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Common Cents

Russian vs. the Ukraine - Who is Next?

Ralph Murphy

(4/9/2014) Unrest in East Ukraine's border regions with Russia has been ongoing since the tumultuous overthrow of the ethnic Russian, President Viktor Yanukovych in February of this year. While there had been a brief lull in tensions following the Russian extra legal annexation of the Crimea, things heated up in March as ethnic and Russian accented "demonstrators" seized public buildings in the east leaving three dead.

Sunday night, 6 April, similar events occurred in apparently coordinated attacks targeting state office buildings and points of power in the Ukraine Oblasts of Kharkov, Luhansk, and Donetsk. There are also similarities with Crimea's Russian annexation in that plainclothed men of Russian origin appear to be organizing the ethnic Russian Ukrainians, and they are believed by Western intelligence sources to be "Spetsnaz" troops tied to the GRU or Russian military intelligence.

The Spetsnaz are special forces units considered roughly comparable to their Western counterparts, though they lack the sophisticated war materiel of the world’s top militaries. These units undertake actions from police raids to street protests and military operations, and were a source of considerable concern in the United States during the Cold War as they were assigned covert missions to include destruction of vital infrastructure such as power grids, bridges, dams and command and control facilities. They were widely deployed in Afghanistan and more recently in Chechnya.

Spetsnaz troops were believed to be the faces behind the masks in the strong arm removal of Crimean Parliament security forces. They, along with conventional Russian troops, provided security for the pro Russian parliament whose leaders guided a farcical election which allowed for Russia’s annexation of Crimea on 18 March.

However, East Ukraine is no Crimea. Kharov Oblast is 25.6% ethnic Russian, and is a mere 5.2% of the nation’s landmass. The demonstrators were peacefully removed from the Regional Administrative Building that they had occupied. In Luhansk the demonstrators are armed and their extraction is difficult as of this writing on 8 April. Nine were reported injured in the takeover. Luhansk Oblast covers 4.42% of Ukraine’s territory and has a population that is 39% ethnic Russian. The total population of that region is about 2.46 million.

Donetsk saw 120 organized activists seize control of the Chamber of the Region Assembly and declared the region "The Republican People's Soviet of Donetsk". The area has 38.2% ethnic Russians and is known as "Puttler" by the Ukrainians.

Russia controlled the Naval base at Sevastopol along with support bases on Crimea itself. The Naval base lease was sealed and extended by ethnic Russian President Viktor Yanukovych prior to his ouster and exile to Moscow in February, 2014. The agreement is now the least of the West's problems in that troubled region.

Yanukovych was ousted following mass protests by the ethnic Ukrainians against his minority rule. With 8.33 million ethnic backers or 17.83% of the nation's population, he lacked effective support and fled to Moscow with elections scheduled to replace him on 25 May. Interim President Oleksandr Turchinov currently serves that role.

East Ukraine has vast agricultural areas, and also a mining base for coal and anthracite. The region is also attractive for conquest given its industrial base for machine building, metallurgy, and chemical and oil refining. Russian oil and natural gas flows through pipelines to Europe and points in Ukraine. Ukraine owes Russia $2.2 billion in gas debt, that Russian authorities have threatened to recoup through unspecified actions if not paid.

A "South Stream" pipeline to link the European Union (EU) with Russia by 2018 fell victim to economic sanctions following the Crimea invasion. Other economic sanctions by Western powers have been imposed and are threatened given additional belligerence.

Current unrest on the East Ukraine/Russian border coincidentally follows the 21 March signing of an Association Agreement (AA) in Brussels between Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniyuk and EU leaders. The agreement commits the EU and non EU nations to political, trade, social, cultural, and security cooperation. In Ukraine's case the agreement specified "the gradual convergence between the EU and the Ukraine in the fields of foreign policy, including the common security and defense policy".

The EU doesn't have a standing army, and relies heavily on American leadership to address challenges via its role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and mutual understandings. "The Common Security and Defense Policy" falls under EU jurisdiction, and includes non NATO nations, in this case the Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to invade East Ukraine if the nation ever became a NATO member. With the current arrangement, Ukraine theoretically has a defense agreement, but given the signatures and lack of direct NATO troop commitment to the immediate emergency in Ukraine itself, the document appears not only "toothless" but to be used as a pretext for Russian engagement in the region. The Russians rarely bluff or shy away from a challenge unless forcefully deterred.

The White House has warned Putin against "overt or covert" moves into Ukraine. Secretary of State John Kerry warned his counterpart Sergei Lavrov that Russia would "incur further costs" if the nation continued on such a course action. The problem here is the US has not been specific as to the price to be paid, and Russia hasn't been hurt badly enough to curtail hostilities.

Ukraine’s new Premier, Arseniy Yatsenyuk asserted that Russia inserted 1500 troops (probably Spetsnaz) into each of the three, East Ukraine regions.

They were troops who "spoke with clear Russian accents and whose activity was being coordinated from abroad." He went on to claim "an anti Ukraine plan is being put in operation under which foreign troops will cross the border and seize the territory of his country. We will not allow this." Strong words, but with a 140,000 man army, fraught with ethnic divisions, a "brass" largely purged by the Russians under Yanukovych, and with mostly Soviet era war materiel- the Ukraine still needs help.

American covert action has to be the best in the world given the resource base and associated experience and range of application. Coupled with relevant European powers, the problem can be resolved. A NATO troop presence should have been provided after the February unrest. It would certainly serve as a deterrent now. The Russians have annexed Crimea, are stationed in Moldova, and "tens of thousands" appear ready to support a whimsical, minority uprising in territory they couldn't begin to control given the demographics and resistance. Current action is not so much drawing a "red line" as enforcing international law and then explaining why you did it. It's once again time for action.

Ralph Murphy is a former member of the CIA Headquarters Staff in Langley, VA.

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