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Games of War

This photograph shows a battle group vehicle park in Yelnya, Russia on 19 January (Photo: Maxar Tech/AFP via Getty Images)

The text “The Premonition of War”, published here at the turn of the year by the same author, begins by stating that rhetoric is usually the herald of war. It also listed the signs of potential aggression of Russia against Ukraine, which were particularly numerous at the time, particularly in the Western press.

Although the circumstances change almost kaleidoscopically, the main narrative remains the same: the Russian military presence on the Ukrainian border and in Belarus is only growing.

However, the devil is in the details, and it is about the details, because/when it comes to a potential war on the European continent.

The American corporation Maxar published photos from the outer space at the end of January, which show a clear progression of the Russian military build-up (e.g., the tents indicate the presence of military camps, and therefore not only the deployment of military equipment) compared to the photos taken on 19 January.

The Russians themselves do not hide it in particular, either: on 5 February, the news agency TASS quoted the Minister of Defence of Russia, saying that Su-25СМ assault aircraft had been redeployed to the Belarusian military airports.

Before that, on 2 February, the Ministry announced the deployment of the Triumf long-range (!) air defence system in Belarus near Brest. Su-35 fighter jets have been flown from Russia to Belarus and a Pancir-S missile artillery system has been deployed. And so on.

International public opinion keeps repeating that Russia is speeding up preparations for a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, but it is not clear whether Moscow has already made up its mind to take such a step.

On 6 February, Reuters quoted a couple of anonymous officials from the American power structures, saying that the Russians had mobilised 70% of the combat power needed for a full-scale aggression against their neighbour on the Ukrainian border, increasing the number of tactical battalion groups in the border region from 60 to 83 in a matter of weeks. Another 14 such groups are on their way to the Ukrainian border.

Also according to sources of Reuters, a full-fledged Russian military aggression could require between 5,000 and 25,000 Ukrainian military lives. The Washington Post has previously reported that a Russian military attack on Kiev could result in the deaths of 50,000 Ukrainian civilians.

Peak ground frost is expected on 15 February, ensuring the movement of military vehicles in the field, and this warlike state will continue until the end of March.

The Russian opposition politician (one of the few remaining) Lev Schlossberg says he has a bad suspicion that many people in Russia, but also in NATO and the US, have an interest in exacerbating the situation – some of them are fed up with stubbornness of Vladimir Putin, while others are not only eager to fight, but don’t see any other option than to re-divide the world in the style of the 20th century territorial “extension”.

Such ‘operating models’, which could explode at any time, make at least Ukraine a gunpowder barrel.

The military pseudo-exercises, with more than 70,000 Russian troops crammed into Belarus, Su-25СМs being driven more than 7,000 kilometres from Primorye in Siberia, and the most serious postulating of an attack on Ukraine from Belarus (closer to Kiev than from the east), show that such a scenario has been prepared in Moscow (with a military map, too).

These are the apocalyptic topics up to the last moment.

In a press conference held on 2 February, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby pointed out that the American military has long been saying that, alongside strengthening the combat capability of the military groups deployed in western Russia and Belarus, Vladimir Putin has been increasing their material-technical support in recent weeks (logistics, air support, medical support through the construction of field hospitals, the deployment of medical personnel, etc).

According to John Kirby, improvement of medical services in itself does not necessarily mean preparing for aggression, so it is appropriate to see and analyse the whole mosaic of information.

However, the Pentagon still thinks, as it was a few weeks ago, that the President of Russia already has a sufficient set of options to start an attack on Ukraine.

On 1 February, the Ukrainian portal korrespondent.net reported on evidence from the National intelligence services that the Russians are regrouping troops in the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, bolstering them with pairs of sniper rifles and units of anti-tank missile complexes.

However, with the news from the Ministry of Defence of Russia about redeployments to Belarus and around Ukraine, Moscow is also “in turn” announcing that it is withdrawing troops from the Ukrainian border to permanent deployment sites.

For example, on 29 January, the command of the Western Military District (which includes the regions of Voronezh and Kursk close to Ukraine) indicated that it had completed a planned combat check of its units. For the purpose of inspection, the Western Military District indicated a level of combat readiness, which, in a worrisome context, was considered by some press as a sign of withdrawal of Russian forces.

To say it roughly, they inspected and maybe they will calm down for a while.

Some experts suggest that such assumptions should be treated with caution. According to Kirill Mikhailov from the analytical group Conflict Intelligence, the planned combat readiness inspection has nothing to do with the ongoing build-up of forces near Ukraine.

