We Come in 'Peace'

Russia's invasion of eastern Ukraine won't be an armored blitzkrieg. It's a slow, seditious drip -- and it's already underway.

The joke among Ukrainians goes something like this: "What's happened today? Has Russia invaded us yet?" For those living the reality of having a portion of their country occupied by Russian intelligence agents and insurgents -- all armed with Moscow-dispatched weapons, of course -- the question isn't whether Vladimir Putin will launch a full-scale assault on his neighbor, but when he'll do it. This week, U.S., NATO, and European officials all seemed to agree that the prospect of that event occurring has risen precipitously.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said at a press conference on Aug. 6, "We have reasons to suspect -- we have been receiving such information in the last several hours -- that the risk of a direct intervention is higher than it was several days ago." NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu wrote in an emailed statement to Reuters that Russia might use "the pretext of a humanitarian or peace-keeping mission as an excuse to send troops into Eastern Ukraine" -- an observation that didn't exactly require much human intelligence given that Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, spent all day on Aug. 5 trying to get the U.N. Security Council to authorize a peacekeeping mission as an excuse to send troops into eastern Ukraine.

Alarmingly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is attempting to portray the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as studying a proposal to run "humanitarian aid" into the region, although the ICRC has not made any such announcement. ITAR-TASS quotes Lavrov as saying that the Red Cross "supported this approach" and that he hopes, within short order, to work out the "practical aspects of the implementation of this initiative." This, mere hours before Ukraine released an intercepted phone call suggesting that separatists had detained three members of the Red Cross, who are still missing. I wonder who'll volunteer to get them back....

If Moscow isn't planning to invade, they're sure doing a good job making it look otherwise. Russia is conducting yet another war game encompassing its western and central military districts and featuring over 100 aircraft, including fighter jets and bombers, which will coordinate their activities with anti-missile defenses, as a Russian Air Force spokesperson told Interfax. There are now some 20,000 Russian troops stationed at the border.

"These battalion groups consist of infantry, armor and artillery, and also have organic air defense capabilities," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said last week, noting that these groups were "capable across a wide spectrum of military operations." According to the New York Times, the United States is unable to count, with any real precision, the number of troops amassed at the border because the Russians are always on the move and camouflaging their combat equipment. If Putin only wanted to scare Ukraine, or to exercise a little hard-power leverage with the West, he wouldn't hide his toys from U.S. satellites flying overhead. He'd signpost them.

Nor are these soldiers armed with the rusty and creaking hardware that rolled off the assembly line when Andropov was in power. As my colleague Andrew Bowen reported for Foreign Policy last week, the Russian soldiery perched at Ukraine's doorstep is "far more advanced than the Soviet divisions that were pointed at NATO." These troops are the shiny, new advertisements of the vast modernization program of the Russian armed forces, which began in 2008 in response to the noticeable deficiencies in Russia's invasion of Georgia, another war that began in August.

On Aug. 6, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced during an inspection of a military base in Samara: "The world has changed, changed dramatically. As you know from previous cases ... peacekeeping units may be called upon unexpectedly. This is precisely why divisions and brigades of the peacekeeping forces must maintain constant combat readiness." My team at The Interpreter has confirmed reports that Russian military vehicles have been painted with "Mirotvorcheskiye Sily" ("peacekeeping") emblems, similar to those previously deployed in Transnistria and Georgia.

What further proof does one need that the immolation of 298 civilians last month did absolutely nothing to soften Putin's resolve about furthering the war?

He is still sending materiel to the separatists, including tanks, rockets, and air defense systems such as Buk anti-aircraft missiles, which is what Western officials believe shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, and one of which was reportedly used again today to shoot down a Ukrainian MiG-29 jet. Last week, two Ukrainian military convoys were demolished by Grad rockets just south of the crash site of the airliner. Ukraine last week seized tanks emblazoned with the insignia of the Russian Airborne Troops (VDV), an elite military force that was instrumental in taking Crimea last March. The head of the VDV, Col. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, has promised to expand his operations beyond Russian Federation territory, and Ukraine is not necessarily paranoid in suggesting that the launching ground for an invasion may also encompass Crimea, which is why Kiev argues that the real figure of Russian troops surrounding the country is more like 45,000.

Next week, in fact, Putin is set to host high-level talks with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and most of the Duma in the annexed Ukrainian peninsula. "The main message (of the trip) is political, to show that Crimea is an integral part of Russia and that there's no turning back despite the sanctions," a source from the ruling United Russia party told Reuters. What better place from which to inaugurate the next phase of a war than land he stole in the first phase?

