President Vladimir Putin said on Monday Russia is sending an aid convoy to eastern Ukraine despite urgent Western warnings against using humanitarian help as a pretext for an invasion.
With Ukraine reporting Russia has massed 45,000 troops on its border, NATO said there was a “high probability” that Moscow could intervene militarily in the country’s east, where Kiev’s forces are closing in on pro-Russian separatists.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said there was no sign Russia had withdrawn the troops it had massed at the Ukrainian frontier. Asked in a Reuters interview how he rated the chances of Russian military intervention, Rasmussen said: “There is a high probability.“
“We see the Russians developing the narrative and the pretext for such an operation under the guise of a humanitarian operation, and we see a military build-up that could be used to conduct such illegal military operations in Ukraine,” he said.
Kiev put the size of the Russian forces much higher. “As of 11 o’clock today, about 45,000 troops of the armed forces and internal forces of the Russian Federation are concentrated in border areas,” Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told a briefing.
He said they were supported by 160 tanks, 1,360 armoured vehicles, 390 artillery systems, up to 150 Grad missile launchers, 192 fighter aircraft and 137 attack helicopters.
–Adrian Croft and Sergei Karpukhin (Brussels/Donetsk), “Russia sending aid convoy to Ukraine despite Western warnings of ‘invasion pretext’,” Reuters, August 11, 2014 (3:48pm EDT).
Obviously, Russia has prepared to do much more in the eastern Ukraine than to provide “humanitarian assistance”.
If one looks broadly at all Russian actions over the last week or two (or since the run-up to the invasion of the Crimea in February), it is clear that Vladimir Putin is engaged in a strategy leading to military intervention in the eastern Ukraine under the pretext of providing “humanitarian assistance” to the population of the Donbas (Russian: Donbass) or Donets Basin region.
The humanitarian situation is critical, to be sure. But, as the leaders of many nations have pointed out, it is being caused by so-called “separatists” who are in fact part of a Moscow-directed invasion of irregular forces which has received an ongoing influx of military forces (mercenaries, “volunteers” organized by Moscow, and special operations forces), military equipment and supplies, and advanced air defense systems, including the “”Buk” or SA-11 system that shot down a Malaysian civilian airliner, Flight MH17, on July 17, 2014.
The guiding hand of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation behind all of these events, and all of the fighting in the eastern Ukraine, has been clear for all to see. One need only “connect the dots”, and relate disparate events and developments to each other.
Russian war propaganda seeks to distract attention from the overwhelming body of evidence supporting this interpretation, by drawing attention to this or that dispute over this or that fact or particular event.
Yet for all who have eyes to see, it is obvious that the solution to the humanitarian crisis in the Donbas is for Russia to direct its irregular agents in that region to stop fighting, and to lay down their arms in the Russian-instigated insurrection underway against the legitimate territorial sovereign of that territory.
Ukrainian President Petro Petroshenko, it should be recalled, won a majority of the votes in the May 25 presidential elections not only in the Ukraine as a whole, but also a majority in the eastern Ukraine (wherever the opening of polling stations was not prevented by the so-called “separatists”).
At this hour, with 20,000-45,000 combat-ready Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border, with all of the equipment necessary for an invasion, Russia is now pressing to furnish “humanitarian assistance” to the people of the Donbas.
The help is needed, but having the Russians supply it is like having the fox in the chicken coop provide first-aid to the chickens he has not yet eaten.
It is not hard to imagine how Russia could use an international “humanitarian assistance” program as a pretext form an invasion.
Russia could say that while they supported the international relief effort, it was forced to supply its own humanitarian aid due to: 1) the delaying tactics of the Western powers, which made timely delivery of the assistance impossible; 2) the insuffient assistance provided by the international effort, which required additional Russian convoys of aid necessary in order to make up the difference between the urgent humanitarian requirements and the aid that was actually reaching the target population; or 3) Ukrainian failure to cease military activities in order to allow the aid the reach target populations.
Putin has in the last few days been talking to a variety of actors, including EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. In the past, Putin has shown that he is a master of playing Western leaders off one against the other, and taking immediate and direct advantage of the resulting confusion by creating new facts on the ground.
Russia’s strategy appears to be to intervene militarily to prevent the defeat of the so-called “separatists” in Luhansk and Donetsk, and with the overt presence of Russian troops on the ground in the eastern Ukraine to create new “facts on the ground” that would require a negotiated cease-fire, and a “solution” to the crisis that would freeze the conflict in place in the Ukraine.
This would directly further Russian objectives of preventing Ukrainian accession to the EU, and eventual Ukrainian membership in NATO.
The strategic logic of the situation, from the current Russian point of view, requires military intervention in the eastern Ukraine under the pretext of “humanitarian intervention”. All of Russia’s actions in the last week, from preparing troops for a “humanitarian mission” to diplomatic efforts (from the emergency Security Council meetng called at Russia’s request on Tuesday, August 6, to efforts at the Shanghei Cooperation Council meeting a few days ago and bilateral meetings with China) point in the direction of there being a well-orchestrated plan to prepare for and execute a military intervention in the Ukraine.
Before Putin creates new facts on the ground, NATO, the EU and the United States need to create facts on the ground of their own.
One possibility would be to organize an immediate NATO mission to provide humanitarian assistance to the Donbas through airlifts and the furnishing of supplies through territory controlled by Kiev. This mission could be conducted directly, or organized under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The Old KGB Playbook: The Guns of August 1968 and of August 2014
The timing for a Russian invasion is excellent, with U.S. and European leaders typically on vacation during the month of August.
The Soviet Union used the old KGB playbook, when after many feints and apparently conciliatory moves, it and other Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia and overthrew the independent communist government of Alexander Dubček and Ludvik Svoboda on August 20, 1968.
Nearing the 46th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia under Leonid Brezhnev, former KGB operative and current Russian President Vladimir Putin appears determined to write a new chapter in the KGB playbook by invading the Ukraine with regular forces in the next few days or weeks.
President Obama is on vacation for two weeks on Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts. European leaders–and their assistants and staff–are also going on vacation. Having recently imposed some of the much-touted “stage 3” sanctions on Russia, European leaders are not focused on the immediate adoption of really hard measures to deter Putin from a new act of military aggression.
The timing for a Russian invasion of the Ukraine by regular forces couldn’t be better.
Only if the West can be roused from its slumber, and very, very quickly, can the day be saved.
The Trenchant Observer