Thursday, October 13, 2022

A great and damning primer on recent history of Russia, Ukraine, NATO and the US.

Leonid Ragozin 

The suicidal culture of “podvig” (as in Aleksandr Matrosov’s kamikaze act) is driving this conflict now on both the Russian and the Ukrainian sides. It stems from the WWII trauma. I wonder if Zahorodniuk’s profiteering employers at the Atlantic Council realise this.

quote-tweeting Sergey Radchenko 

A controversial but clearly argued piece by @Andriypzag on Ukraine's military goals: Controversial because at one point he falls into the "better dead than red" line of argument e.g. here.

"Ukrainians would also fight on even if hit by a nuclear attack—for Ukrainians, there is no scenario worse than Russian occupation—so such a strike would not lead to Kyiv’s surrender." 

Ukrainian defense minister, Andriy Zagorodnyuk in Foreign Affairs: Ukraine's Path to Victory  


For context, Zahorodniuk left defence minister’s post on March 4, 2020 - same day as prime minister Honcharuk. Together they soon landed in the US and in the Atlantic Council during the election year devising a new hawkish strategy for resolving Ukrainian conflict.

This resulted in an abrupt change of tack in Zelensky’s policies the moment Biden entered office. It also resulted in Atlantic Council’s radical strategy for resolving the conflict which was published in March 2021, just before Putin started amassing troops at the border.

The link to the Atlantic Council brief is visible lower in the thread, but I'll add it here

"This resulted" Ragozin quote-tweets himself, from the middle of a thread from December 2021. 

Enter Biden. His White House takeover in Jan 2021 coincides with Zelensky’s radical change of tack with regards to Russia. Ukraine is suddenly proactive and assertive in the manner that suggests some pre-planning. Ex-PM Oleksiy Honcharuk’s posting to the US is of note here.

repeats. Honcharuk and Neo Nazis, and Arestovych in 2019,  hoping for a Russia NATO war. In a new interview, posted on his channel on October 4th, Arestovych says Ukrainians aren't afraid of nuclear war, and westerners are weak. 

Below is the thread Ragozin quotes. It's long. I like keeping things in text format, for myself if nothing else.

Over the next couple of days, I’ll be building up a THREAD aiming to recap main events which led up to this hair-raising standoff over Ukraine. It will start with a little preamble reflecting my understanding of the causes and then proceed as a timeline.

What we are observing today has two components. One is Biden’s administration attempting a more assertive policy towards Russia aimed at achieving tangible outcomes for Ukraine. The other is Putin’s easily predictable heavy-handed response and complete intransigence.

The often overlooked background of this story is the change of government in Germany and the unfinished Nord Stream 2 business, which is why Germany is the main target audience of the Russian invasion scare.

Key element here is the pledge in the July 21 US-German declaration, which Biden managed to extract from Merkel.
---image text:
efforts to use energy as a weapon. Should Russia  attempt to use energy as a weapon or commit  further aggressive acts against Ukraine, Germany  will take action at the national level and press for  effective measures at the European level, including  sanctions, to limit Russian export capabilities to Europe in the energy sector, including gas, and/or  in other economically relevant sectors. This commitment is designed to ensure that Russia will  not misuse any pipeline, including Nord Stream 2,  to achieve aggressive political ends by using energy  as a weapon.---

Until NS2 is up and running, the US and Ukraine will have a window of opportunity to advance on one of the three fronts - get concessions from Putin on key elements of Minsk, get Germany and others on board with regards to Ukraine’s NATO membership action plan or derail NS2.

Now for the timeline. I’ll begin with Putin-Zelensky Paris talks mediated by Merkel and Macron exactly two years ago, in Dec 2019. Their main result was the effective suspension of hostilities which lasted for just over a year.

America’s view on Putin-Zelensky talks is best described by a quote from the former ambassador in Kiev William Taylor in a recent WaPo article. 
---image text:Taylor recalls the warning he gave to Zelensky after he became Ukraine’s president in 2019, and was eager to negotiate a deal with Putin: “Don’t get sucked in.”---

Further progress in peace settlement was, however, derailed by the war party in Ukraine. Nationalist volunteer units took to entering grey zone villages, from which Ukrainian army was being withdrawn, and preventing the opening of new checkpoints on the line of impact.

