Ukraine update: Russia prepares the battle space

Peace in our time.

Things are proceeding about as I expected in Ukraine, and in terms of Putin’s posture.

Readers will have heard about the Russian military exercise launched in the Western Military District involving “150,000 troops.”  That’s a lot of troops, but I very much doubt they are all headed for Russia’s border with Ukraine.  I do expect a build-up on that border, but something on the order of 20,000-30,000 is more like it, and it may not be that many.  The 150,000 troops are, in any case, mostly stationed in western Russia to begin with.  Some, especially elements like special forces, aviation, and missile units, will probably deploy from elsewhere to augment the Western Military District’s permanently stationed units.

Russia establishes a beachhead

Putin has an interest in being able to intimidate Ukraine, but he doesn’t want to have to invade Ukraine outright.  That said, a flashpoint is shaping up on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, where ethnic Russians, who outnumber Ukrainians and ethnic Tatars approximately 2:1, have been staging protests against the events in Kiev.  As noted in LU’s headlines last night, armed men of unidentified origin occupied the parliament building in the Crimean capital of Simferopol early on 27 February, barricading themselves and raising a Russian flag over the building.

Interpreting this poses an interesting question.  We could assume that the armed men are ethnic Russian Ukrainians.  They may be.  But demographically, the ethnic Russians in Crimea – with its temperate seaside climate – tend to be older, and are not an obvious source of “private-enterprise” armed action.  According to a Crimean Tatar leader, the armed men were seen driving up from the port of Sevastopol, where Russia headquarters most of her Black Sea Fleet under a long-term agreement with Ukraine.  Crimean locals – Russian sympathizers – who had been preparing to besiege the parliament building before the men arrived said that the men did not identify themselves, but were armed with military-grade weapons and were clearly professionals.

Everything's going Putin's way in Simferopol, Crimea. (Image credit: UK Telegraph, David Rose)
Everything’s going Putin’s way in Simferopol, Crimea. (Image credit: UK Telegraph, David Rose)


It would be exactly in character for Putin’s Russia to seek to establish a friendly “protectorate” inside Ukraine, which would become a source of requests for military support, as well as a bargaining chip with whatever government emerges in Kiev.  Crimea is the obvious place to do that: not only is its ethnic majority Russian, but its geography is uniquely convenient, having a long coastline on the Black Sea and being adjacent to Russian territory.  We can assume that that’s what’s going on here.  (Unsurprisingly, the Crimean parliament has today announced a plan to hold a referendum on the region’s political future, in light of the perturbations in Kiev.  Again, such a vote would give Russia political cover for intervention.)

It is underestimating Putin, however, to assume that he means to invade Ukraine forthwith, in a crudely aggressive military move.  The force build-up that has already started – special forces reportedly moved to Anapa (near Novorossiysk), unconfirmed reports of Russian troop movements inside eastern Ukraine, Russian jets patrolling the border, the probable deployment of multiple regiments of infantry to the border – will enable Putin to credibly threaten Ukraine.  From his perspective, the ideal process would be inducing Ukraine, out of desperation, to make a stupid move, one that would give Russia cover for taking action – or, even better, would be leave the Maidan Ukrainians so overexposed that they would have to back down from it, and agree to a disadvantageous settlement.

The new government tries to get its bearings

The Maidan Ukrainians – I’m calling by that name the Ukrainian nationalists and all who support the bid for a unified Ukraine oriented toward Europe – have their own set of problems.  It is grossly unfair and inaccurate to represent them as racist nationalists on the “Nazi” or “fascist” model, which is the Russian propaganda line.  But neither are they united in a hardy republicanism that Americans would approve.  There are some bad actors among them.  Russia will make the most of that, and Western Europeans and Americans won’t be able to defend everything the struggling Maidan effort comes up with.

The Maidan Ukrainians have their work cut out for them.  A nicely nuanced piece by WSJ’s Matthew Kaminski sums it up:

Ukrainians distrust, with good reason, the entire political class. Mr. Yanukovych wasn’t the only greedy or incompetent pol here. But the Maidan crowds can’t rule the country, and in the past five days, parliament has assumed that role. On Wednesday night, the names of those who would lead a proposed new transitional government were announced before thousands packed in at the Maidan. Some were booed, others were cheered.

Behind closed doors, the politicians are “trying to recreate the old system,” says Mustafa Naim, an Afghan-Ukrainian journalist, furious at the signs of deal-making by the same old faces. “You can see it in their eyes. We may need to go out on the Maidan again.” He says Ukraine needs to clean the whole political slate by scheduling a parliamentary election to coincide with the planned presidential vote in late May.

