A Critical Juncture in Ukraine: An Update on the Crisis


2014-06-20 By Stephen Blank

It appears that we are reaching an inflection, if not a decisive, point in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Even as Presidents Putin and Poroshenko are directly communicating with each other about Poroshenko’s proposed peace plan, the level and intensity of fighting has escalated.

On June 18-19 reports of fighting around the town of Krasny Liman described engagements involving over 4000 rebel forces, and fighting on both sides using tanks, armor, airplanes and artillery.[i]

At the same time NATO reported that once again Russian troops were gathering in the vicinity of the border with Ukraine and again conducting exercises.[ii] At least one new Russian tank column has entered Ukraine, as has at least one other mechanized column.

Therefore analysts have reason for suspecting that more forces may be coming.[iii]

Indeed the Russian government and media have confirmed that some troops have moved towards the border.[iv]

Ukrainian defense officials have noted the buildup in recent days, and the National Security and Defense Council said Thursday that Russian military personnel were observed throwing camouflage nets over equipment already in place even as the army moved new troops forward.

The Ukrainian statement identified four Russian units that it said were at the border — two airborne divisions, an airborne assault brigade and a motorized rifle brigade. It also said that a military convoy stretching almost 10 miles was spotted on the road between Moscow and the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. The convoy was not moving, just parked on the roadside.[v]

In another assessment Dmitry Tymchuk who leads the website inforesist.com reports that:

The group “Informational resistance” released the latest data on the deployment of Russian troops along the Ukrainian-Russian border on the territory of the Russian Federation, including in the Rostov region, where were noticed sabotage and reconnaissance groups (SRGs) from the Russian Special Forces units with some Russian military personnel from the SRG wearing uniforms of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Operational data of the group “IR” as at morning of the 17th of June. Russian troops along the eastern borders of Ukraine in the Russian border areas: Opposite Donetsk region – around 6,500 servicemen.

Opposite Luhansk and Kharkiv regions are more than 4,100 servicemen. Opposite Sumi and Chernihiv regions are more than 2,500 servicemen. More than 1,000 troops are ready to be transferred on the territory of Ukraine as a reinforcement to terrorist groups in Luhansk, Stanichn0-Luhanska and Sverdlovsk (Luhansk region, Ukraine). There are more than 600 militants (mercenaries) in the Russian border regions with trucks and 17 military armored vehicles. More than 2,500 people are ready to be transferred to the territory of Ukraine to reinforce forces in Snijne, Torez and Shakhtersk (Donetsk region, Ukraine). A transfer to the border (and following transfer across the border to the Ukrainian territory) of SRG of 22 arr SpN (Rostov region, Russia), units of which are in full combat readiness since June 13.[vi]

And on June 20-21 the Obama Administration reported that Moscow had supplied insurgents with another ten tanks and that, “Russian Special Forces are also maintaining points along the Ukrainian border to provide support to separatist fighters.”[vii]

In Russia’s interior, it should also be noted that the airborne and naval infantry forces were also conducting joint exercises, a sign of Russia’s continuing pursuit of its own brand of jointness as well as a potential preparation for further action in the Ukrainian theater.[viii]

Concurrently the rebels, made up of Russian volunteers, soldiers of fortune or their equivalent, Chechens, Russian paramilitaries, GRU personnel and various members of one or another branch of so called special forces (there are many such forces designated in Russia and no clarity about which ones might be in Eastern Ukraine) are complaining that they are not getting enough help and supplies from Moscow.[ix]

Indeed, Moscow even recruited foreigners, as it has just handed out medals to three Serbian “Chetniks”, a neo-Fascist paramilitary group taking its name from the World War II resistance movement, for the “Third defense of Sevastopol (the first two are the Crimean war and World War II, this being a sign of typical Putinite vainglory and braggadocio).[x]

Russia's President Vladimir Putin accompanied by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, front left, walks to watch military exercises upon his arrival at the Kirillovsky firing ground in the Leningrad region Picture: Reuters
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin accompanied by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, front left, walks to watch military exercises upon his arrival at the Kirillovsky firing ground in the Leningrad region
Picture: Reuters

These complaints take place despite the evidence that over 4000 troops from Russia along with some tanks and air defense weapons have “migrated” from Russia to Eastern Ukraine and that more might be coming as suggested above. Those supplies appear to have taken the form of probes by Russia against Ukraine and the West.