Over 2020 Moscow grew visibly fatigued with Zelensky and eventually dismissed him as a negotiating partner because of his inability to rein in his own military, despite having a very broad mandate to end war by reaching compromise with the Kremlin from society.

In October 2020, Karabakh war broke out, in which Russian ally Armenia was defeated by Azerbaijan with no small help from NATO member Turkey. Instrumental in the Azeri success, Bayraktar drones instantly became the favourite toy among those advocating military solution in Donbas.

Here is a characteristic piece on the Atlantic Council website from the time, inspired by the Azeri win and suggesting that Minsk agreements should be ditched. Comes from a lobbyist consistently promoting anti-Zelensky party of war narratives in the US.

Meanwhile, Zelensky also started losing the trust of his own people. A landmark event happened at the very end of 2020, when the Russian-friendly OPZZh overcame Zelensky’s Servant of the People party in the polls. 

This is a very important point. Imagine you are Putin on Jan 1, 2021. All you need is stock up on popcorn and wait for the next election in Ukraine. Last thing you want is invasion. But only two months later, Russia would begin amassing troops at the UA border. What happened?

Now let’s recall that all through 2019 and 2020, on top of tackling Putin’s aggression and militant domestic opposition, Zelensky had to deal with a very difficult US president who tried to coerce him into meddling in U.S. election in order to destroy Joe Biden.

Enter Biden. His White House takeover in Jan 2021 coincides with Zelensky’s radical change of tack with regards to Russia. Ukraine is suddenly proactive and assertive in the manner that suggests some pre-planning. Ex-PM Oleksiy Honcharuk’s posting to the US is of note here.

Zelensky begins offensive on two fronts. One is against Viktor Medvedchuk, the oligarch behind OPZZh party, which came first in Dec polls.

On Feb 2, Zelensky ordered to shut down three TV channels associated with Medvedchuk. 
On Feb 20, he introduced personal sanctions against Medvedchuk and his associates.

Now Medvedchuk is correctly considered to be Putin’s man in Ukraine. After Ukraine’s military defeat in 2014-15, followed by Minsk agreement, he appeared to have been guaranteed immunity from prosecution and even played key role in peace talks on the Ukrainian side.

It would be fair to assume that Putin deemed this attack as violation of his informal agreements with Ukraine or of the fragile balance achieved at the end of the hot phase of war.

Importantly, Zelensky used a constitutionally dubious mechanism - Security Council sanctions - to get rid of his rival and his media outlets.
One of those moments, in which the Kremlin tends to see the West’s blatant hypocrisy with regards to the rule of law.

Worth noting that the channels in question were really quite mainstream and providing platform to a broad spectrum of political positions. Their closure was a clear act of censorship, which did result in OPZZh losing popularity, but didn’t help Zelensky rescue his own.

The other front, on which Zelensky started his offensive, was NATO membership. Three days after Biden entered office, the Ukrainian president told Axios that he had one “simple question” for Biden: “Mr. President, why are we not in NATO yet"?

Two weeks later an article by foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba, with the same question in the title, appeared on the website of Atlantic Council, a hawkish think tank linked to NATO.

Finally on March 5, Atlantic Council released a strategy for Biden administration with regards to Ukraine. Co-authoted by four top American diplomats, including above mentioned Taylor, it was bound to make Putin mad.

These are key recommendations from the Atlantic Council strategy:
- take over Donbas diplomacy from Germany and France
- If Russia proves intransigent, offer NATO membership plan to Ukraine.
- Derail Nord Stream 2
- Show muscle in the Black Sea

It is safe to say that up until now Biden administration has been following this strategy, or something along these lines.

Within a week, Russia begins deploying dozens of thousands of troops close to the Ukrainian border, making this move as visible as possible to the Ukrainian and NATO military. Meanwhile, Kremlin TV starts airing jingoistic messages implying clear threat of invasion.

