Putin Sets Military Trap for Poroshenko

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 11

Fighting at Donetsk Airport (Source: AP)

The collapse of the nominal ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, marked by an escalation of military operations around Donetsk airport, has resulted in a fresh diplomatic confrontation between Moscow and Kyiv. Both sides blame each other for the increased violence, while the Kremlin claims that this latest upsurge in the use of force came after President Vladimir Putin sent a peace plan letter to his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, on January 15. The apparent advances made by Poroshenko’s forces in Donetsk may signal a breakthrough to his supporters; however, with the continued threat of Russian military force, the Ukrainian president’s options and prospects remain bleak (Ekho Moskvy, January 18).

Time and again, Poroshenko has made the mistake of prosecuting a poorly planned and badly executed military effort to route the rebels in Ukraine’s East. His latest adventurism, castigated so severely by the Kremlin, may actually play into Putin’s hands. There is simply no realistic prospect of the Ukrainian Army restoring order by force throughout the troubled Donbas (region encompassing the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk); Moscow can easily defeat such forces from across the border, or simply step up its indirect involvement and supply and resupply the separatists. Poroshenko makes numerous strategic errors that suggest he fails to grasp the mood in Moscow or, more specifically, within the Russian Armed Forces. Since December 2014, the Russian political-military leadership has signaled a significant breakthrough in the level of confidence in the Armed Forces, with a series of achievements they claim to be linked to the overall boost in prestige stemming from the Crimea operation in February–March 2014. Poroshenko and the Ukrainian leadership either misread or ignore the level of high morale in the Russian military, as well as Moscow’s need to revise the Minsk agreement; these factors may coincide to create conditions in which Putin will authorize additional use of force as a precursor to strengthening his diplomatic options (see EDM, January 13).

As a claimed “unofficial” party to the ongoing hostilities in Ukraine, the Russian top brass recently assessed the achievements of 2014 and set an agenda for 2015 that sends the same overriding message of renewed confidence in military power. Putin signed the new Military Doctrine on December 26, which turned out to be more conservative than many anticipated. The doctrine refers to NATO as a “danger” and not a “threat” to Russian security, modifies some language from the previous iteration and singularly fails to give any credence to the emergence of Russian “hybrid” approaches to modern warfare. Indeed, in each précis from the top brass reflecting on 2014 and commenting on the targets for 2015, the language and objectives relate to nuclear and conventional modernization; which has long been discussed in the modernization discourse (see EDM, January 13; Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, December 24, 2014).

With Putin’s popularity boosted domestically by the Ukraine crisis, the top brass have referred several times to studies showing that the prestige of military service has also been enhanced among the Russian population. These figures are noted by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Chief of the General Staff (CGS) Valery Gerasimov. However, as evidence, the overall increase to the societal prestige of the Russian military is considered to be clearest in the ongoing success to boost recruitment numbers for contract service. Shoigu states that the figures for those signing up for contract service exceed expectations, and he suggests that, by the end of 2015, the total number of kontraktniki (contract soldiers) will rise from 295,000 to 352,000 (Mil.ru, January 13).

In a year-end article, Shoigu specifically referred to the use of “polite people [Russian military personnel wearing unmarked uniforms]” in the February–March campaign to take Crimea. Shoigu states that as a result of “an armed coup” in Kyiv, a security threat emerged to the Russian Black Sea Fleet and Crimea resulting in action to protect Russia’s interests (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, December 24, 2014). Other independent Russian military specialists have characterized the Euromaidan as “an anti-Russian coup,” which compelled a Russian response (DefenseNews, January 3).

Consequently, given the huge boost to Russian military morale afforded by the Ukraine conflict, attention has also turned to mitigating the impact of Western sanctions in relations to the crisis in terms of the defense industry. On January 13, the senior members of the Russian defense leadership offered presentations in the newly formed National Defense Management Center (NTsUO). In the high-tech surroundings of the NTsUO, Shoigu and Gerasimov provided upbeat perspectives on the goals for 2015. Deputy Defense Minister Yury Borisov spoke on the issue of finding domestic alternatives to Ukrainian defense industry suppliers, expressing confidence that these issues will be resolved (Krasnaya Zvezda, January 13).

Shoigu reinforced the message of confidence, saying that, in 2015, the defense ministry will finalize a system of high-tech simulation-based training centers within each Military District, extolling the continued advances in recruiting contract personnel, and offered figures on modernization targets. These include: supplying 701 armored vehicles, additional Iskander-M missile systems, 1,545 multipurpose vehicles, 126 aircraft, 88 helicopters, two submarines and five surface warships. The Shoigu-inspired “snap inspections” of the Armed Forces will also continue, which the defense ministry leadership sees as helping to provide a clearer insight into the real condition of the Armed Forces. It was also used in 2014 to keep the Ukrainian government on its toes, with a near constant threat of a conventional ground invasion in Ukraine’s East (Krasnaya Zvezda, January 13).

Indeed, linked to the effort to boost the numbers of contract personnel serving in the Russian military Shoigu referred to Putin’s January 2 decree legalizing Foreign Service in the Armed Forces. Shoigu said this will allow around 1,700 from Crimea to enter service (presumably holding Ukrainian passports) (Mil.ru, January 13). In real terms, the whole effort to enhance contract service in the Russian military has received a tremendous PR boost due to the crisis in Ukraine.

As the independent Moscow think tank Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) analyst Vasily Kashin notes: “The military situation in the eastern Ukraine became a strategic stalemate after the Ukrainian Army was defeated in the battle of Ilovaysk in August.” However, Poroshenko may repeat the mistakes of the past, over-relying on foreign aid, and fail to appreciate the current buoyant mood in the Russian Armed Forces (DefenseNews, January 3). The dangers of conflict escalation have thus reappeared, but with Moscow holding all the cards.