Michael Kofman, an expert of the American analytical company CNA, who is approached by many media of the world on the issue of Russian militarism, does not believe Russians, either. According to him, the announcement of the end of the inspection just means an escalation of tension, because it points to the growing level of readiness of the Russian troops.

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, commenting on reports of the Russian troop withdrawals, suggested not fostering hopeful expectations too much, recalling that Moscow withdrew some troops in spring of the last year, but later returned them.

Meanwhile, the Allied Determination-2022 exercise has started in Belarus and will be held in two phases. According to the announcement of the Ministry of Defence of Russia on 2 February, Russian and Belarusian military units of motorised infantry, tanks, combat vehicles, artillery, missile complexes will be training in joint exercises at the Domanovsky, Gozhsky, Obuz-Lesnvsky, Brest-Osipovsky ranges, as well as at the Baranovichi, Luninetsky, Lida-Machilishchi airports.

Listing of the exercises is a sign of the degree of militarisation of the Belarusian state.

Until 9 February, the military groups taking part in the exercise will be deployed throughout the territory of Belarus for the control of the most important state and military facilities, the state border and airspace.

From 10 to 20 February, the active phase of the training will take place, so to speak, when the units will get a task to neutralise external aggression and terrorism and defend the interests of the Allied State.

On 20 February, the Beijing Olympics will end, and it is not possible to ignore 2008, when the Russians attacked Georgia after the Beijing (o tell the truth, summer) Olympics began in August.

In an interview with Svoboda (27 January), US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pointed out that the observed concentration of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine, from the south, east and north, surpasses anything seen since the 2014 aggression against that country.

The United States are aware of Moscow’s plans to double these forces in a very short time as well as to destabilise Ukraine from within.

On the basis of this and more, Washington, in close cohesion with its allies, must be prepared for any scenario. When the key question is which path the President of Russia will choose, diplomatic cooperation to consolidate collective security or renewed aggression against Ukraine.

When only he can answer, Vladimir Putin likes to present as many options as possible for future actions (very often on the verge of confusion and beyond).

Something about mosaics of information and sets of options.

In November 2014, The New Yorker magazine, in an article about the former Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, recalled how, in their first meeting after the aggression against Ukraine on 6 June 2014 in Normandy, Angela Merkel spoke tough to Vladimir Putin, but was also ready for a dialogue and tried to understand the logic of the President of Russia. According to her, every time she did so, she wondered how many different points of view one could have on an issue that seemed to her to be perfectly clear.

According to Antony Blinken, the United States are prepared for both. It would be appropriate.

The plot is quite interesting (as far as it goes). In an unexpected rhetorical flourish, a retired Russian Colonel Leonid Ivashov known for his Soviet and national-patriotic views, as leader of the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly, issued a statement on 31 January on behalf of the organisation, directly accusing the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin personally of escalating the war against Ukraine, when Ukraine has been an independent state since 1991 and has a right to the sovereign politics.

That is why the Russian officers are demanding the abandonment of the criminal policy of war provocation and the resignation of the President of Russia. No more, no less. The masters of the Kremlin must have been taken breath away for a while.

Alternatively, the demarche can be seen as part of the Kremlin’s propaganda strategy – the theme of evil (the Kremlin) and good (Russian officers) policemen.

However, the creative potential of the Russian ruling class should not be overestimated, let alone demonised. It may well be that the demarche of a retired colonel-general is an unforeseen event, a “black swan” for the Kremlin.

Regardless, the macabre news package also offers the very moderately optimistic moral that we are dealing with war games, not war premonitions.

There is, however, some hope (however slight) that the military narrative of recent months is turning into another international noise track, a continuation of the “global (fourth) war of words”, especially when the nervous 21st century has already offered a number of topics for confrontation (we should mention the COVID-19 battles..).

Although very sinister, the noise will remain noise, which will eventually be “absorbed” by the global public sphere.

Especially when the Ukrainians, who are directly involved in the process, show remarkable cold-bloodedness.

On 6 February, the Minister of Defence of Ukraine Oleksii Reznikov stated, not for the first time, that his country’s military command has full information about Russian military movements near Ukraine. Despite the abundance of predictions in the international public sphere, it is the duty of the military to predict all the possible scenarios, including the worst ones, which has been done.

Thus, the Ukrainian military concludes that, in the current circumstances, the likelihood of a real escalation of the war is still assessed to be low.

Arūnas Spraunius

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