost for Ukraine, but also for Western Europe and even, to a limited extent, the United States.

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Why the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine is unlikely to hold

We are closer than we were a week ago to a military balance in eastern Ukraine that could allow for a ceasefire to take hold, assuming that a ceasefire is what Kyiv and Moscow want, but I do not believe we are there yet. The problem is that the current disposition of forces is not conducive to an end to the fighting. Continue reading

Whither the Russian/pro-Russian offensive?

My view is that Ukraine has lost sovereignty over at least part of the Donbas for the foreseeable future. Its forces are retreating from multiple battlegrounds, including the Luhansk airport, and they appear to be on the verge of losing control of the Donetsk airport. It is still possible that Russia will decide to launch a full-scale assault on the Ukrainian military in an effort to destroy its war fighting capabilities (the shock and awe option), but I think that is unlikely. It is also possible that the Russians/pro-Russians will press forward in the south, along the Sea of Azov, in an effort to establish a land corridor to Crimea. But at the least it is clear that the offensive is directed at driving the Ukrainians back from the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk roughly to the defensive line suggested by the Ukraine@War blog discussed earlier, and perhaps beyond.

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Reflections on Russia’s military objectives in Ukraine

I suspect that yesterday will go down as the day that a war to suppress separatists in eastern Ukraine became the first “Russo-Ukrainian War.” It is now clear that regular Russian military units are fighting alongside Ukrainian separatists and Russian irregulars (“military tourists,” many of whom have received training at a base near Rostov). Over the past several weeks, it appears the Russian irregulars have begun to outnumber Ukrainian separatists among the combatants. They have now been joined by growing numbers of Russian regulars, including elite special-forces (Spetsnaz) units – the “Polite Little Green Men” who were so effective in taking control of Crimea in February and early March. US intelligence sources claimed today that at least 1,000 Russian soldiers are now in Ukraine, and informally American officials are telling reporters that figure is probably more like 2,000 or more. Continue reading

What Putin may offer Poroshenko in Minsk

There are more indications today that Russia is ramping up military pressure on Ukraine and that its slow-drip invasion may accelerate if an agreement is not reached in Minsk tomorrow. There are multiple reports that a column of 40 or more armored vehicles has broken through the border near Novoazovsk in the south of Donetsk oblast and are headed toward Mariupol, Ukraine’s primary port on the Sea of Azov. Continue reading

Why a political solution in eastern Ukraine is unlikely until there is a military solution

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin are scheduled to meet on Tuesday in Minsk, Belarus, to discuss a possible political solution to the violent uprisings in eastern Ukraine. Unfortunately, I think the likelihood of success in Minsk– that is, an agreement that brings an end to the fighting and sets the stage for a political settlement with the separatists – is very low. Continue reading

What happens if Russia does not invade Ukraine?

Although pro-Russian fighters and armaments continue to cross the border from Russia into Ukraine, and the intensity of the fighting in eastern Ukraine has increased, the Ukrainian offensive has continued to make progress. Ukrainian forces appear to be on the verge of taking Horlivka, have entered central Luhansk, and are pressing in on Donetsk. Whatever unified political and military leadership there was among the separatists also appears to have collapsed.

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Whither the convoy? A fateful decision for Putin and his advisors

The humanitarian convoy that left the suburbs on Moscow on Tuesday did not, as expected, continue down the M2 highway straight for the border crossing to the north of Kharkiv. Instead, it took a left turn in Tula and proceeded on to Voronezh, where it has remained since. From Voronezh, if the intent is to deliver aid to Luhansk, it can either head southwest toward the Shebekino crossing near Kharkiv, or it can head south toward the border crossings in eastern Luhansk oblast that are still controlled by the separatists (see map). Continue reading

Reflections on four months of blogging

I started this blog four months ago because I wanted to contribute to the public debate over the unfolding drama in Ukraine. I had given a number lectures and interviews on the crisis, and had written two opinion pieces, but events were unfolding very fast and I wanted a way to contribute quickly and frequently, so I decided to try my hand at a blog.

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Russia’s Ukraine policy: A strategic mistake made worse by tactical blunders

I have been convinced since last fall that Russia’s policies toward Ukraine would ultimately backfire. Assuming that the Kremlin’s goal was to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence, it was a mistake to have been so heavy-handed in pressuring Kyiv to reject the EU association agreement last November.

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How will Russia react to Ukraine’s battlefield successes?

Ukraine’s armed forces continue to make significant progress on the battlefield. Rather than trying to take Donetsk and Luhansk immediately, they are pressing down from the north between the two cities in an apparent attempt to cut off supply lines between the two cities and from Russia to Donetsk. (Surrounding Luhansk will be more difficult because the city is so close to the Russian border.)

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The Ukrainian and North Caucasus insurgencies compared

The violent uprisings in eastern Ukraine differ from the insurgency that has been underway in the North Caucasus since the early 1990s in many ways – the mobilizing ideologies of the resistance movements are different, the terrain is different, the social context is different, the geopolitical implications are obviously very different, and so on. There are three differences, however, that strike me as particularly noteworthy: (1) the greater firepower of the Ukrainian insurgents; (2) the extent of media coverage; and (3) technological changes (the internet, digital cameras, smart phones, and social media) that account for what I will call the “crowdsourcing of intelligence” in the Ukrainian uprisings.

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The implications of the downing of two Ukrainian SU-25s today

The Ukrainian government has announced, and there is video evidence and journalist reports confirming, that two Ukrainian SU-25s were brought down in the vicinity of the crash site of MH-17. The fighters came down around five miles from the Russian border near the town of Dmytrivka (see The New York Times map on its Ukraine Crisis in Maps page). According to the spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense and Security Council, Andrey Lysenko, the planes were flying at an altitude of 5,200 meters (a little over 17,000 feet). Continue reading

No quiet on the eastern front: The battle for Donetsk commences

It appears that the battle for Donetsk has begun and that the war in eastern Ukraine is coming to a decisive head. My guess is that Kyiv has decided to take advantage of the downing of MH-17 by pressing ahead with its offensive against the rebels and will try to defeat them decisively in their stronghold, the city of Donetsk.  Continue reading

The Kremlin between a rock and a hard place in Ukraine

It is sometimes said that the Kremlin’s goal in Ukraine is either the country’s decentralization or federalization. That, in my view, is incorrect. The Kremlin could care less about whether a regional legislature in western Ukraine is competitively elected, selects a regional governor independently of Kyiv, raises taxes independently, or spends money independently. Nor does the Kremlin care particularly about the treatment of ethnic Russians or Russophones in Ukraine (although, thanks in no small part to Russian state propaganda, a great many Russians are genuinely outraged by the fate of their “compatriots” at the hands of the “fascist junta” in Kyiv). For the Kremlin, decentralization, federalization, or language rights are means to an end, not ends in themselves. That end, I remain convinced, is keeping Ukraine out of the Western institutional order in general, out of the EU in particular, and out of NATO above all because of the perceived threat the alliance poses to Russian national security. Continue reading