While Western and American threats of new sanctions fill the air to date (June 20) nothing has been announced. In fact major energy companies are still making energy deals with Russia, France, now supported by Germany, remains intent on selling Russia the Mistral and its electronics as well as helicopter engines, there is no sign of the suspension of Italian sales of APC’s or other foreign IFVs to Russia.

And neither the energy industry, the Russian government, nor its defense industrial sector appear to be unduly perturbed by either existing sanctions or the threat of new ones although this may be typical Russian boasting and duplicity to hide anxiety.

Until and unless NATO and Washington understand the necessity of seizing control of the escalation ladder and of the strategic initiative we can therefore expect Moscow to keep opening up new threats and probes to dissuade any Western resistance or meaningful aid to Ukraine.

For that shift to occur there would have to be the emergence of something that has hitherto been utterly lacking in the West, namely an insight into strategy and into Russia and the realization that European security is indivisible. Moreover, continued inaction in Crimea invites further anti-Western probes as we see in the South China Sea and Iraq.

However, these probes have encountered mounting Ukrainian resistance that may well have deterred Moscow from making larger probes though we cannot be certain.

On the one hand, although Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu has said that the regular army will not be deployed in Ukraine; he has also stated that the Red Army (and obviously the air and naval forces) are ready for any contingency involving Ukraine and the Russian Security Council has held two late night meetings in the past week, obviously about Ukraine.[xi]

Moreover, despite Shoigu’s remarks about not using the armed forces in Ukraine, we have heard comparable high-ranking statements before and they have all been lies. Indeed, as this operation has confirmed for Moscow, “mendacity is the system we live in.”

At the same time, it is clear that Ukrainian military capability has grown.

On June 20 Ukraine announced that its forces now controlled the border with Russia although a determined Russian push using its regular forces could probably overturn that situation, albeit at the risk of full-scale rather than small-scale war.[xii]

Similarly, if the rebels’ complaints about lack of supplies are an indication, the Ukrainian army has managed to bring to bear superior air and ground capabilities against them. Certainly the scale of fighting with engagements involving several thousand men and reports of heavy rebel casualties (about 300 killed in Krasny Liman) suggest a ratcheting up of the scale of fighting.[xiii]

Thus on both the political and the operational levels it seems clear we are fast approaching some sort of critical juncture in this crisis.

It seems clear that if Putin wants to keep the pressure on in Eastern Ukraine he will have to double down on his military investment and risk a wider war and more sanctions.

Nothing suggests that he has ever wanted to take the risk of a major war because the nature of the operation, beginning with the seizure by the “little green men’ of Crimea has always been calibrated to keep the level of the operation below the level where either Ukraine or NATO could actually mobilize and deploy forces against Russia.

As former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has observed, this form of hybrid war has, among other objectives, the goal of neutralizing foreign intervention.

There also are those in Russia, like Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council, who are calling for new forms of “non-military pressure”, e.g. gas or economic sanctions, trade boycotts, etc. -– all of which amount to forms of economic warfare – against Ukraine.[xiv]

Therefore there is no reason to believe that Putin’s main objective, the destruction of any genuinely sovereign Ukrainian state that is not wholly within Moscow’s orbit, has changed or that failing a stronger Western response he will desist from his pressures on Ukraine.

In the meantime it also appears that Moscow, as many have observed, did not grasp the potential for the Ukrainian government and armed forces to recover as they have now shown themselves able to do. Neither has there been the slightest sign of local public support for the rebels in the East as Moscow may have hoped for.

Here, despite  terrorism, coercion, media blitzes, etc. and despite the genuine socio-economic-cultural differences with Western Ukraine, public support for an integral Ukraine has remained solid.

One would not know this from reading the Russian media or from the claque of pro-Russian analysts in the US and the West who, despite all the evidence to the contrary keep harping on the “two Ukraines” and the need for Washington to emphasize ties with Russia over the issue of a war of aggression against Ukraine.

