Russian tanks are again massing on the border with Ukraine. The refusal by separatists of Poroshenko‘s amnesty offer has lead to heavy casualties among them. Since the killing happened within 60 miles of the border, it could presage another Russian land grab.
With characteristic perspicacity, Putin observes the world faces “a growing cult of violence“, which he is afraid could be imported into Russia. He is most likely thinking about the Caucasus, which includes Chechnya, subdued in a notoriously brutal pair of wars, for which he was given a moral exemption by the West. Ukraine is on the northwestern flank of that land mass, which, bordered by the Black and Caspian Seas, looks a little like a peninsula, except that the southern border is land: Turkey and Iran.
So if Ukraine were an active enemy on the flank of that volatile region, it would complicate any future need to contain violence emanating from the Caucasus. If Putin decides upon a land grab, there is another solemn fact: Ukrainians make good soldiers. In a previous post, I attempted, without success, to find a rule for this. Perhaps there is a Freudian explanation? Does the unemotional Ukrainian personality mask a sublimated capacity for organized violence? Hitler put Ukrainians in the static divisions on the Western Wall, and they fought.
Like many other facets of life, the battlefield has been miniaturized. Handheld weapons, MANPADs (Man-Portable Air Defense) and ATMs (Anti-Tank Missile) deprive capital assets like tanks and planes of the overwhelming edge they formerly enjoyed over infantry. Of course, even the humble RPG is formidable in the hands of those with preternatural skill. And there are quite a few of those operators.
To maintain the asymmetrical advantage over opponents armed with modern light weapons, the U.S. developed complex battle doctrines: AirLand, and most recently, “Full Spectrum Dominance“, which became current during Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure as defense secretary. Rumsfeld pushed the the military in the direction of “better, faster, cheaper.” But the most recent test, the Iraq war of 2003, was inconclusive. Deprived of air cover and communications, some Sunni Iraqi units proved formidable opponents. They raised their rifles in the air, and brought down helicopters in unison. Since many Iraqi units had been bought off before the shooting, critics reasonably argued that Rumsfeld had not brought enough lead to the gunfight. Had the tip of the U.S. spear been blunted, we would hear more about this.
The border with Russia is good tank country, flat, and open. But Russia would not possess all the elements of an asymmetrical battle doctrine, which has never been tested by them in battle. Ukraine would have some advanced elements: Western intelligence, imagery, and communications, which are quickly being enhanced. Depending upon the speed with which NATO transfers advanced man-portable weapons, the proven quality of Ukrainian soldiering could result in protracted conflict and chronic enmity.
With Sochi a distant memory for would-be tourists, Putin has seemingly positioned Russia as an adversary to the West. More than any Russian leader since Lenin, Putin is a thinker, who endeavors to leverage assets, rather than commit them to a grind. The event that seems to have dulled Putin’s mental edge, leading him in what history might call an inexorable direction, is evident: the deposing of Viktor Yanukovych.
Putin, the tightrope walker, has fallen off the wire. He is using increasing force to achieve less, and is depleting his personal cachet with the world at large.