It was in late January of 2014, at a time when Yanukovych still ruled in Ukraine, a day still weeks away from the Sochi Olympics that I took part in a teleconference of Ukrainian-Canadian journalists with Canada’s Minister of External Affairs John Baird and Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander. I asked the Ministers just one question: What is Canada prepared to do to prevent Putin’s Russia from invading Crimea right after the closing of the Sochi Olympics? There was no “if” nor “when” in my question. Remembering the Georgian-Russian War of 2008, I knew that Putin had stopped his invasion only when on August 12 the “Five Presidents” (the late President of Poland, Lech Kaczynski, Ukraine’s President Victor Yushchenko, Estonia’s President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Lithuania’s President Valdas Adamkus, and Latvia’s Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis) joined Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili on a podium in Tbilisi. In response to my question I was hoping to hear from the honorable Ministers that some high ranking Canadians would wisely chose a brief side trip vacation to say Yalta, on their way back from Sochi. Such a move at that time would have made a Russian attempt at invasion very awkward. Instead there was silence. I could almost hear the crickets chirping on Minister Baird’s line. Finally it was Chris Alexander that responded with some courageous platitudes about never letting Ukraine return to the dark days of the USSR.
Weeks later it was equally easy to predict that Putin will not be satisfied with only Crimea, but would continue his invasion of Ukraine until stopped by external force. At that time there were several possible directions for further incursion into Ukraine. The direction directly northward from Crimea into the Kherson oblast’ (province), was discouraged by Ukraine’s first show of force at the narrow isthmus that connects Crimea to Ukraine. It seemed to be just enough to show that direction to be tactically perilous. The most vulnerable border was the eastern border of Ukraine in the Luhansk oblast’. Much of the populace of Luhansk and Donetsk oblast’s readily expressed pro-Russian sentiments (variously estimated at some 35%). Many were expressing this sentiment by actively interfering with units of the Ukrainian militarily hastily sent to man these border posts. This was enough to convince Putin that an “incursion” of his little green men in this area would be enthusiastically supported by the locals. The slow motion invasion began around March 19. Details of this phase of the Ukrainian-Russian War are described in an earlier article and will not be repeated here.
The last week of July and the first three of August saw steady Ukrainian gains against the “terrorists”, and as Ukrainian Independence Day approached (Aug. 24) both Luhansk and Donetsk had been nearly surrounded. Despite the “fog of war” it was clear that Ukraine’s use of airpower was paying dividends in terms of the body count of Russian dead. It was on August 23, the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as negotiations between Ukraine’s President Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin were going on in Minsk, that the Russian Armed Forces dropped all previous pretense and began crossing Ukraine’s border en masse. They crossed at several locations far south of the usual points of infiltration, cutting off and encircling Ukrainian battalions engaged in battles at Ilovaisk on the eastern outskirts of Donetsk. Russian forces also struck Novoazovsk a border town on the shore of the Azov Sea, rapidly overrunning it and advancing to the suburbs of the city of Mariupil. In mere days they had relieved the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk, straightened the front lines and opened a new front on the shores of the Azov Sea. There was now a new reality on the ground on the eve of the planned NATO summit.
Putin had signalled that he would not be pushed back. He was prepared to deploy as much military power as was necessary to achieve his goal. Despite the verbal support by the West for Ukraine expressed at the Sept. 4 NATO summit in Wales, nothing was promised that could change the situation on the ground in the short term. And so Poroshenko agreed to a ceasefire on September 5; a temporary truce much honored in its breach. It appears to be a pause to be used by both sides to bring up additional troops.
The question being asked now is how far will Putin and Russia go? Would they be satisfied merely by the creation of two internationally unrecognized frozen conflict zones in Ukraine, as demarcated by the current ceasefire lines? The short answer is no. Putin’s minimal goal is a “Novorossia”, a “New Russia” frontierland from Kharkiv in the north east to Odesa in the south including the currently occupied territory of Crimea. His stretch goal would include all of central Ukraine including Kyiv, the capital. My sense is that he may be willing to leave a rump “fascist” Western Ukraine safe behind the old pre-war Soviet border along the Zbruch River. (It should be noted that in current Russian usage the word “fascist” designates any Ukrainian citizen that actually speaks Ukrainian; a meaning that has nothing in common with any Italian political practice.) And finally I know that Vladimir Putin’s fantasy goal would include the incorporation of all three Baltic States into the Empire, and the bestowal of a vassal state (satellite) status for pesky Poland.
Conventional military tacticians state that the occupation of Ukraine will take over 100,000 armed men, a number that would severely tax Russia’s current capabilities. Few have taken proper note of the fact that nuclear weapons are no longer considered weapons of last defensive resort by Russian military planners, but are just another implement to be employed as needed. Previously banned theater nuclear weapons are being developed and tested. The actual plans for taking Kyiv against a maximal resistance by the Ukrainian side have been developed and were actually discussed as long ago as April 2008.
The plan involved the “demonstrative” detonation of a nuclear warhead at high altitude over a sparsely populated area near Kyiv, namely Chornobyl. This will result in a minimum of immediate casualties, (mostly due to the shock wave and radiation blast) and little fall-out. However the resultant EMP (Electro Magnetic Pulse) will damage electronics within a few hundred kilometers. In fact Russia has been developing Super EMP warheads designed to in fact, maximize EMP. The tactical result of the detonation will be a significant deterioration in combat capability in the local area. A ground assault from outside the affected area would then encounter a much degraded resistance. When Putin boasted of taking Kyiv in two weeks he may have been very well briefed.
The question is what will be the western world’s response to such a nuclear detonation? Russia’s military strategists calculate that the “demonstrative” power of such an act will paralyze reaction. In fact any reaction after the detonation is very much a case of locking the barn door after the horse has escaped. To prevent such an act, the USA or UK (I leave out France due to the duplicitous nature of its leadership) has to state unequivocally and very very soon, that in the case of the detonation of a nuclear warhead on or over Ukrainian soil that act will be answered within 10 minutes by the launch of X number of nuclear warhead equipped missiles at the Russian Federation. Period, no ands ifs or buts.
If Messrs Obama and Cameron lack the courage to make such an unequivocal statement, the alternatives are horrible. In the case of inaction, one can expect not only the loss of Ukraine, but Poland, Moldova and the Baltic states, followed by the collapse of NATO and the EU; a veritable triumph of Putin’s will. Alternatively a nuclear response is likely to trigger a chain reaction of nuclear escalation with an entirely predictable end.