In the political unity sweepstakes, Russia and the ethnic Russians are ahead of the Maidan Ukrainians by several lengths.  In the meantime, there’s a lot of breathless nonsense being rumored out there at the moment.  We can assume there will continue to be.  Some things to keep in mind are the following:

1.  The defensive preparations – roadblocks, tank barriers – being set up in eastern Ukraine, especially Crimea, are defensive preparations.  This isn’t a judgment about who is politically at fault for the crisis; it’s a statement of military reality.  These barriers don’t mean Russia is about to attack.  They mean Russia and her sympathizers in eastern Ukraine are hardening eastern Ukraine against the use of military force by the national government in Kiev.

2.  Sevastopol is the main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.  (Novorossiysk, east along the coastline in Russia, is a secondary base.)  Sevastopol is where the amphibious landing ships have their home port, along with the Russian naval infantry units stationed on the Black Sea.  There is nothing unusual about those forces being in Sevastopol.  The Russian naval infantry units – the largest is the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade – have among them about 2,500 troops.  That number is insufficient to most military tasks involving security or order in Crimea.  Russia may send small detachments of them out to perform limited tasks ashore, but I suspect they will be held in reserve, for combined, doctrinal use if Russia does need to close a military pincer on central-government forces in Ukraine.

The U.S. response is still no response

3.  The U.S. warships that were in the Black Sea for the Olympics are out of this fight.  USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20), the Sixth Fleet flagship, arrived in Istanbul on 24 February for a port visit, and departed on the 27th, headed toward the Mediterranean.  USS Taylor (FFG-50) remains in Samsun, Turkey through this morning, according to a (very garbled in translation, but ultimately intelligible) report from the Turkish maritime press. (Our colleague Devrim Yayli at Bosphorus Naval News also confirms Taylor remains in Samsun.)

Taylor has been undergoing repairs to her propeller after running it aground earlier in the month.  The repairs were to be finished on the 24th, but Taylor’s commanding officer has also been relieved, which may figure into the frigate’s extended stay in Samsun.  Besides her unsuitability as a platform for offshore presence in the Ukrainian crisis, Taylor is undergoing a crisis of her own, and won’t be a factor in U.S. policy.

(Note as well that NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, categorically declares that NATO has positioned no forces for a military response to the Ukraine crisis, and says the two American warships are on their way out of the Black Sea region.)

This is as good a place as any to note that the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) arrived in the Mediterranean on 22 February.  She’s on the way to the Persian Gulf area to take station there.  She’ll be relieving USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75), which has spent the last year maintaining constant-deployable readiness and has been forward deployed since July.  As soon as an outlet like Debkafile is aware of Bush’s presence, we’ll probably start hearing wild speculation about Bush being a response to the crisis in Ukraine.  Ignore it.  Truman heading home to the East coast, via a Med transit, won’t be a response to the crisis in Ukraine either.

To round things out, the USS Bataan (LHD-5) amphibious ready group (ARG), with the 22 Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) embarked, has also arrived in the European theater.  This deployment is also not in response to the crisis in Ukraine; it’s a scheduled rotation.  Bataan has been operating off Portugal in the last several days.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online. She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.

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18 thoughts on “Ukraine update: Russia prepares the battle space”

  1. Opticon,

    What are your thoughts on the possibility of a partition? Most pragmatically on a North-West and South-East axis? That presumes of course that Putin doesn’t get effective control of Ukraine through another proxy government. Personally, I just don’t see Putin being willing to settle for just the Crimea.

  2. Tsar Vladimir has already taken over the Crimea. The Russian flag is now flying above its capital and the information curtain is pretty much dropped down tight.

    My guess is the next move will be a “cry for help and stability” from the ethnic Russians in the eastern Ukraine. The three or four sub groups of the Western Ukraine, most notably the old Kievan Russ (The Russ and Russians do not and have never gotten along) Of course the ethnic Poles and the various Catholic groups will all try to keep themselves separated from Russian domination. They and the Russian Orthodox have never gotten along well, either.

    On balance we are looking at a slightly hotter Sudaten problem. First will come the virtual partition of the Ukraine where the ethnic Russians are absorbed into Moscovite Russia. Then Poots will get the KGB…oops… FSB to begin undermining the rump, just like he’s doing in Georgia. (Georgia might actually be a good example of how this will go.) Poots will scare and blackmail Europe with natural gas and some saber rattling.. eventually as he’s sure that no one will absorb western Ukraine into the EU (NATO and the EU -mostly NATO when it was real) then he will once again kill off its anti-Russian politicians, reimpose a puppet regime, and reestablish full control over the Ukraine, only this time it will “voluntarily petition” for reintegration with greater Russia.