There is also every indication that tougher U.S. and European Union sanctions have not exercised Russia's oligarchs, in whom the West has placed too much hope for pressuring or cajoling Putin into a climb-down. Sanctions haven't done much to frighten the country's billionaires, at least judging by their own rhetoric. In a recent interview, Gennady Timchenko, the U.S.-sanctioned founder of the Swiss commodities-trading firm Gunvor -- a company in which Putin has investments and may have access to funds, according to the U.S. Treasury Department -- said that Russia's elite will not be swayed by financial warfare. "Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] is only thinking about the interest of Russia. Full stop," Timchenko said. "There can be no compromise here. And it won't even cross our [businessmen's] minds to speak out about this subject. It is naive to think that with such methods anyone will scare us or force us to retreat." (On Aug 4. Timchenko even announced his intention to build a $1.12 billion underground railway conduit, similar to the Anglo-French "Chunnel," under the Kerch Strait to conjoin Crimea with mainland Russia.)

Unsurprisingly, Moscow's renewed attempts to fortify its proxy militants coincide with Kiev's steady work in battering them. One should pay close attention to the Ukrainian towns of Torez and Shakhtyorsk. They are of vital strategic importance to the separatists because the two main road arteries that connect the "People's Republic of Donetsk" (DPR) to the "People's Republic of Lugansk" (LPR) run right through them. These areas are where a Buk system, minus some of its missiles, has been spotted in the last few weeks; they're also routes that have lately been interdicted by Ukraine's Anti-Terrorism Operation (ATO) forces, which are tasked with breaking the back of the insurgency. The more it appears imminent that the separatists in the DPR will be starved of Russian resupplies, the greater the likelihood that Putin will mount an incursion to prop them up more directly.

Ukraine's military just entered Marinka, another suburb of Donetsk, pulling the noose ever tighter. Also, the self-declared "prime minster" of the DPR, Alexander Borodai, resigned today, naming another separatist leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, as his successor (but noting that he'd stay on as vice premier and an advisor). This came after Borodai spent weeks in Moscow trying to enlist greater direct Russian military support for the war. So why is he out of a job all of a sudden? Well, the 38-year-old Zakharchenko is the commander of Oplot ("bastion"), a unit of the separatists that was among the first to raid the administration building in Donetsk last April. He was also wounded in battle on July 22, as recently exhibited on YouTube. Unlike Borodai, who's from Moscow, Zakharchenko is a native of Donetsk. This could indicate that, if Russia is planning a military operation, it wants a hardened and domestic proxy leader out front, or right behind, its own troop columns.

Meanwhile, the head of Ukraine's Security Service (SBU), Valentin Nalivaychenko, held a press conference in which he stated two things. First, the separatists were actually supposed to shoot down not MH17 on July 17, but AFL2074 -- an Aeroflot commercial plane that had a similar flight path and was en route from Moscow to Larnaca, Cyprus -- in order to blame it on Kiev and thus furnish a pretext for a Russian invasion, which was to have commenced the following day. Second, because the entire operation was so badly botched, Nalivaychenko claimed, the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency, is now set on assassinating the separatists responsible. Neither allegation has been confirmed, but both are of great interest to anyone following this conflict.

Indeed, because Ukraine is doing relatively well in retaking occupied territory, and has been since the capture a month ago of Slavyansk, the erstwhile separatist headquarters, two developments have occurred in tandem. The twin zones of the DPR and LPR have shrunk conspicuously, and they've become more isolated from each other. The Interpreter created this time-lapse image, drawing on daily maps of the conflict compiled by the civic journalist website Liveuamap.com, showing just how much territory the separatists have lost since July 13. No doubt the Russian General Staff is looking at similar battlefield data and planning accordingly.

A full-scale invasion and occupation may be disastrous, as Russian military analyst Alexander Golts and U.S. Naval War College professor John Schindler have argued. But Moscow may only be looking to establish supply "corridors" inside Ukraine, under the guise of a humanitarian intervention, to ensure the continued flow of weapons to its proxies. In this respect, Russia's role in eastern Ukraine could resemble Hezbollah's in the Qalamoun region of Syria, where the Party of God has, with mixed results, spent months trying to keep a direct line of martial aid flowing from Damascus, thereby keeping the anti-Assad rebellion well away from another volatile and fast-eroding border -- the one between Syria and Lebanon.

There are hard interests for Moscow at stake here, even if they come in the guise of softer humanitarian concern. Propaganda usually precedes aggression, and the Kremlin's messaging in the last few days points to "peacekeeping" as the newest banner of maskirovka.

