Home » EU » Russia, America, and EU testing new boundaries over Ukraine

Russia, America, and EU testing new boundaries over Ukraine

by John Brian Shannon | September 2, 2014

During the Cold War the situation that prevailed for 40 years was one where the Europeans and the Americans knew that if the USSR ever determinedly decided to invade Europe, they could hold the Soviets for about a week before having to resort to nuclear weapons in order to stop any further advances by the USSR.

As horrific as it sounds it is true, and it also worked just fine over 40 years.

Since the end of the Cold War we’ve all been coasting along, both sides busy with their own interests, and we continued to play along with the former rule-set because we all had better things to do. Granted that tensions between the blocs has decreased markedly since the fall of communism and the generally stellar growth would have been impeded by any kind of war, particularly one that would go nuclear after one week of fighting.

Map of Europe - early 2014

Europe map courtesy of Cartographic Research Lab, University of Alabama

Ukrainian disintegration and Russian assistance

Comfortable in their post-Cold War role, both sides are now beginning to cautiously explore alterations to that paradigm. Russia was first to test the waters by aiding the failed provinces of eastern Ukraine. And they are failed provinces, there can be no doubt about that. They are lawless parts of Ukraine that have managed to repel the Ukrainian Army since 1990 and have recently begun to shooting down Ukrainian Air Force military fighter jets and shot down one Malaysian Air civilian flight, MH17. They even have their own taxation system at unannounced military-style checkpoints all throughout the Donbass region.

Other than fret, all the Ukrainian military can do about it is shell (from a safe distance 80 miles away) likely targets and civilian roadways between 2:00pm and 4:00pm every weekday. Civilians know not to be on the roads during that time, and civilians there also hope that separatist fighters haven’t been roaming around their neighbourhoods during the night — as that seems to invite the Ukrainian Army to fire artillery shells at them the next day.

You haven’t lived until you feel the ground shake from a heavy artillery strike. On windless days, the shells are accurate to within three feet and carry a half a ton of high explosive. Cars instantly become thousands of red-hot metal shrapnel flying outward at 600 miles per hour from the impact zone. Houses become splinters of wood and concrete apartment blocks become rubble that falls randomly over a half-mile radius. Chunks of reinforced concrete the size of car motors fly through houses at 400 miles per hour and out the other side (and through a few neighbours homes too) before tumbling to a stop quite a few blocks away.

Expect one shell every few seconds for two hours if you’ve made them mad. And, it’s all automated. The artillerymen just program the fire-control unit with all of the coordinates and press Fire. As the guns are firing, the ground is shaking at their end too and it’s so loud they simply don their hearing protection and attempt to read the newspaper until it’s all over.

It’s no way for civilians to live, although soldiers revel in this environment. If you’re an artilleryman, you just know that you’re pounding the daylights out of the enemy and that their roads will be unusable for at least a week. You know that you have hit your targets to within three feet of accuracy if there are no strong winds that day, and you know that your enemies nerves are completely wrecked. On the receiving end, the soldiers that haven’t been killed simply wait for it to be over so they can get to the ‘good part’ which is the revenge part. So, they don hearing protection and plot even more revenge against the Ukrainian Army.

Ukraine lost control of the eastern parts of their country long ago (in 1990) after the fall of communism. Since then, the local people formed militias of varying quality, but they have been successful in routing the Ukrainian Army and over-running the local military bases and capturing all of the weapons systems and ammunition stored there.

The ethnic Russians who live in this region (called the Donbass region) were once citizens of Russia until 1954 when the Soviet leaders gave the region to Ukraine to administer. All of southern and eastern Ukraine was once a part of Imperial Russia during the time of Catherine the Great and the vast majority of people in the Donbass have much more in common with and are in contact with Russian family in Moscow and other Russian cities, than with Ukraine.

During the Cold War, they all got along fine as they were ‘comrades in arms’ against the machinations of the decadent and bourgeoisie West. Now, having nothing in common with their Ukrainian counterparts (except artillery shells) they wish to rejoin Russia. Who wouldn’t?

The fact that the Ukrainian Army has been fighting them since 1990 has only intensified their desire to rejoin Russia. Although they would much rather do so on “their” terms — which is why they fight for the right, instead of asking Russia to come in and do it for them. (“We are independent! Only now, do we wish to join with you, Father Russia.”)

The Western response

The West was wrong to make it an issue. Under scrutiny, it’s a completely non-defensible position if you are considering the concerns of civilian families. There’s no doubt at all that ethnic Russian families will fare better under Russian administration — than under Ukrainian administration. And that is before factoring-in the ‘bad blood’ that exists between the people of the Donbass and the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, were the disputed regions to ever return to Ukrainian administration.

But the Western response showed the Russians how fearfully they regarded any threat of Russian expansion into Europe.

Not that Ukraine is a part of Europe, it’s also not part of the EU, or the EC, nor of NATO. Ukraine is a former Soviet Union satellite state, located in what was once called “Novorossiya” — the czarist-era name for Ukraine’s ethnic Russian population in the eastern and southern parts of the country.