    And no one can do squadoosh about it… nothing… zippy.. We have no military strength or weight to move any sort of troop concentrations to Poland and Romania where we could put some psychological pressure on Pooty Poot… Offering Ukraine protective membership in NATO is an offer that is fundamentally too late (deal should have been done in the 90’s while Yelsin poisoned his liver… but Boy Clintoon was too busy with interns and cigar holders…) Now NATO is pretty much a joke, and so weak that Poots probably has to work to suppress a snorting snicker when Oboingo’s minions try to rattle sabers… more like stir the butter knives in the rusty utensil drawer….

    The brutal truth is that Tsar Vladimir can do exactly what he pleases. The Ukraine will cease to be an independent country very soon indeed.


  3. Some small points I’d like to mention at this time.

    I talked to freind last night, an ethnic Ukrainian and primarily Ukrainian speaking lawyer from the Donetsk region, a truly good man, supporter of the Maidan. They are heartbroken by the loss of innocent lives in the clashes last week, but are well aware that the Maidan is being hijacked by the old school politicians and the Bandera fascists. It would be best if all concerned about the welfare of decent Ukrainians regardless of their ethnic origin, sideline these Nazi scum (sorry, there is no other polite way to describe Right Sector, Tyahnybok, and their associates). The first law they rammed through wasn’t just a limitation on the use of Russian, they limited Greek pop 100,000 , Tartar pop. 130,000, Hungarian, etc. Curb the power of the Nazis and there might yet be a chance to come up with a compromise on Ukraine.

    Meanwhile, Simferopol International Airport has been neutralized as an entry point for non-Russian security forces.

  4. It seems all air, land, and sea points of entry into Crimea are now under the control of Crimean Regional authorities, in full compliance with their right to exercise their self determination. R2P works in strange ways, no?

    Can’t independently confirm next.
    All former Ukrainian S-300, S-200, BUK-M1 batteries, MIG-29, Mi-24 aircraft and helos stationed in Crimea are under new management. That would account for the full control of Crimean airspace.

    About the troop movements into Crimea’s airports, you already know.

    No word yet on who controls the vessels of the Ukrainian Navy. Although, it’s HQ is being guarded by Russian Marines.

    All done without firing a shot. Nice.

    One other minor geopolitical point. A Russian controlled Crimean EEZ enables the possibility of Russia modifying the South Stream natural gas marine crossing route to the EU, without requiring the acquiescence of either Ukraine, or Turkey. If, Gazprom chooses to do this of course.

    Commencement of the construction on this segment is slated for the second half of 2014. So, it might be a little late to modify the route

  5. Well it’s all over except the dying, the chains of slavery, and the jackboot of Soviet control stomped firmly on the faces of those who have no use for the abuse.

    As I said, the Soviets are rolling, and the Ukraine will cease to exist, soon. As a puppet state it was fine, as an independent western ally it was intolerable to the new Muscovite Royal house.

    All of this done with a snear and a snicker flicked in the general direction of a feckless and totally powerless Oboingo Regime. Pooty Poot will feel free to reconquer the Soviet Empire a few pieces at a time. He’ll probe through the mush, until he finds steel, and then he will wait patiently until the steel rusts away before probing once more. (Scholars of 20th Century Soviet History will recognize the concept.)

    Only now the phony baloney false front of Communism has been cast aside. Putin is revitalizing the old empire and the old autocracy.

    The world is about to be come a most difficult and dangerous place, and we are fielding an empty popgun for our defense, and are run by what I am convinced is a Stalinist puppet.


    1. Obama is a bit more complex than merely a “Stalinist puppet”. No question he’s a ‘progressive’ communist but so to is he a Muslim (at least in sympathy and I suspect, an actual though covert adherent) and a third world anti-colonialist. All wrapped within the psyche of a narcissistic sociopath.

      1. He is, indeed, all of those things. He is also a sock puppet; which means he’s a clueless recreational golfer and party boy. He’s soul purpose seems to be to stand there and let the institutional Left impose its Utopian fantasy on the United States.

        Of course there aren’t enough Americans who are capable of waking up to the danger.

        Many of us have been beating a drum since the early 90’s, that the Democrat Party and it’s power clique and renters were quickly corroding away the spine of this nation.

        I figured Putin for making his move about now, the beginning of the second term, just before we cut and run from Afghanistan (a Democrat foreign policy disaster – wrenched from the jaws of a tidy Republican victory) and just after we proved to the world that our leadership was stupid and lazy as we cut and ran from Iraq, when we had that won, too.

        Tsar Vladimir, only needed to wait until Hagel announced the total destruction of the modern US Army, and the voluntary crippling of the Navy… We are now, powerless, because Pooty Poot’s intelligence sources have already told him that the announcement of the cuts are an admission of what is, not what is to come, and what is to come will likely be worse.

