Russian Escalation Imminent As Merkel Plays The Peace Card For Putin
By Paul Gregory (Hoover Institution and University of Houston)
Germany’s Angela Merkel has the reputation of a level-headed pragmatist, who grew up under communism, and understands Putin’s KGB Weltanschauung. True, she is constrained by a coterie of German Putin Versteher, who, due to financial and ideological interests, take Russia’s side in the battle for Ukraine. Merkel regrettably has taken to serving as Putin’s useful fool with her incessant demands for a peace settlement with separatist leaders before Ukraine, supposedly, lunges out of control. Putin has lobbied hard to stop Ukraine’s Anti-Terrorist Operation. He seems to have found an ally in Merkel. I must agree with the conclusion of the blogger, Streetwise Professor: If Angela Merkel is the Bad Cop, Putin Has It Made.
Ukraine understands that Putin used the last cease fire to re-equip and fortify pro-Russian separatists. With Ukraine’s Anti-Terrorist Operation tightening the noose in Donetsk and Luhansk, by-stander Europe has no business pushing for a deal with “peace maker” Putin that he will never honor. For Putin, a cease fire is just a tactical trick to gain advantage.
|Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin discuss Ukraine peace in Rio|
For the last two months, I ruled out a Russian invasion of east Ukraine. (See Miles Apart and No Peace in Sight.) I felt that Russian troops on Ukrainian soil – as opposed to disguised mercenaries – would unleash biting sanctions and even military assistance that would be too costly for Putin to bear. I wrote encouragingly that the West, especially NATO, now more clearly understands that Putin wants a frozen war that leaves Ukraine permanently destabilized. However, now I suspect that Europe simply wants the Ukrainian problem to go away and is prepared to tolerate virtually any Putin malfeasance, short of regular troops entering the streets of Kiev. Putin, better than anyone, understands that sanctions are just cheap talk.
With the Ukrainian army tightening the noose around pro-Russian separatist forces, Putin is playing the peace card to the hilt, playing on the humanitarian concerns of a pacifist Europe, while escalating violence to what he perceives to be the limits of European tolerance. Following past patterns, Putin will up the ante when he is abroad. (Don’t you see: Putin had nothing to do with this. He is in Brazil, they will say.) Putin is ominously touring Latin America – an ideal time to strike Ukraine.
The authoritative Ukrainian military analyst, Dmitry Tymchuk, predicts that Putin will launch a new offensive on or shortly after July 15: “Special forces groups are arriving in Rostov Oblast. These are regular intelligence and diversionary brigades from Russian Military Intelligence Operations (GRU). According to information we have, the unit commanders anticipate being sent into Ukraine on the fifteenth (of July). This date has flashed on more than once in information we have been receiving.”
According to Tymchuk, the movement of Russian forces across the border already began on June 30 in Sumsky and Kharkov regions, where there is currently no fighting. Unlike Donetsk and Lugansk where the troop and equipment movements were masked, the new incursions are being done openly. Some of the equipment is marked “Russian peacekeeping forces.”
Other indicators of escalation are Ukrainian intelligence reports that anti-aircraft fire and shelling are originating from Russian territory, including the missile that shot down a Ukrainian transport plane. Long columns of tanks, GRAD missiles, and armored personnel carriers are being filmed as they made their way through Uglegorsk in Donetsk province. In his emergency meeting with his security council, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko announced that “information has … been confirmed that Russian staff officers are taking part in military operations against Ukrainian forces.” Ukraine’s security council has warned that Ukraine is on the verge of wide scale aggression from Russian forces. In a significant move, the U.S. State Department has begun releasing detailed intelligence on Russia’s supply of hardware by number and type of weapon that leaves no doubt of significant official Russian involvement in the Ukrainian conflict. (See: Russia’s Continuing Support for Armed Separatists in Ukraine and Ukraine’s Efforts Toward Peace, Unity, and Stability.)
For reasons only Putin understands, he is being more open about Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and he is no longer maintaining the façade that Russia is uninvolved in what he had claimed was basically a domestic conflict.
As Putin ratchets up Russia’s military aggression, he is taking steps to mute Europe’s reaction to the impending offensive of its “peace keeping forces.” Separatists are deliberately shelling Russian border towns to give Moscow the opportunity to claim that Ukraine is attacking Russian territory. A Kremlin news release indignantly declares that “Ukrainian shelling on the Russian Rostov region whereby one man was killed is unacceptable.” In the face of such provocation, Russia is justified to protect its own interests with surgical strikes against the Ukrainian “junta.” It is up to Putin, however, to define the scope of a “surgical strike.”
In an unguarded moment, Putin admitted his admiration for Josef Goebbels. The Nazis used similar provocations to justify the Anchluss of Czechoslovakia and the invasion of Poland. Putin must have learned from them. Putin can claim, as did Goebbels before him, that a mighty nation must defend itself against the aggression of a weak and suicidal neighbor.
Why is Putin ratcheting up his aggression? I think he has concluded that Europe will look the other way, as long as Putin gives them a fig leaf for inaction. They will pretend to swallow the story that Ukraine is to blame for not wanting peace, that Russia’s actions are humanitarian after all, that Europe cannot afford a Ukraine that is spinning out of control. But, Mr. Putin, watch out. We will surely punish your next aggression. Just wait and see, say Europe’s intrepid leaders.
Putin’s talks with Germany’s Angela Merkel at the World Cup finals in Brazil are indicative of Putin’s calculation as to how far he can test Europe’s lack of resolve. Putin and Merkel agreed on “direct talks between the Ukrainian government and the separatists …(to) begin as soon as possible… with the goal of a ceasefire on both sides.” No representative of Ukraine was there to make the case against another useless cease fire. The Kremlin press release (carried directly on German television) declared that Merkel and Putin agreed that the situation in Ukraine has markedly worsened (I wonder why) and referred to “Ukrainian shelling on the Russian Rostov region whereby one man was killed.” Russia’s Lenta.ru made haste to report that Europe’s Ukraine Contact Group had agreed to a videoconference with the “representatives of the separatist militia” on July 15. Ukraine’s foreign minister was given little choice but to accept.
I would like to ask the European foreign ministers whom they intend to include as “representatives of the separatist militias?” Apparently, Moscow allows only three leaders to speak on behalf of the separatist movement. They are all Russian citizens, and at least two of them occupy (or have occupied) positions in the Russian secret service. I doubt that Germany would have agreed to negotiations with the Baader-Meinhof Red Army Faction that was threatening it in the 1970s. No, they took Ukraine’s way out by ridding themselves of the threat. Why should not Ukraine be given the same opportunity and perhaps give it a helping hand as it is doing so?
Paul Gregory serves on the International Academic Advisory Board of the Kiev School of Economics. His views do not represent those of the school. His latest book is Women of the Gulag: Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives. Repost from his blog.