Last week, for instance, 438 Ukrainian servicemen from the 72nd Brigade, 164 of them border guards, crossed over into Gukovo, in the Rostov oblast of Russia, which happens to be the same place from which troops fired Grad rockets into Ukraine on July 15. They were given a military escort to a refugee camp stationed there. Vasily Malayev, the spokesman for the Rostov region border service, which is controlled by the FSB, Russia's domestic security agency, said that the Ukrainian troops "were tired of war and didn't want to fight anymore" and had destroyed their weapons and ammunition before crossing over. ITAR-TASS alleged that they all sought asylum in Russia, which would classify them as not only deserters but also traitors. The story also ran in LifeNews, a media outlet that is considered by many to be the information arm of Russian intelligence, and was presented as follows: "According to Ukrainian military, before they crossed the border they had been told that Russia was an 'aggressor country' engaged in combat operations against them. Now, they have made sure it was not true, they added." Foreign Minister Lavrov seconded this narrative and expanded upon it, casting Moscow as the guarantor of refuge for all exhausted and demoralized fellow Slavs who have had no choice but to escape a grinding war. "We have helped, offering medical assistance and given the possibility of return to all those who wanted it without impeding them, without keeping anyone forcibly," he said.

Only the entire tale turned out to be an invention.

Andriy Lysenko, the chairman of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, rejected the claim that the servicemen were asylum seekers: "We are currently maintaining contact with them through diplomatic channels. They want to return to their Motherland." Lysenko was right.

The BBC's Steven Rosenberg traveled to the Gukovo refugee camp and met with the soldiers, some of whom said they had been "under intense pressure" -- but by whom, exactly, they didn't specify. (The Ukrainian side of the border isn't as well populated as the Russian side; it has also produced little by way of photographic or video evidence of combat operations, and so it's entirely possible that conventional Russian units have already penetrated Ukrainian territory, posing as separatists or perhaps not even bothering to.) Under fire, the Ukrainian troops ran out of ammunition and received no backup, so they retreated away from the onslaught, into Russia. A Russian security official then claimed to Rosenberg that the combatants were all free to return home, or to remain. "We didn't find anyone here who was keen to stay," Rosenberg said, which gels with what the OSCE Observer Mission noted on Aug. 4: that no Ukrainian solider had applied for asylum in Gukovo. "Ukraine is my home. It's where I was born, and where I belong," one serviceman told Rosenberg. Another said Russia was to blame for stoking the violence in his country.

On Aug. 5, 195 men from the 72nd Brigade were allowed to leave and cross back into Ukraine -- upon which they were ambushed and attacked by separatists in Olginka in the Donetsk region. No one was killed, but Lysenko alleged that this, too, was a "provocation, arranged by pro-Russian mercenaries with the aim of discrediting the armed forces and leadership of Ukraine, playing it as a case of Ukrainian soldiers' revenge against 'traitors.'"

By now, we should be familiar enough with the prewritten script Moscow will recite if it does ultimately choose to invade Ukraine: "Kiev has lost control of its territory and it is trying to execute its own men, whom it has tricked into believing they are at war with us. Barack Obama is stuck in his Cold War mentality and has tried and failed to isolate Russia for trying only to prevent a disaster created by the United States and the European Union -- and now perpetrated by a junta of homosexual neo-Nazis in Kiev. We must reluctantly admit that we now have no choice but to attempt to restore calm in eastern Ukraine. Surely, those who invented the Responsibility to Protect doctrine will understand."

And even if they don't understand, Russia can always dispatch its "peacekeepers" into Ukraine anyway and deny that they're there ... until it's confident that the West won't or can't do anything to stop it -- at which point Putin can come clean in another press conference that seems as if it's been directed by David Lynch. Meanwhile, the not-yet-ended war in Gaza and the imminent extermination of a minority group in Iraq would serve as convenient distractions for what's already proved to be a bloody enough summer.



Do No (More) Harm

Every time the U.S. touches the Middle East, it makes things worse. It's time to walk away and not look back.

In case you hadn't noticed, the Middle East is going from bad to worse these days.  

The Syrian civil war grinds on. Israel and the Palestinians spent the last month in another pointless bloodletting (most of the blood being Palestinian). ISIS keeps expanding its control in parts of Iraq, placing thousands of members of the Yazidi religious sect in peril and leading the Obama administration to consider airstrikes or some form of airborne humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, officials back in Baghdad snipe mostly at each other. Libya continues to unravel, belying the high-fives that liberal hawks gave themselves back when Qaddafi fell. A U.S. general was shot and killed in Afghanistan, and another disputed election threatens democracy there and may give the Taliban new opportunities to make gains at Kabul's expense. Turkey's Prime Minister Recip Erdogan has been calling Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi a "tyrant," an irony given Erdogan's own authoritarian tendencies. A diplomatic spat between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar remains unsettled. Nature even seems to be against us: the MERS virus on the Arabian Peninsula may be transmissible by airborne contact. I'm sure you could find some good news if you tried, but you'd have to squint pretty hard.

A string of events like this attracts critics and Cassandras like yellow jackets to a backyard picnic. In the Washington Post, neoconservative Eliot Cohen laments the "wreckage" of U.S. Middle East policy, blaming everything on Barack Obama's failure to recognize "war is war" and his reluctance to rally the nation to wage more of them. (Never mind that the last war Cohen helped get the United States into -- the invasion of Iraq in 2003 -- did far more damage than anything Obama has done.) A far more convincing perspective comes from former Ambassador Chas Freeman who surveys several decades of America's meddling in the region and comes to a depressing conclusion: "It's hard to think of any American project in the Middle East that is not now at or near a dead end."

Is there a silver lining in this disheartening tableaux? Perhaps. After all, when things are this bad, the need to rethink the entire U.S. approach to the region is hard to escape. If we cast aside familiar shibboleths and taboos and took a fresh look, what might we see?

Since World War II, the meddling that Freeman recounts has been conducted in partnership with various regional allies. These alignments may have been a strategic necessity during the Cold War (though even that could be debated), but the sad fact is that the United States has no appealing partners left today. Egypt is a corrupt military dictatorship with grim prospects, and Erdogan's AKP regime in Turkey is trending toward one-party rule, while its ambitious "zero problems" foreign policy has gone badly off the rails. Working with the Assad regime in Syria is out of the question -- for good reason -- but most of Bashar al-Assad's opponents are no prize either. Saudi Arabia is a geriatric, theocratic monarchy that treats half its population -- i.e., its women -- like second-class citizens (at best). Iran is a different sort of theocratic state: it has some quasi-democratic features, but also an abysmal human rights record and worrisome regional ambitions.

The view doesn't get much better no matter where one looks. The Hashemite monarchy in Jordan has been an ally for decades, but it remains heavily dependent on outside support and is too weak and fragile to be the linchpin of U.S. engagement. The same is true for Lebanon. Libya doesn't even have a government, let alone one the United States would want to be close to. Israel is wrapping up its latest outrage against the Palestinians-to no lasting strategic purpose--and its march to the right now includes open advocacy of eliminationist policies by prominent political figures. The "special relationship" with Israel also fuels anti-Americanism and makes Washington look both hypocritical and ineffectual in the eyes of much of the world. But Palestinian political groups are no more appealing: the Palestinian Authority is corrupt and ineffectual and elements of Hamas still proclaim the worst sort of toxic anti-Semitism. States like Qatar and Bahrain do provide valuable real estate for U.S. bases, and many of these governments cooperate with the United States out of their own self-interest, but it's hard to find anyone in the region that looks like a genuine strategic or moral asset these days.

Faced with this unpromising environment, what would be the sensible -- or dare I say realistic -- thing for the United States to do? The familiar answer is to say that it's an imperfect world and that we have no choice but to work with what we've got. We hold our noses, and cut deals with the least objectionable parties in the region. As Michael Corleone would say, it's not personal; it's strictly business.

But this view assumes that deep engagement with this troubled area is still critical to U.S. national interests, and further assumes the United States reaps net benefits from its recurrent meddling on behalf of its less-than-loyal partners. In other words, it assumes that these partnerships and deep U.S. engagement make Americans safer and more prosperous here at home. But given the current state of the region and the condition of most of our putative allies, that assumption is increasingly questionable.

In fact, most of the disputes and divisions that are currently roiling the region do not pose direct and mortal threats to vital U.S. interests. It is admittedly wrenching to watch what is happening in Syria or Gaza, or to Israel's democracy, but these events affect the lives of very few Americans directly. Unless, of course, we are foolish enough to throw ourselves back into the middle of the maelstrom.

Moreover, the Middle East today is riven by a series of overlapping conflicts along multiple fault lines, driven in good part by protracted government failures and exacerbated by misguided outside meddling. There's the division between Sunni and Shiite, of course, and between Islamists (of many different stripes) and traditional authoritarians (also of several different types). Add to that mix the conflicts along sectarian lines (as in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere), and the recurring suspicions between Arabs and Persians. And don't forget the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, which still reverberates throughout the Arab and Islamic world.

Here's where Americans need to remember the United States may have permanent interests in the Middle East, but not necessarily permanent friends. In terms of its strategic interests, the central U.S. goal since World War II has been to prevent any single power from dominating the oil rich Persian Gulf. However troubled we may be by all the divisions and quarrels in the region, those conflicts also make the possibility that one power will dominate the region more remote than ever. Does anyone seriously think Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS), the Kurds, Russia, Turkey, China or anyone else is going to take over and manage this vast and turbulent area, and smooth out all these rifts and feuds? Of course not. And if that is the case, then America's primary strategic goal will be met whether Washington lifts a finger or not.

Some will argue that we have a moral responsibility to try to end the obvious suffering in different places, and a strategic imperative to eradicate terrorists and prevent the spread of WMD. These are laudable goals, but if the history of the past twenty years teaches us anything, it is that forceful American interference of this sort just makes these problems worse. The Islamic State wouldn't exist if the neocons hadn't led us blindly into Iraq, and Iran would have less reason to contemplate getting nuclear weapons if it hadn't watched the United States throw its weight around in the region and threaten it directly with regime change.

So instead of acting like a hyperactive juggler dashing between a dozen spinning plates, maybe the best course is to step back even more than we have already. No, I don't mean isolationism: What I mean is taking seriously the idea of strategic disengagement and putting the whole region further down on America's list of foreign policy priorities. Instead of constantly cajoling these states to do what we think is best -- and mostly getting ignored or rebuked by them -- maybe we should let them sort out these problems themselves for awhile. And if any of them eventually want American help, it should come at a steep price.

Among other things, the policy I'm suggesting would mean the United States would stop its futile efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I've argued against such a course in the past, but it is now obvious to me that no president is willing to challenge Israel's backers here in the United States and make U.S. support for Israel conditional on an end to the occupation. Until that happens, even well-intentioned efforts to broker a peace will keep failing. Instead of continuing to squander valuable time and prestige on a fruitless endeavor, the U.S. government should disengage from this thankless task until it is ready to do more than just palaver and plead. If Israel's leaders want to risk their own future by creating a "greater Israel," so be it. It would be regrettable if Israel ended up an apartheid state and an international pariah, but preventing that tragedy is not a vital U.S. interest. (If it really were, U.S. policy since Oslo might have been rather different.)

To be consistent, of course, the United States would also end its military and economic aid to Egypt, Israel, and perhaps a few others. I don't expect Congress to suddenly grow a backbone and do the right thing here, but even a realist can dream, can't he? But even if the "special relationship" remains more-or-less intact, at least U.S. diplomats wouldn't be wasting more time and energy trying to do the impossible.

To be sure, the course of action I'm sketching here is likely to leave the Middle East in a pretty messy condition for some time to come. But that is going to be the case no matter what Washington decides to do. So the question is: should the United States squander more blood and treasure on a series of futile tasks, and in ways that will make plenty of people in the region angry and encourage a few of them look for ways to deliver some payback? Or should the United States distance itself from everyone in the region, and prepare to intervene only when a substantial number of American lives are at risk or in the unlikely event that there is a genuine and imminent threat of regional domination?

The latter course would be a real departure for U.S. policy, and I can see the potential downside risks. Some local governments might be less willing to share intelligence with us, or to collaborate on counter-terrorism. That would be unfortunate, but on the other hand, because anti-American terrorism emanating from the region is mostly a violent reaction to past U.S. policies, a less engaged policy would almost certainly make that problem less severe.

In any case, the results of a different approach could hardly be worse than what the United States has managed to achieve over the past twenty-plus years. Unless Americans have a masochistic addiction to disappointment, this seems like an ideal time for a more fundamental rethink.

One final thought: this argument would not preclude limited U.S. action for purely humanitarian purposes -- such as humanitarian airdrops for the beleaguered religious minorities now threatened with starvation in Iraq. That's not "deep engagement"; that's merely trying to help people threatened with imminent death. But I would not send U.S. forces -- including drones or aircraft -- out to win a battle that the Iraqi government or the Kurds cannot win for themselves. The United States spent the better part of a decade chasing that elusive Grail, and the end result was precisely the sort of chaos and sectarian rivalry that has produced this latest crisis. We may be able to do some limited good for the endangered minorities, but above all, let's do no further harm: not to the region, and not to ourselves.

Photoillustration by FP