The first invasion scare continued well into April when I wrote this piece recapping previous events, which are also listed in this thread.

Now have a look at what was happening to the German Greens that spring. For once, there was a feeling that a party, which wanted to ditch Nord Stream 2 and was on the same wavelength as the US over Ukraine and Russia, would take over Germany. ---image---

The first round of the standoff ended up with Putin earning a summit with Biden. In Geneva of all places, for a full-fledged grandiose Cold War vibe. Looked perfect on Kremlin TV. Ukraine earned a very partial withdrawal of Russian troops and the US earned nothing.

But Biden only had to wait till the Greens win elections in Germany, wasn’t he? Then together with chancellor Baerbock they would force Putin into some sort of compromise by threatening to ditch Nord Stream 2.

Enter Boris Johnson, a prime minister very keen to assert Britain’s global power status after the shambles of Brexit. Geneva summit took place on June 16. A week later, British warship HMS Defender entered what Russia now considers its territorial waters off the Crimean coast.

(having snatched Crimea from Ukraine in 2014)

When three small Ukrainian vessels attempted an even more daring freedom of navigation exercise in the strait of Kerch back in 2018 (as part of Poroshenko’s failed re-election campaign), they were shot at and captured by the Russians. But Putin wouldn’t do that to a NATO ship.

He came up with a characteristically asymmetrical response. Speaking during the annual Direct Line broadcast on June 30, a week after HMS Defender stunt, he claimed that Ukraine was “under external management”, which is to say that he deems it as a direct clash with the US/NATO.

He also mentioned that he was going to write an article about Ukraine. That piece, which claimed that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” materialized two weeks later. It was received in the West and Ukraine as proof of Putin’s imperialist ambitions.

But it was primarily aimed at domestic audience as part of Duma election campaign under way that summer. Putin was probing the appetite in society for foreign policy adventures along the lines of his 2014 invasion in Crimea. See my piece from the time.

As polls would show, the answer was a rather vehement no - Russians didn’t want another Crimea. Unable to inspire the nation with another irredentist adventure, Putin resorted to unprecedented campaign of repression against the opposition and blatant rigging in September election.

Hopes that the Greens would win German elections were dashed by the meteoric rise of SPD under the leadership of Olaf Scholz in the final months of the campaign. The Greens came third in Sep 26 elections, thus earning themselves a role of kingmakers in future coalition.

Coalition talks in Germany would continue till Nov 23. It is during this period when another spike in Russian invasion scare happened, fuelled by alarmist American statements based on classified intel.

But let’s step back and see what was happening to Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which the US was unsuccessfully trying to detail at the risk of spoiling relations with key NATO partner Germany.

The first line of NS2 was completed on June 4, but the second line was staggering with the US and some of the Baltic Sea countries trying to halt the process. Eventually, a few days after Putin-Biden summit, the US acknowledged that the completion of the project was inevitable.

But it wasn’t quite the end of the battle. While removing the threat of sanctions against companies involved in NS2, Biden managed to extract a pledge from Germany, which I mentioned at the top of the thread. The joint declaration was signed on July 20.
---image--"energy  as a weapon."-text above---

This provision left a tiny possibility of the US derailing NS2 after all - if Russia re-invades Ukraine.
Worth reminding that US opposition to NS2 is partly driven by the interests of US gas exporters, which is why Donald Trump - not an enemy of Putin - had championed the effort

The laying of NS2’s second line was completed in the early September, which is when the pipeline’s four-month certification process began in Germany.
How likely is it that Putin would decide to invade Ukraine during this period?

And how likely is it that he would invade Ukraine after NS2 is up and running?
After all, according to the opponents of the project, the pipeline is a mighty dangerous energy weapon, which would allow Putin to suffocate Ukrainian economy without any invasions.

So at the beginning of October, we find Nord Stream transiting into the second month of a four-month certification period in Germany, where coalition talks are under way and the leader of the anti-NS2 Greens Annalena Baerbock is now eyed for foreign minister’s post.