Indeed all the arguments on behalf of Russia amount to nothing more than pretexts to avoid noticing the obvious threats to international security that Moscow has deliberately but wantonly unleashed.” Had this civil support for Moscow emerged or had the Ukrainian army and government continued to fail to react we might well have seen an even more ambitious campaign to destroy Ukraine’s ability to function as a state and establish a direct land connection from Russia to Moldova that would have occupied not only Crimea but also Odessa, Ukraine’s main port, thereby completely foreclosing any viable foreign economic connections for the Ukrainian economy.

Ukrainian sources report that during this operation, Moscow also widened the airport in Tiraspol, the “capital” of its rump Transnistrian republic to permit landings of flights with heavier forces, stationed 2000 Spetsnaz forces in Transnistria, and planned so called humanitarian intervention exercises here in order to create and then exploit a pretext for intervening in Ukraine form Transnistria. Since Odessa if only 80Km from Transnistria the operation would have aimed to bisect Ukraine and capture Odessa with the attendant strategic consequences.[xv]

Those contingencies harmonize with other Russian initiatives in the Balkans e.g. its request to Serbia in the past for a base at Nis from which to conduct “humanitarian operations.”[xvi]

Thus we cannot lose sight of the fact that Russia’s Ukrainian operation not only threatens Ukraine, the Baltic States, and Poland, it also poses the same threats to the entire Balkan peninsula, a long-standing object of Russia’s undying imperial passion and a theater where Moscow has long played the ethnic card against local governments going back to Catherine the Great.

What can the West do in these circumstances?

It is essential to provide to Ukraine the short-term assistance, such as anti-tank and anti-air systems it has requested.

It also is essential to organize rapidly a Pentagon task force to conduct a short-term needs assessment of Ukraine’s needs alongside of the current medium and long-term assessment programs now underway.

It also is essential to strengthen NATO’s permanent presence in Poland, the Baltic, and Balkan areas, and deploy a naval capability to prevent Moscow from engaging in the “non-military” interdiction of or maritime threats to Odessa.

Beyond that new sanctions on Russian energy and economic capabilities are needed at once rather than having Exxon, BP etc. make new deals with Moscow.

Also, the EU Commission’s hand needs to be strengthened to ensure that the Russian South Stream program never gets off the ground by maintaining pressure on key states like Austria, Hungary, Serbia, and Bulgaria, and Turkey, and we must override the bureaucratic stalling that is preventing the US from sending the full tranche of aid for which Ukraine is eligible to Kyiv. As of today only $77 million of the estimated $200 million has been made available.

Finally there must be not only a change of policy and behavior but of perspective. There are still those who believe this operation was an improvised response to the revolution in Ukraine. They disregard the plain evidence that the training required for the Crimean operation takes years, that Reuben Johnson, this author and Dmitri Trenin all reported that such training was underway by 2008![xvii]

Similarly officials, not to mention Putin’s Western claque neglect the fact that Putin admitted that planning for the Georgian war, using separatists began in 2006, not August 2008.[xviii]

And for those analysts who read Russian, Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov prefigured Russian strategy in a 2013 speech to the Academy of Military Sciences that was published and then publicly summarized.[xix]

Neither can we neglect, the raft of Russian statements going back decades that are a matter of public record that none of the Post-Soviet or for that matter post-Warsaw pact states that emerged after 1989 are truly sovereign or that their borders are bound by international treaty.[xx]

Putin’s demands for self-determination for Russians and diatribes against the post-Cold War settlement indicate that we are dealing with a Russia that believes the post-Soviet settlement is not legitimate.

Stephen Blank is Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council based in Washington DC.


[i] Andrew Roth and Neil MacFarquhar, “Casualties Reported as Ukraine Seeks a Cease-Fire,” New York Times, June 20, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/21/world/europe/ukraine.html

[ii] Carol Morello, “NATO Reports New Russian Troop Buildup Along the Ukrainian Border, “ Washington Post, June 19, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/kiev-nato-allege-new-russian-troop-buildup-just-across-the-ukrainian-border/2014/06/19/5002b196-f7c9-1

