A fog of war in the Donbas

It remains very difficult to assess what is happening on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine amidst a great often deal of contradictory information. What is clear is that the intensity of fighting has escalated and that it is spreading and getting worse rather than abating. Of particular concern are offensive operations by the separatists along the Bakhmutka highway to the northwest of Luhansk and indeed an escalation of fighting at many points along the northern front. Continue reading

The battle for the Donetsk airport takes an unexpected turn (and why alarm bells should be going off in Western capitals)

Twenty-four hours ago, it appeared that the Donbas separatists were about to take full control of the Donetsk airport after months of often intense fighting. There was also increasing separatist pressure on Ukrainian forces all along the line of contact, particularly in the northern part of the conflict zone, as shown below on yesterday’s map from the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council’s press center. I have not been following military developments in the conflict zone very carefully recently, but my guess was that the separatists, with material and intelligence support from Moscow, were setting up to launch a major offensive against Ukrainian forces in the Debaltseve salient after taking the airport. I also thought there was a chance that Ukrainian forces would again be trapped in the salient, just as they had been in August in Ilovai’sk, and that they would again suffer heavy losses.

While information from the conflict zone is confused, it seems clear that the Ukrainian military launched a surprise counteroffensive yesterday and that it has managed to retake at least part of the airport. Continue reading

The Ukraine crisis in 2015

The Ukraine crisis is a complex drama with multiple dimensions, theaters and actors, which makes tracking, explaining, and predicting where it is headed particularly difficult. Its various parts are, however, interrelated, so while each dimension is important in its own right, it also impacts, and is impacted by, the others.

In what follows, I disaggregate the crisis to five dimensions and offer my take on what is likely to happen in each in 2015. In doing so, I will try to take into account the crisis’ “systemic” properties – that is, how the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone. Continue reading

Original Sin: The Clinton’s administration’s commitment to NATO enlargement

I’ve been working on a paper on NATO enlargement that is supposed to appear in February, and when it does I’ll post a link to it. Meanwhile, I want to emphasize a few broad points about the policy.

First, while there has been a good deal of discussion recently about what Western officials “promised” Gorbachev about NATO during negotiations over German reunification, the key decisions about enlargement were made after the Soviet dissolution by the Clinton administration, not the George H.W. Bush administration. What is true is that a commitment to preserve NATO as the foundation of Western security was made under Bush I, and as far as I know that commitment was supported by all NATO member-states at the time (see the 1990 London NATO Summit Declaration). The decision to enlarge NATO to take in new members other than a united Germany was made gradually, and without a lot of fanfare, by the Clinton administration over the course of 1993 and 1994. Continue reading

Thoughts on a post-Ukraine crisis security settlement for Europe

It would be foolish for Western governments to count on changes in Russia’s position on NATO enlargement and force disposition in the foreseeable future, regardless of whether Putin remains in office. It would likewise be foolish for Moscow to count on brinkmanship and intimidation to keep NATO from reinforcing its eastern flank under current circumstance. Nonetheless, it is incumbent upon Western and Russian leaders to make what is now a dangerous and unstable military standoff less unstable and less dangerous. Doing so is in the interest of both sides, and it is also the most likely path toward a gradual improvement in political relations. Continue reading

The War of Recessions gets worse

The ruble closed today at just under 70 to the dollar, down 13% after falling some 10% yesterday. At one point it fell below 80 to the dollar, down almost 20%. It has now overtaken the hryvnia as the world’s worst performing currency this year. Continue reading

US-Russia Relations and the Ukraine Crisis

[Expanded and updated version of a talk given at UC Berkeley, December 2, 2014.]

I have long been an alarmist about US-Russia relations. While the relationship has seen its ups and downs, I believe the trend has been decidedly negative since the mid-1990s. I’ve also long worried about a possible clash with Russia over NATO expansion, and particularly so after the Bush Administration decided to press – albeit unsuccessfully – America’s NATO allies to offer Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plans at the March 2008 Bucharest NATO summit. Continue reading

Ukraine and the Game of Thrones: Winter is Coming (Part 3: The Donbas)

Not surprisingly given the effects of war, conditions for the civilian population in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) are much worse than in Crimea. If the fighting continues, and if Moscow does not undertake a sustained commitment to provide humanitarian relief to the region, those conditions are likely to get much worse over the winter. Continue reading