        The world stage is a street fight between rival gangs. We keep forgetting that there are no “rules”, “laws”, or “good intentions”. We are weak, and we will be challenged, again, and again… and we will be cowed, again and again.

        And the International (formerly US) Chamber of Commerce has arranged for it to be almost impossible for us to rebuild our strength. We are supine before our enemies, and they are far more powerful and determined than we think, in our drunken stupor.

        Bad stuff GB.. Bad stuff..



  6. We now know Putin’s response to Obama’s warning.

    Kremlin Clears Way for Force in Ukraine; Separatist Split Feared

    “SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — As Russian armed forces effectively seized control of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula on Saturday, the Russian Parliament granted President Vladimir V. Putin the authority he sought to use military force in response to the deepening instability in Ukraine.

    The authorization cited a threat to the lives of Russian citizens and soldiers stationed in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, and provided a blunt answer to President Obama, who on Friday pointedly warned Russia to respect Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty.”

    Though I too think Obama is cooperating with Putin while pretending otherwise, in this case, it doesn’t really matter whether Obama is a fool or knave. As even if he wished to, there’s nothing Obama can actually do to dissuade Putin.

    We no longer honor our treaties and our allies are on their own, no way is Obama going to threaten war with Russia now or in the future with China.

  7. Hey, people, I’ve read some comments about some Nazi in Kiev, limiting freedom of minor nationalities — it’s a bulls***, sorry. Maybe, you’ve heard some Moscov propaganda. I’m now here in Kiev, no one never said anything against Russians or Russian-speaking people as well as about Tatar or anybody else. All that Right Sector and Tyahnybok whom you are blaming never acted nothing like Nazi. I repeat, I’m here in Kiev and this is information from first hand, not heard from somebody. More than, Tatars in Crimea supports Maidan and Kiev authorities, not Putin and Moscov. Ukrainian military bases in Crimea is blocked by Russian army, but they stand and not giving up to Moscov forces

    1. Welcome, Ruslan Rodriguez. Thank you for your comments. I actually had no doubt that, even if there was some participation from a Nazi element in Kiev, it was not significant. I recognize the accusation about Nazis as Russian propaganda.

      I appreciate you stopping by to add your comment from on the scene. We’d love to hear from you again.

      1. The Nazi element exists, so does Russian propaganda.

        But, the Nazi, or ultra-nationalist, element is more powerful and influential than Western media lead us to believe. It plays a pivotal role in the events in Ukraine. I would not dismiss its significance.

  8. Well if you look on the USS Harry S Truman’s Facebook page in the comments they seem to be told they might be seeing an extension of their already LONG deployment. It’s relief hasn’t transited as of yet.

    1. You think they will be relieved on time? The Bush was noted to be in port in Turkey as of today. Not really sure what to make of all this.

  9. Welcome, YOP. We’ll see what happens in the next week or so. Bush won’t play a direct role in the Ukraine response. But she may be held in the Med longer than planned because of the Ukraine response. Here’s why.

    Bush is indeed in Antalya, Turkey for a port visit. For those who don’t know, Antalya is the southern port our carriers frequently stop in (great libs, BTW), and I expected Bush to have at least one and possibly two port visits in the Med, before proceeding to Fifth Fleet. This would be very typical.

    Bush can literally play no military role in a response to the Ukraine crisis. The carrier can’t enter the Black Sea, and has nothing useful to do outside of it, in a tactical sense.

    But, I’m hearing that the F-16s going to Poland are indeed coming from Aviano (Italy), which was something I suspected early on. That means, for one thing, that we aren’t actually “beefing up” our Air Force assets in theater. We’re just moving the ones that are already there from one place to another, temporarily.

    But it’s 12 of the F-16Cs from Aviano, putting a crimp in the mission capability profile of the 31st Air Expeditionary Wing (which, among other things, supports KFOR in Kosovo). I don’t know if another NATO ally can backfill the F-16Cs with no interruption. But obviously, Bush’s airwing could.

    If Bush is held in theater, it will presumably be to fill in for roles that the Aviano F-16Cs would otherwise have been scheduled or on-call for. The NATO higher-ups would also presumably consider it a good idea to hold Bush in theater just to send a signal, and perhaps to spin up some exercise activity with Bush and other NATO assets.

    They might or might not want to include the Bataan ARG/22 MEU in that as well, since they’re in the Med. (Looks like Bataan was involved in a SAR yesterday for survivors on a Turkish tanker that ran aground off Mykonos.) all things being equal, Bataan would normally continue on to 5th Fleet as well, but the ARG/MEU along with Bush and her escort(s) may be held for an indefinite, probably brief period until NATO feels less jittery about the Ukraine crisis.

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