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An Essay On The Russian Invasion Of Ukraine (Part I) – Analysis

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By Matthew Parish*

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The first thing to say about this subject is that it is describing events that have not yet taken place (it is written in mid-January 2022) and its purpose is to explain why events will play out as they will. What is so remarkable about this subject is how predictable it is.

At the time of writing, Russia has amassed in the region of 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border and equivalent armour. The intention is therefore clearly for a ground war. Although Ukraine does possess an Air Force, it is mostly elderly and decrepit and poorly maintained. Ukraine will not dare use its Air Force to any significant degree in the forthcoming invasion, because if it does then it will be challenged and destroyed by the far superior Russian Air Force and in particular Russia’s extremely sophisticated surface-to-air-missile system the S-400. Hence Russia is preparing for a ground war. And she is going to win. Ukraine currently only has 60,000 deployed personnel across the entire country.

Why is Russia threatening to invade her neighbour, and what tangible benefits does she see from an invasion, with all the costs that entails? There are several reasons. The first has been the principal driver of Russian foreign policy since time immemorial: that invasions come from the west, and therefore one should maximise the size of one’s buffer zone. This explains why Russia has been insisting as precondition of a peaceful resolution to the impending conflict an undertaking from NATO not to seek Ukraine’s membership of the organisation and for all foreign troops currently situated in Ukraine, particularly its south, to leave. The second reason is that the Kyiv government has become increasingly hostile in its rhetoric and actions towards Moscow; and in this it has been supported by the United States. The view from Moscow is that the Biden administration is highly pro-Ukraine by reason of President Biden’s son’s political and commercial connections with Ukraine. In the eyes of Moscow, this will increase the number of foreign (specifically US) troops and armour in Ukraine. The United States is perceived as an enemy of Moscow at the current time, financing pro-democracy movements in Russia and amassing troops on the NATO borders of Belarus, Moscow’s ally. So the Russian opinion is that the United States has territorial ambitions to the detriment of Russia, in both Belarus and Ukraine. These ambitions must be hobbled.

How can the Russian military hobble the US military, which is so much larger? The answer is that the US military does not actually have much of a strategic interest in Ukraine; it’s not as though Russia was threatening to invade Mexico. Ukraine is a long way away, and it doesn’t create any commercial value. There is very little in the way of legitimate productive business in Ukraine, and it has always been so. Ukraine is a sink hole for foreign aid money. Because the country is close to an anarchy, power being divided up approximately territorially between a handful of oligarchs, the central government has scant funding (taxes are not collected or are diverted) save for that the international community may provide it with. It also has scant power. However one thing the central government in Kyiv can do is to make trade with Ukraine’s eastern nation Russia harder; and to make Russia’s trading with the west harder as goods for the most part need to go overland and Ukraine is in the way.

Then there is the issue of Ukraine’s gas debts to Russia. Russia traditionally sold gas to Ukraine at below-market prices. But as the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has proceeded with its anti-Russian rhetoric and policies, Russia has pulled the plug on the subsidies with the result that Ukraine now owes Russia colossal amounts of money being the difference between the subsidised price for gas used by Ukraine and the market price. Nobody wants to pay Ukraine’s debts to Russia on her behalf, and therefore the Russian mindset in substantial part is that if we are going to have to subsidise them because they will never pay us, then we had might as well incorporate them into our federation.

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Then there is the matter of the two People’s Republics in Donbas, Donetsk and Luhansk respectively. These regions have their own quasi-autonomous government structures but in practice the writ of two of Ukraine’s oligarchs is what counts in these places. The People’s Republics are the source of steel manufacture, which Russia needs and which she is not getting in sufficient quantities by reason mostly of poor governance in the Donbas. So the Russian view is that to get what they need from the Donbas, they had might as well just run it themselves. Finally there is the issue of Igor Kolomoisky, one of those two oligarchs who also claims Dniepropetrovsk and the Dniepr region of eastern Ukraine for his own. Indeed he has his own private army, and at various times has owned or controlled Ukraine’s largest bank and Ukraine’s civil aviation fleet. Kolomoisky has been a notorious waverer over allegiance to Moscow over the years since Ukrainian independence in 1991, but at the last Presidential elections in Ukraine in 2019 he used his money and influence to instal as Ukraine’s new President a comedian (literally – he was the star of a TV show in which he was the fictional President, and then overnight he became the actual President). That comedian has not proven himself funny to Moscow, having made relentless visceral comments against Russia and pursuing anti-Russian policies. Behind him is Kolomoisky. So in the Russian perspective, Kolomoisky has to go.