The term Novorossiya dates to the late 18th century, when Catherine the Great won lands near the Black Sea after a series of wars with the Ottomans and created a governate known as “New Russia” to rule much of the newly conquered region.

Today, pro-Russian rebels have adopted the name for their movement and revived the czarist governorate flag as one of their emblems. The symbolic choice highlights the historical and cultural links of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to neighboring Russia, implicitly calling into question their place in an independent Ukraine.

“The region that we’re talking about was once called Novorossiya,” Mr. Putin said when he first mentioned the term in April. “Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Odessa weren’t included as part of Ukraine. They were given to it by the Soviet government.” — The Wall Street Journal

Other than aid as requested by Kiev and a hawk-like watch on civil rights, the West should stay out of the Donbass region. It is a fight between former Soviets, Ukrainian nationalists, present-day Russians and former Russians — many of whom want to become full Russian citizens again.

The Baltic Countries

On the other hand, the former Soviet Union ceded all of the eastern European republics to the West at the end of the Cold War. There is no doubt at all that the people in those countries are faring much better now, than during Soviet times. Which gives the West huge credibility in any contest with the Russians over the Baltics.

And for as long as that continues, the West has the right and yes, the duty, to defend those former Soviet states with all means at their disposal. The USSR ceded those nations to Europe, and since then the Russian Federation has not contested it, making it a precedent observed by both the USSR and later Russia, that the eastern European nations belong in the Western sphere of influence.

If the vast majority of citizens living in eastern Europe would fare better under Russian rule, the case could be argued. But nobody is going to argue that point.

The Europeans and the Americans undertook a solemn duty to take eastern Europe under its wing and treat them as well as any European nation-state. Granted, it’s a work in progress and there have even been occasional setbacks, but eastern Europeans are faring better than at any time in their history.

Is there any threat to Europe or individual eastern European nations from Russia?

There simply wasn’t any threat, at least, until some Europeans began panicking and remonstrating in public about Russia’s actions in Ukraine and about how vulnerable they felt in the presence of a reinvigorated Russia, a Russia flush with boatloads of cash, and well on its way to claiming the position of the 5th most powerful economic unit on the planet.

By 2020, Russia will have moved from 10th place to 5th place in the world economic order and will be tied with Japan. Depending on oil prices, Russia may rise to 4th place behind China, the U.S., the EU, and ahead of Japan, India and Brazil. That’s wholesale change by any standard — and in so little time. And Russia with all of their military might and close relationships with China and India. No wonder the Europeans are nervous.

The hysterical reaction of some Europeans has startled the Russians — who didn’t see it coming — nor did they have any designs on Europe. But now, having seen the lack of composure and the fear emanating from Europe, they are likely to be doing a rethink. Unwittingly, some star performers in the Western bloc have handed Russia a higher placement on the geopolitical scene.

Other leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, saw the Ukrainian situation for what it was and didn’t over-react. The German stance was one of; “The eastern provinces of Ukraine essentially left the country years ago anyway. As long as Russia doesn’t take Kiev or the western part of Ukraine, we’re fine.” Such pragmatism! Russia would have never known how fearful some European’s are of the rising Russia had everyone followed Germany’s lead.

The proposed NATO 4000-strong rapid reaction force

To “protect” the militarily vulnerable Baltic republics, NATO has now decided to create a 4000-person-strong rapid reaction force, just in case Russia decides to attack and reclaim those former Soviet states. Militarily speaking, it would be a cake-walk for Russia to take them back. The Baltic’s are indefensible as their topography and proximity to Russia with its overwhelming superiority in tanks and troops, does not allow for any serious non-nuclear defense.

Military success aside, Russia would pay a heavy and ongoing price politically. It might even be the end of all cooperation with the West for 25 years and the creation of another ‘Iron Curtain’ and possibly another Cold War. And the implied threat of nuclear war.

But it’s unthinkable that Russia would risk its reputation and possibly derail its race to 4th or 5th place in the world economic rankings to take Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from Europe.

Let’s drop the drama, and just fix our mistake

Yet now that the Europeans have shown some weakness to Russia, they feel they must counter that perceived weakness with a proposed 4000-strong rapid reaction force. Which must have them rolling in the aisles in the Kremlin.

A 4000-strong rapid reaction force would only hold the Russians for an extra day should they ever decide to attack the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Which was never on their list of things to do.

But having stumbled this badly, the only way for the Europeans to recover is to show the Russians some determination and grit. And no, that doesn’t mean invading an oil-rich Middle Eastern kingdom to show the Russians how strong they are.

It means that Europe should pull itself up to its full height and dismiss any of their people who’ve made them look impotent and afraid of Russia — and get to work creating a minimum 25,000-strong rapid reaction force well within 6 months — even if that means staffing it 100% with American soldiers and airmen, until Europe can replace them 1000-at-a-time.

At this point, that’s what it will take to restore respect for Europe and its institutions over on the Russian side. Anything less than that will definitely not make the Russians sit up and take notice of Europe, but will remain a constant source of hilarity for the Russian military and in a more subdued way, in Russian political circles — particularly where former Soviets may hold influence or present-day (political or military) positions.

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