Facing them are crowds of largely unarmed or minimally armed civilians. In Lugansk some of these civilians have looted the SBU armory and have assault rifles (AKM-74s). The crowds are relatively large, but not huge, most of the local activists have taken up positions inside key government buildings which they occupy and while there are some barricades around these buildings, they do not appear to be properly defended, at least not in a military sense.
This all reminds me of Moscow in 1993 and it scares me. Badly.
For those of you who do not remember, let me remind you of what happened then.
In 1993 the Russian Parliament building was defended pretty much in the same way as the buildings in eastern Kiev are: all sorts of supporters outside the building, but the core defenders inside. Once the shooting began, the crowd of sympathizers outside rapidly dispersed. Shortly after the building itself was assaulted an offer was made to those willing surrender to let them out safely. Some accepted. Others stayed. The assault of the building resumed and the bloodbath which took place inside was hidden from the public. As for those who surrendered, they were hunted down while leaving the area, beat up and often murdered. Finally, the winning side engaged in a massive hunt for Parliament-sympathizers who were hunted down, arrested, beat up and even killed for a least a week. Something very similar might happen in the next few days in eastern Ukraine.
Cops will be used to clear the vicinity of the buildings. Then APCs will be brought in and after some gunfire exchange, the attacking force will be given the option to come out and surrender. Some will accept, others will refuse. Those who will surrender will be handed over to the SBU and Right Sector thugs to be tortured, beat up and jailed. Then a full scale assault, supported by 30mm gunfire with incendiaries will take place. As soon as the lower floors will be cleared of resisting people, the private security contractors and Right Sector thugs will move in to kill the remaining people. Finally, the official regime media will announce that 10 or 15 "terrorist" have been killed, and that law and order has been restored. This version will be fully endorsed by the western corporate media while western politicians will say that they "understand" that the "government" had to act, they will blame Russia for instigating the violence, and they will urge the
This worked in 1993 and this will work in 2014.
Many will then wonder if Russia will step in and send in troops. And a few days later, even more will wonder why Russia has not already intervened.
This is what I will attempt to explain (assuming events go as I predicted above).
The first thing to understand is that this scenario, while horrible and disgusting, does not meet the criteria of "mass violence" at least as seen from the Kremlin. Even if, say 100 or 200 people die, this is not much in comparison to the full population in the Ukraine. Furthermore, Putin will have to weigh the number of people murdered in such a crackdown against the likely number of casualties should the Russian military intervene.
Today Putin said something very interesting during a public meeting with members of his Popular Front. He said that before intervening in Crimea Russian special services had covertly organized an opinion poll to gauge the popular opinion in Crimea and that they had concluded that roughly 80% of the people wanted Crimea to become part of Russia (this is a very smart use of special services, by the way!). He added that once the referendum was announced and the campaign began, these figures rose to almost 97%, but that initially, at that time, 80% was the secret Russian estimate.
We can be pretty darn sure that the Russian special services are also actively conducting such covert opinion polls today. What we don't know is what their surveys shows. What I will say though is this: while I am confident that "many" people in the east want to join Russia, I am not at all sure that they are the majority. Also, I strongly suspect a sizable minority who would be vehemently opposed to such a solution. Furthermore, I am quite confident that there is a minority, however small, how is actually very much in favor of the new regime in Kiev. Yes, sure, most people in the East are sick and tired of the Nazi freak show in Kiev, but "most" is not at all the same as "all" or even a "strong majority". The bottom line is this:
The Donbass is not Crimea.
In Crimea it was pretty clear cut. The picture is much more complex in the eastern Ukraine.
The geography is also dramatically different. Crimea is a peninsula joined to the rest of Ukraine by a rather narrow stretch of land. It was rather obvious for the Russian forces to see where to stop. But where should they stop in the eastern Ukraine?
This is not a military problem. In military terms, the Russian military could take over all of the Ukraine. This is political problem: to which area do you limit your intervention? Only in Lugansk? Or also in Donetsk and Kharkov? What about Nikolaev? There are lots of anti-regime people there. Ditto for Odessa. Then comes the "plat de resistance" - Dnepropetrоvsk, with over one million people inside, many opposed to Russia. Shall the Russian military also take that major urban center? At what cost in human lives?
Take a look at this very detailed map of the Ukraine (it is a big file, you will have to click on it to zoom in for a better resolution):
|please click on map to see details|
Do you see any natural border at which the Russians should stop?
I see only one: the Dniepr river. And if that is where the Russians stop, it means taking over all of the eastern Ukraine, including Dnepropetrivsk and Kharkov (with 1,5 million people, though probably a higher pro-Russian percentage than Dnepropestrovsk). Even Poltava is in the eastern Ukraine. So we are talking about a major military operation, even if the Ukie military won't be able to meaningfully oppose it. Lots of people will die, that is certain. So is it worth it?
Another option would be to go for a series of limited strikes with attack helicopters and some special forces. Much easier, but not risk free, and that kind of half-measure rarely works without a follow-up with boots on the ground.
There are certainly more military options, but my point is simple: they will have have very real risks and major costs. Russia should learn from the many mistakes the USA made and truly only intervene when there is a clear objective achievable in the short term and then an equally clear exit strategy. Russia does not need an Iraq on its doorstep.
