Alphen, Netherlands. 22 July. For obvious reasons I tend to steer clear of speculation and focus this blog instead on policy and strategy implications. Moreover, predicting Russia’s actions can be a nightmare, not least because of the Kremlin’s mastery of disinformation (see my paper of this year for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute – Countering Strategic Maskirovka). However, something is clearly going on even if a new Russian-backed assault would mark an egregious breach of February’s Minsk 2 cease-fire agreement. Sadly, Minsk 2 is already observed in the breach with so many loopholes. An OSCE report of this week cites 617 breaches in the Donetsk Airport alone and over 400 killed.
Headline: Some commentators have suggested a major Russian offensive against Kharkiv, but there is little solid evidence for that. Equally, several solid sources to whom I have access have suggested preparations are underway for a renewed assault on the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Mariupol, even if in recent days pro-Russian forces associated with the Donetsk People’s Republic withdrew from the strategically-important village of Shyrokyne close to the port. There is certainly some evidence of new Russian forces present to the north of Mariupol, something Moscow of course denies.
Why attack Mariupol again? First, Mariupol is a port and therefore of significant economic and strategic value if the wider ambition to create a Greater ‘Novorossiya’ that stretches west to Odessa and beyond is to be rendered politically and strategically viable. Second, more realistically the creation of an enclave along the Kharkiv, Donetsk, Lugansk, Sloviansk, Mariupol axis would depend on the future export of gas, although much of that would be ‘exported’ directly via pipeline to Russia which is only some 55 kms/35 miles distant. Indeed, the capture of Mariupol would render a fully autonomous eastern ‘Ukraine’ more economically-viable as it would link existing coalfields to the two enormous iron and steel plants situated in Mariupol. Third, the capture of Mariupol would straighten the defensive line pro-Russian forces hold and make it harder for Kiev to recapture the city. Fourth, the capture of Mariupol would confirm eastern Ukraine as a buffer zone of Russian influence, which is clearly central to Moscow’s thinking.
Critically, with a population of 500,000 Mariupol remains the last significant city under Kiev’s control in Ukrainian hands in the region if one excludes Ukraine’s shaky grip on Kharkiv. Finally, the capture of Mariupol would send a strong signal to Kiev and the rest of Europe that Russia has achieved its strategic objectives and that the removal of Crimea and much of eastern Ukraine from Ukraine’s control marks for the moment at least the limit of Moscow’s ambitions.
Why attack Mariupol now? The reasons for such an assault now would make some strategic sense from a Russian standpoint, First, Russia has often acted between mid-July and mid-August as the rest of Europe slumbers on beaches (or wherever), including most of its leaders. Russian troops entered disputed South Ossetia on August 8, 2008, following a major incursion by Georgian forces the previous day. The Russian assault was right in the midst of the Beijing Olympics when the world was similarly distracted.
Analysis: The idea of a broad or rather Greater Novorrossiya that stretches across much of what is today southern Ukraine was always a political fiction designed to keep Kiev and the West politically off-balance. Indeed, in much the same way Moscow has used the conflict in eastern Ukraine or the Donbass to divert attention from the fait accompli in Crimea Greater Novorossiya is designed to divert attention from more modest strategic objectives.
Some commentators suggest the capture of Mariupol could act as the springboard for a further Russian-generated offensive south and west along the Sea of Azov coast to create a land bridge to isolated Crimea. To be frank I am also sceptical as to the feasibility of such a land offensive. First, the distance between Mariupol and the Crimean capital Simferopol is 437 kms or 272 miles. Second, such an offensive would require significant support from regular Russian land, sea and air forces. Such support would give the offensive the appearance of a full-blown invasion with extended lines of supply and logistic and destroy Russian claims to ‘plausible deniability’. This would run counter to Russia’s Maskirovka strategy and open Russian up to yet more sanctions, which Moscow still seems keen to avoid. Third, the distance between eastern Crimea and Russia across the Russian-controlled Kerch Strait is only 3.1 kms or 1.9 miles at its shortest. For the moment supply and re-supply can come across the strait or simply via the Russian-held naval base at Sevastopol. It is more likely that Crimea (which has been lost to Ukraine and the West has tacitly accepted that) will in future enjoy a similar status to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which sits between Poland and Lithuania with access to the Baltic Sea.
There is some evidence of new Russian forces brought into the Western Military District (Oblast). Normal rotation of Russian forces in the region would take place in October or November. There is also evidence that fuel and armament depots have been fully stocked with new tanks and artillery deployed to the District. Furthermore, the Russian Black Seas Fleet is currently being reinforced with six Admiral Grigorovich class missile frigates, although this deployment has been planned for some time.
Conclusion: There is some evidence to suggest a significant operation against Mariupol could well be planned for the coming six week period prior to September. The operation will involve significant but limited Russian air, sea and land forces in support of separatist forces with the aim of taking Mariupol and holding it and straightening the defensive line to north and west of the city. The offensive will first be denied and then justified as consolidating the cease-fire line agreed under Minsk 2, which is notoriously vague on the issue of Mariupol (and the future of the entire ‘Donbass’ region). If separatist forces come up against significant Ukrainian opposition then Russian forces may be deployed to break such resistance. However, a major offensive against the Kharkiv region or south and west of Mariupol is unlikely.