[iii] E-mail communication from Andrew Fink, June 20, 2014 Videos here: http://youtu.be/q_oFRTU4gMg  – video purports to be from Horlivka, town between Donetsk and Luhansk; http://youtu.be/ucKwjzA7n9o; also in Luhansk: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=835542573125314; Still shot of a column in Donetsk, also flying the St. George’s banner: https://twitter.com/MarQs__/status/479934523191607296/photo/1; one BTR was captured and found with maintenance documents that include an official Russian stamp: https://twitter.com/lennutrajektoor/status/479893301462847488/photo/1

[iv] ““K granitse pribyvayut rossiiskie voennye: obustraivayutsya, maskiruyut tekhniku,” rus.newsru.ua, June 19, 2014, http://rus.newsru.ua/ukraine/19jun2014/voiaki_print.html

[v] Morello

[vi] “Tymchuk: Thousands Of Mercenaries Awaiting Transfer To Ukraine From Russia,” http://inforesist.org/en/tymchuk-thousands-of-mercenaries-awaiting-transfer-to-ukraine-from-russia/, June 17, 2014

[vii] Michael R. Gordon and Andrew Roth, “As Ukraine Announces Cease-Fire, White House Points Finger at Russia,” New York Times, June 21, 2014

[viii] “Naval Infantry and Airborne Troops Conduct Joint Exercises, ”Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, Jun 13, 2014, Military Intelligence of the Czech Republic Daily Bulletin: 19 Jun 2014, FBIS SOV, June 19, 2014; Moscow, Interfax-AVN Online, in Russian, June 16, 2014, FBIS SOV, June 16, 2014

[ix] Morello,

[x] Belgrade, Pravda Online, in Serbian, June 15, 2014, Open Source Center Foreign Broadcasting Information Service, Central Eurasia, (Henceforth FBIS SOV, June 15, 2014

[xi] “Istochnik: Shoigu na zakrytom zasedanii Gosdumy priznal, chto voiska RF vozvrashchayutsya k ukrainskoi granitse,” www.newsru.com, June 19, 2014, http://www.newsru.com/russia/19june2014/army_print.html

[xii] Carol Morello, “Russia Redeploying More Troops Along Ukraine Border, U.S. Officials Say, Washington Post, June 20, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/pb/carol-morello

[xiii] Roth and MacFarquhar; Morello, “NATO Reports New Russian Troop Buildup Along the Ukrainian Border,”

[xiv] Moscow, RIA Novosti, in Russian, June 18, 2014, FBIS SOV, June 18, 2014

[xv] Conversations with Ostap Kryvdyk, Washington, D.C. June 19, 2014

[xvi] Visr Ymeri, “Big Brother of Northern Neighbor,” Tirana, Korrieri, in Albanian, November 26, 2009, FBIS SOV December 6, 2009

[xvii] Reuben F. Johnson, “The Expansion Process Has Begun, “ The Weekly Standard, XII, No. 4, October 10, 2006; Stephen Blank, Russia and the Black Sea’s Frozen Conflicts In Strategic Perspective,” Mediterranean Quarterly, XIX, No., 3, Summer, 2008, pp. 23-54; Dmitri Trenin, “Russia’s Goal In Ukraine Remains the Same: Keep NATO Out,” Al-Jazeera America, June 2, 2014, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/6/2/russiaa-s-goal-inukraineremainsthesametokeepnatoout.html

[xviii] “Putin Admits Russia Trained S Ossetians Before 2008 Georgia War – Transcript President of Russia, www.kremlin.ru, August 10, 2012

[xix] Paul Goble, “Window on Eurasia: Putin’s Actions in Ukraine Following Script by Russian General Staff a Year Ago,” Window on Eurasia — New Series, June 20, 2014, http://windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2014/06/window-on-eurasia-putins-actions-in.html. The Russian sources are as follows, avnrf.ru/index.php/vse-novosti-sajta/620-rol-generalnogo-shtaba-v-organizatsii-oborony-strany-v-sootvetstvii-s-novym-polozheniem-o-generalnom-shtabe-utverzhdjonnym-prezidentom-rossijskoj-federatsii; vpk-news.ru/sites/default/files/pdf/VPK_08_476.pdf).

[xx] Stephen Blank, “The Values Gap Between Moscow and the West: the Sovereignty Issue,” Acque et Terre, No. 6, 2007, pp. 9-14 (Italian), 90-95 (English) is an early example that shows how deeply-rooted this phenomenon is.