There is a much better option: bite the bullet over the murder of Russian and pro-Russian civilians and slowly but surely strangle the regime in Kiev economically.
The Russians have already announced that Kiev owes them $16'000'000'000 (that is sixteen billion, with a 'b'!) and that they are now considering restricting all energy exports to the Ukraine to only pre-paid sales. Furthermore, should events get ugly in the East, Russia will completely pull out of the local industry essentially killing it completely. And that is in the part of the country which feeds and finances all the rest. Russia will also close its borders to Ukrainian imports and begin suing Ukrainian owned companies in arbitration courts. There is absolutely nothing the West can do to prevent that, and that kind of economic warfare will bring down the regime in Kiev in a matter of months, if not weeks. So considering that - is it really wise to act immediately and use military force?
I don't think so. Not unless things really go very, very badly. Then Putin will have no choice.
The Ukraine is like a nice, juicy apple which had the misfortune to be invaded by a ugly, nasty worm. This worm is, of course, the rabid neo-Nazis crazies who have taken power in Kiev. They are the ones destroying the unitary Ukrainian state by their actions and even by their presence and as long as they are in power, this apple will continue to rot and it will eventually simply fall down to the ground. And no amount of "gardening" by the West will save that apple because the only thing which could save it would be to kill and yank out that worm, but since it was put there by the West in the first place, that is something the West will not consent to. Never.
And if I may use the same analogy, it is far better for Russia to let that apple drop to the ground by itself and only then see what kind of tree its seeds will give birth to (an apple can rot but still deliver viable seeds). Right now the Ukraine is chock-full of problems Russia really does not need: a basically destroyed state, no real police, massive criminality, political extremism, religious extremism, a quasi-dead industry, a dysfunctional legal system (even worse than the Russian one, which is bad enough), poverty, unemployment, an ancient and decrepit infrastructure, a so-called Parliament filled with freaks, morons and thugs, and probably a big chunk of the population thoroughly brainwashed, not only in the West, who hates and fears Russia and who would prefer a NATO invasion to a Russian one.
Does Russia really need or want this?
Russia cannot simply waltz in, break it all, and leave. As they say in the USA, you break it - you own it. Right now its the West who broke it, so let's see what all these self-enamored and pompous clowns who hold the reins of power in the US and EU will do about it.
Somewhere, and painful as this might be, this morally obscene, historically absurd and pragmatically crazy experiment of an "Independent and anti-Russian Ukraine" needs to run its course and collapse on its own. And no matter what scenario actually plays out, this process will not happen without violence and innocent victims. So the only option for Putin is to try to minimize their amount as best can be. A military intervention is most likely not the best option, unless of course things really get ugly at which point Putin will have no other option left.
To summarize it:
Can Russia intervene? Yes.
Can the West do anything about it? No.
Can the Ukrainians stop them? No.
Is Russia willing to go to war with the USA and NATO over this? Yes.
Can NATO win a war against Russia in the Ukraine? No.
Is Putin bluffing? No.
Is Russia trying to subvert the regime in Kiev? No.
Is Russia using its power to instigate the rebellion in the eastern Ukraine? No.
Why not? Because Russia has a much better option: to wait and let the attempt to build a Banderastan in the Ukraine collapse by itself.
Will Russia do anything then? Yes, it will choke down the Ukraine economically as long as the freaks are in power in Kiev.
What would trigger a Russian military intervention in the eastern Ukraine? Enough violence to outrage the public opinion on Russia, at which point Putin will have to order a military intervention.
Will Russia intervene in case of a "not massive" (I cannot bring myself to write "limited") but bloody crackdown in the eastern Ukraine? No.
What will Russia do in that case? Let the inevitable blowback from this violence result in more rebellion in the eastern Ukraine and offer indirect support (safe haven, medicine, equipment, money, etc.) from western Russia and Crimea. Of course, Russia will continue to denounce the illegitimate neo-Nazi regime in Kiev, blame the West for what it has done and for its shameful support of the Banderites and appeal to the world public opinion directly.
That's how I see the situation developing, I might be wrong of course.
My guess is that the next 48 hours will be extremely violent and there is even a non-negligible possibility that the nationalist freaks will fail in their attempt to restore their rule over the east: a combination of very desperate resistance by locals and an unwillingness of enough security forces to kill civilians just might do the trick. Alas, my experience in Moscow in 1993 (I was there during the full crisis) tells me that you can always find enough people to butcher their fellow-citizens, as long as they get to hide from the cameras. There is nothing more easy then to hide a mass murder inside a burning building - and they know that.
[Did you know that the regime in Kiev has already cut off and hidden the bullets-ridden trees in central Kiev to avoid anybody investigating from where the sniper-fire had come?]
For most of the world, and for all western politicians, "if it ain't on TV it simply never happened". I don't expect much will get on western TV channels about the upcoming crackdown anytime soon.
And if by mistake, it will - they can always blame Putin and Russia for it.
I will try my best to keep you informed.
PS: since we can expect the crackdown to begin by a news blackout, please send me any information about what is happening in the eastern Ukraine or, even better, post it in the comments section of the blog. Thank you!
PPS: I just saw this. Now, I am no imagery analyst, but even I can tell you that these photos show, well, how shall I put it more delicately, absolutely *nothing*. Least of all a combined arms army of 40'000 soldiers about to launch an invasion. This is beyond ridiculous...