Is it a good time for Putin to threaten invasion or make any belligerent moves at all that could jeopardise the project of strategic importance for Russia? Yet we are just one month away from peak invasion scare.

What happened in between? On Sep 30, Ukraine announced that is setting up a testing and training centre for Turkish Bayraktar drones, as well as a production line for their upgrade. Those drones which had helped Azerbaijan defeat Russian ally Armenia one year earlier.

Worth reminding that during the hot phase of the war, both sides agreed to avoid using combat aviation to prevent excessive loss of life. The loss of Ukrainian military transport plane and MH17 had taught them something. But the use of killer drones would breach that agreement.

Nevertheless, on Oct 26 Ukraine used a Bayraktar drone for the first time to destroy a piece of artillery on the separatist side. There were no casualties.

It’s interesting that the video of drone attacks was uploaded by journalist cum spin doctor Yury Butusov, who represents a group of security officials and politicians who attempted to impeach Zelensky by accusing him of betrayal in the so-called Wagnergate affair.

During his press briefing a month later, Zelensky accused Butusov of precipitating the latest escalation. “During the last week I’ve been having 2-3 conversations daily, including with the leaders of the EU, the US and Britain - all because of you... Deaths are on your conscience”
---image with Zelensky Quote in Ukrainian---

Zelensky felt disoriented back then - in the wake of a revolt by his military intelligence chief, who joined (or led) Wagnergate conspiracy. His mistrust seemed to extend to the Americans, given his lukewarm reaction, when the second wave of Russian invasion scare began.

At the end of October, USS Porter entered the Black Sea, followed by USS Mount Whitney. You could feel from TASS and RIA posts at that time, how alarmed the Russians were about the prospect of another freedom of navigation operation, along the lines of HMS Defender’s.

These were the events that inevitably led to an uptick in Russian military buildup near Ukraine’s border, which in its turn triggered a massive bout of Russian invasion scare, fueled by the US. It suddenly felt like we’ve landed in something akin to a new Caribbean crisis.

Russian invasion scare peaked on Nov 10, when State Secretary Blinken made an extraordinary statement to the effect that a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine could start any time now.

The statement was backed by an intel report about Russian troops movements, which was shared with Ukraine and NATO. Bits of it were leaked into press, but it remained unclear from them in what way the situation is different from April 2021.

Leaks claimed Russia could potentially deploy up to 175K troops to UA border, although the current figure was put at the same level as it was throughout the year. But it is of course that hypothetical figure which made headlines. It all smacked of Iraq dossier and Steele dossier.
---image text: CNN US intelligence estimates Russian troop levels on  Ukraine border could reach  175,000 ---

On Nov 23, German coalition agreement was finally reached, with Annalena Baerbock, a staunch opponent of Nord Stream 2, getting foreign minister’s post. Germany remained and remains the main audience of this whole show.

All through the end of November and first days of December, US officials were making increasingly alarmist statements about Russia’s perceived intentions, while denying Kremlin’s claims that the two sides were preparing for talks between Biden and Putin.

But the “online summit” eventually took place on Dec 7. Next day, Biden stated the obvious - that the US was not going to send troops to defend Ukraine.

Thus the standoff over Ukraine, which began with Biden’s arrival in the White House in January 2021, came to a climax. It resulted in Putin clearly articulating his red lines, but it also resulted in Biden exposing his. That allowed Russia is launch a counter-offensive.

On Dec 17, Russia issued a list of demands, which included guarantees that NATO will not expand any further east towards its borders. This was received by the West with dismay, leading to more escalatory rhetorics on both sides.

Nevertheless talks were scheduled, envoys went into travelling mode and meaningful diplomatic work began. Although Kremlin’s demands regarding NATO may sound wild, it all boils down to one question: Does the US want NATO near Russia as much as Russia doesn’t want it to be there?

Little attention was paid throughout those hair-raising weeks to what was happening in Ukraine, where Russian invasion scare was not really the main political story. To be continued.

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