Ukraine and the Game of Thrones: Winter is Coming (Part 2: Crimea)

My impression is that the effect of Russia’s annexation on material conditions in Crimea (by which I mean Crimea proper as well as Sevastopol) has been negative but not dire, at least to date. Subsides from Moscow have increased pensions and wages for government workers, but this reportedly is benefiting only about 40% of the peninsula’s two million people. Moscow is also funding some 75% of the region’s government budget (to the tune of at least $1.5 billion per year), an even higher percentage than the roughly 66% Kyiv covered before annexation. (I should note that all of the dollar estimates in what follows were made before the full extent of the ruble’s decline, which means that in dollar terms costs will be higher.)

This year, Russian officials have indicated that Moscow will provide some $4.5 billion to Crimea. They have also announced that some $7.2 billion will be taken out of the Russian pension fund to help cover the costs of annexation. These commitments are obviously yet one more burden on an already burdened federal budget, but they have helped ameliorate, albeit not negate, financial hardships for much of the region’s population. Continue reading

Ukraine and the Game of Thrones: Winter is Coming (Part 1: Introduction)

As the crisis in Ukraine intensified late last year, analysts pointed to an asymmetry in the struggle between Russia and the West over Ukraine’s external orientation. The Kremlin, the argument went, cares a great deal more about keeping Ukraine in its orbit than does either the European Union or the United States. That was certainly true then, and although it is rather less true now that Western governments feel fundamental principles and security are at stake, it is still mostly true. Continue reading

Why the Ukraine crisis is getting even more dangerous

It is safe to say that I have been an alarmist about the conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine’s external orientation (my wife tells me I should call this the “Doom and Gloom” blog). I have been worried for years that NATO and EU expansion was going to lead eventually to a security crisis. I was worried about the consequences of Georgia and Ukraine trying to join NATO well before the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, and even more worried thereafter. And I was worried about the political fallout from the decision to offer Ukraine an EU Association Agreement in Vilnius at the end of last year and Russia’s reaction should the Yanukovich regime fall. Continue reading

Why a “frozen conflict” in eastern Ukraine is unlikely

As readers of this blog are aware, I believe that Moscow’s Ukraine policy has been driven primarily by geopolitical concerns rather than fear of democratic contagion. Above all, the Kremlin has been, and remains, determined to keep Ukraine out of NATO. It is only slightly less determined to keep Ukraine out of the European Union and to prevent NATO from building up its eastern defenses. And it probably still hopes that Ukraine can eventually be persuaded, or forced, to cast its lot with Russia rather than with Europe and the Atlantic Alliance.

At the same time, the Kremlin has made clear that it will pursue its strategic objectives in Ukraine using all means at its disposal short of war with the West. It has also made clear that it has a high tolerance for risk.

What is not clear, however, is how the Kremlin’s strategic objectives and tactics are linked. Continue reading

Ukraine: Lessons learned from other “frozen conflicts” in the Soviet successor states

[The following is an expanded version of a talk I gave at the VoxUkraine Club, Kyiv, October 23.]


Four constants

  1. None of the conflicts has been resolved peacefully
  2. Each “parent state” has lost all de facto sovereignty over the breakaway region
  3. In no case has the international community been successful in mediating a political settlement
  4. In no case has there been significant repatriation of internally displaced persons

Three variables that don’t vary much

  1. All the breakaway regions are doing poorly economically, with some variation
  2. All the breakaway states are dependent on external patron states, with some variation
  3. All the breakaway states have a “stateness” problem, with some variation

Four importantly varying variables

  1. The “resolution” of the Chechen case
  2. The cultural-political distance between the contending parties
  3. Public determination in the parent state to retake the lost territories
  4. The extent of cooperation between the parent state and the breakaway state

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in perspective

I am not an economic determinist, at least in the sense that I don’t assume that people are motivated by lucre alone. I do not believe, for example, that economic factors, deeply rooted or otherwise, are always the “real” cause of war. And economic factors only sometimes account for the outcome of wars, as Americans were reminded in Vietnam.

I do believe, however, that what the Soviets used to call the “correlation of forces” – that is, the dynamics of the global balance of power – is driven primarily by economic factors. Size matters, geography matters, culture matters, institutions matter, but economic performance matters most (even if economic performance is partially or largely a product of any or all of the former).

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading