A White Shining Lie

Putin's 'humanitarian' convoy is simply a pretext for the war the Kremlin's been planning for months.

Leave it to Vladimir Putin to make relief sound menacing. "All excuses for dragging out the delivery ... are exhausted," the Russian Foreign Ministry announced on Aug. 22, as more than 200 white-painted Russian Kamaz "aid" trucks entered Ukrainian territory without the permission of Kiev. "The Russian side has taken the decision to act. Our column with humanitarian cargo is starting to move in the direction of Luhansk."

"The Russian side has taken the decision to act" ranks right up there in minatory sentences with "We need to talk" -- except, of course, the time for talking here is long since past. Also noteworthy is the suddenness with which this fuck-‘em-drive-on pronouncement was delivered, just a day after the Russian Foreign Ministry issued an almost kittenish statement about how everyone was finally getting along: "We welcome the final agreement concerning all variables involved in the urgent delivery of Russian humanitarian relief aid to southeastern Ukraine using the Izvarino-Luhansk route," it read.

What a coincidence that there's been a total breakdown in communications and comity in just 24 hours.

As for the convoy, it bears emphasizing that only 34 trucks have been inspected by Ukrainian customs, and all were found to be much lighter in load than they needed to be. According the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine, "The total weight [of the 34 inspected trucks] was 268,020 kg. Vehicles were loaded to two-thirds of their capacity."

There's also the niggling question of what's in the majority of the Kamazes, which no one, apart from the Russians themselves, has ever set foot in. The entire convoy had sat at the Izvarino border crossing for the better part of a week, ostensibly waiting for all sides to agree to the terms of its entry into eastern Ukraine -- but more than enough time to allow reporters to witness that the only additional materials delivered to the area were military in nature. Last week, the Guardian's Shaun Walker and the Telegraph's Roland Oliphant spotted a column of Russian armored personnel carriers drive right through the border overnight but without making much of a pretense of trying to hide themselves. (Here's a photograph, courtesy of Polish news station TVN24's Wojciech Bojanowski, of the punctured border fence through which these vehicles drove.)

Perhaps because it now realizes that lending its imprimatur in any way to a Russian convoy is a public-relations land mine, the International Committee of the Red Cross sent out a series of urgent tweets today distancing itself entirely from this fiasco. "We are not accompanying the convoy due to the instability of the situation with security," ran one, in Russian. However, Raisa Lukutsova, the head of Russia's national Red Cross Society, was quoted by Interfax saying that she fully supported Moscow's decision to dispatch the convoy. New photographs published by RT Ruptly, one of the Kremlin's friendly propaganda news agencies, show at least one white minivan trailing a Kamaz and flying the recognizable emblem of the Red Cross, which can be purposed by nonaffiliated entities for "protective" rather than "indicative" use. However, Russia is clearly exploiting the fact that the ICRC was originally party to the convoy negotiations, and making ambiguous use of a popular symbol.

(Foreign Policy attempted unsuccessfully to contact Anna K. Nelson, the Washington spokesperson for the ICRC, to clarify how Lukutsova could be at odds with the international wing of her own society. The Geneva headquarters of the ICRC also informed FP that the organization was now closed for the weekend and no media representatives were available for comment.)

NATO, ever wary of using the dreaded "I-word" to describe Moscow's shenanigans at, around, and across the Ukrainian border, instead called the convoy dispatch a "blatant breach of Russia's international commitments." NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu also confirmed today that "Russian artillery support -- both cross-border and from within Ukraine -- is being employed against the Ukrainian armed forces." Additionally, she said, "Russian airborne, air defense and special operations forces" have been active in Donbass. Russian Airborne forces played an outsize role in the near bloodless seizure of Crimea last March, and some members have allegedly been captured by the Ukrainians this week.

Nastya Stanko, a journalist for Ukraine's Hromadske TV, tweeted today in Ukrainian that eight paratroopers from Russia's 76th Pskov Airborne Division "are in a critical condition in the Luhansk regional hospital, they're not movable. Thirty have been sent off to a hospital in Rostov. It's not known what they were doing here." Earlier in the week, a BMD-2 infantry fighting vehicle, reportedly belonging to the Pskov Airborne Division, was captured by the 24th Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the Storm Special Forces unit in the Lugutino district, just south of Luhansk. Ukrainian journalist Roman Bochkala posted an image of the vehicle on his Facebook page, as well as that of an apparent roll call journal for the Pskov Airborne. (Russia countered, saying that this particular journal's format is five years old and no longer in use.) But this fresh evidence tracks with other BMD-2s spotted in mid-August on the Russian side of the border, about 10 kilometers from Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, a Russian town near the Izvarino crossing.

It therefore may not surprise you to learn that on Aug. 16, a presidential decree by Putin, published on the Kremlin's website, stated that "the 76th Guards Air Assault Chernigov Red Banner Division of Russian Airborne Troops have been awarded the Suvorov Award for successful fulfillment of combat assignments of the command and display of the personal staff of courage and heroism." Odd, then, that Russia has not formally acknowledged for which "combat assignments" these brave soldiers are being honored. Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry denied that any of its paratroopers' BMD-2s had been seized in Ukraine, and cast such reports as still further conspiracy theories emanating from Kiev about Russian military involvement in the separatists' war.

If one wanted to be really cynical, one could argue that the U.N. Security Council resolution, unanimously passed in July, authorizing emergency aid convoys to cross into rebel-held areas of Syria without the express permission of the Assad regime will be used as legal justification for Russia's "blatant breach" today. Hailed at the time as a much-needed act of diplomatic consensus on Syria, this resolution always seemed a little too magnanimous for Putin to sign on to. Perhaps we now know why. It's given him cover to turn around and blame the United States for abiding by "double standards" with respect to humanitarianism and state sovereignty. This would certainly chime with Moscow's accusation that, even as it pours troops, anti-aircraft systems, and armored personnel carriers into eastern Ukraine, and even as it has amassed 30,000 troops at the border, it is actually Washington and Kiev plumping for war.

Russia's drip-drip invasion was never going to be heralded with a formal declaration of war. That's not how the Russian president plays the game. In fact, the best barometer that conditions in eastern Ukraine were about to get worse -- not better -- came in the seeming willingness of Putin to parlay with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk on Aug. 26. Surely that meant Russia wanted a settlement? No, it meant that Russia wanted relaxed international headlines so that it could proceed with its war policy unhindered.



NATO's Brave New World

With crises brewing in Ukraine and the Middle East, the transatlantic alliance needs a shot of fresh energy.

As the NATO summit in Wales approaches, the 28 nations of the alliance should recall the words of Aldous Huxley, author of the classic 20th-century dystopian novel Brave New World: "And, of course, stability isn't nearly so spectacular as instability."

Indeed, there is clearly spectacular instability on the horizon, both in Europe, the Levant, and near Middle East. Europe has predictable divisions across the key issues -- from Russia to the Islamic State -- and the United States must stand and deliver leadership.

The first order of business at the summit is to address the new relationship with Russia. The idea of a "true strategic partnership" with the Russian Federation, duly embedded in NATO's 2010 Lisbon Strategic Concept, is in tatters. Finding a new modus vivendi with Russia is job one for the alliance, and the discussions will not be pretty.

The components are fairly clear: a more robust force posture in the east, mostly with rotational ground forces; continue the program of missile defense installations both at sea and ashore; all stop on any discussion of withdrawing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe; maritime deployments to the Baltic and Black Sea; support to the Ukrainian military as they struggle to reclaim their nation's stability and territory; an aggressive exercise program; supporting a strong NATO Response Force; and a robust program of partnerships with other likeminded but non-NATO nations in Europe (e.g. Sweden, Finland, Austria, Georgia). Options for sequencing these actions should be spelled out by the Supreme Allied Commander to the political leadership and immediately accepted.

Second, the European nations need to spend more on defense, at a minimum hitting their self-stated goal of 2 percent of GDP -- today, only a handful of nations (Britain, Estonia, Greece) do so. The United States spends twice as much on defense despite having a slightly smaller economy than the European NATO nations and Canada combined. This is not sustainable politically in the long term and should be corrected rapidly.

The alliance also needs to work through areas where we can find zones of cooperation with Russia, be it Arctic exploration, Afghanistan cooperation, or counternarcotics, counterterrorism, and counterpiracy. Keeping alive at least some level of conversation is important, even as the alliance stands strongly against Russian aggression in Europe.

A second key agenda item is cementing the outlines of the new Afghan mission. This, of course, will require a willing partner in the Afghans, who hopefully can conclude their election squabble and come to the table with a coherent government and a signed agreement to keep 15,000 NATO troops there. The disaster of Iraq reflects the failure to maintain a robust level of advisors to strengthen and train forces -- and the alliance must convince Kabul to avoid making Baghdad's mistake again.

There is still a chance at a successful outcome in Afghanistan, although the window is narrowing appreciably. The follow-on NATO mission, Resolute Support, can succeed, but will require willing hands on both sides of the summit table. Too much treasure and blood has been spilled there -- both Afghan and allied -- to let the chance for success slip away.

The third agenda item is a strategy for the Levant and Near Middle East. The rise of the Islamic State and the ongoing crisis in Syria will ultimately send hundreds of trained jihadists first to Europe then to the United States. The appearance of an allegedly British member of the Islamic State in the gruesome video showing James Foley's execution only highlights the urgency of this concern. The United States cannot be the only actor taking on the challenges, and the war weary American public will simply not permit doing so.

Several European nations -- Britain and France, notably -- are at least sending small contingents to support and help in the anti-Islamic State campaign. Washington has begun to provide more assistance to the moderate Syrian opposition, and some military assistance is beginning to flow to the Kurds, while appropriate humanitarian assistance to Turkey is helping Ankara deal with the influx of more than 1 million refugees. But as the saying goes, "tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." It is time for the alliance to craft a strategy and work coherently against what is clearly a clear, present, and real danger to the southern borders of NATO. The alliance must act against the Islamic State collectively as they would against any direct threat.

Given the level and spectrum of crises in the region, the fourth item agenda -- the looming danger of cyber attacks -- may seem less pressing. And yet perhaps nowhere else in the security arena is the greatest mismatch so great between level of danger and level of preparation. The threats include state actors (notably Russia, which has both capability and motive); non-state actors like jihadists, who are improving their abilities daily; cyber-criminals (while not strictly a military mission, protecting key infrastructure will require at least cooperation with military cyber forces); and anarchists and hacktivists.

The revelations of NSA spying over the past year have hurt the alliance's ability to work together, share tactics and techniques, and integrate cyber defense. The NATO Cyber Defense Center in Tallinn, Estonia is a good start, but there is much more to do, including supporting robust and creative training and exercises; sharing information on threats; standing up an operational arm for counter-cyber defense under the supreme allied commander; and exploring the utility of offensive cyber weapons. All this programs should be on the table in Wales.

In Brave New World, the population is deceived into thinking their world is comfortable and acceptable. As Huxley writes, "One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them." Likewise, NATO must shake off the blinders of the old world and recognize that it is sailing into turbulent seas; and facing the changes with both action and unity under U.S. leadership is the only course to safely steer.

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