Why is all this happening now? There are two principal reasons. The first is that oil prices are up (Brent crude is now USD83 a barrel), permitting Moscow to finance a war; the second is that the Trump administration, with whom Moscow had tolerable relations, has been replaced by the Biden administration, that is perceived as being hawks on Ukraine and supporting the comedian installed as President using Kolomoisky’s dirty money to the detriment of Moscow – and hence something must be done. Absent either of these two catalysts, war would be unlikely. Moscow is now seizing the opportunity while it can, knowing that the United States will not come to Ukraine’s defence. The United States is not going to put its troops in the way of the Red Army in the freezing month of February 2022.

The other thing one needs to understand in order to predict the outcome of the forthcoming Russian invasion of Ukraine is that Ukrainian patriotism is a flimsy construction that approximately follows the geography of the Ukrainian language. Ukrainian sounds like a dialect of Polish, albeit it written in the Cyrillic script. It is spoken as a first language predominantly by people west of the Dnieper River, that traverses Ukraine cutting it somewhat in two. Russian, by contrast, is the first language of people to the east of the Dnieper River and in the south of the country. In those parts of Ukraine, Russian (and Soviet) culture is more pronounced, as people watch Russian television, read Russian newspapers and surf Russian internet sites. In the west of the country, Ukrainian nationalism prevails more strongly, with Ukrainian-only television stations and media. This is a real difference. With the recent schism between Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, and policies emphasising teaching in one language or the other to the exclusion of one of the two languages, Ukraine has been becoming ever more culturally divided. With the current nationalist government in power in Kyiv, with a relentless stream of anti-Russian rhetoric emerging from its President, this division is being concentrated.

Commentators have asserted that while Russia will be able easily to take Ukraine when she invades, she will nevertheless then be subject to a perpetual guerilla war as the nationalistic Ukrainians fight against their Russian invaders. The problem with this theory is that for the reasons of cultural division explained above, this will apply only to the territories to the west of the Dnieper, in which Ukrainian is the dominant language. The territories of south and east Ukraine (including the regions in which Mr Kolomoisky is so influential) are habituated to Russian culture and in many cases their mastery of the Ukrainian language is imperfect. Moreover those regions have suffered atrociously since Russian / Ukrainian tensions exploded into warfare in 2014. Kyiv does not trust the eastern and southern regions, deprives them of funds, and the towns and cities east of the Dnieper are impoverished in comparison with Kyiv and the west. A little Russian financial exuberance in the east and south of Ukraine may well be enough to reconcile the Russian-speaking Ukrainians to their fate as a part of the Russian Federation.

Ukraine’s long-ailing currency, the Gryvna, has brought nothing but inflation; the Russian-speaking Ukrainians might be pleased to get rid of it. The other burden they may anticipate ridding themselves of is Ukraine’s enormous international public debt, as western countries have loaned money in grossly unwise quantities to keep the government in Kyiv afloat. Most of that money has been stolen, and most of the stolen money went to the capital and to western Ukraine. The people of east and southern Ukraine have seen little in the way of benefit. Southern Ukraine must count as one of, if not the most, poor and benighted corners of Europe: travel there is difficult, there are little in the way of motorways, the cities feel hollowed out and there is no work. The youth of those regions may well be of the view that under Russian government, things simply can’t get worse.

For all these reasons, Russia is going to invade up to the River Dnieper and then she is going to stop. Thereby she will have cut Ukraine in two, making a decent buffer zone for herself from NATO expansionism; she will have secured Belarus’s southeastern border (Moscow palpably intends to absorb Belarus into Russia at some convenient moment); and her army will be on the outskirts of Kyiv. The Dnieper River cuts Kyiv in two, and if Russia were to go to the edge of the river then she would take Kyiv’s principal airport Boryspil while leaving much of the government, downtown and commercial districts to the rump Ukrainian state. Because eastern Ukraine is flat, this will be a tank invasion and then Russia will have sufficient deterrence to prevent NATO growing further because Kyiv will be in the sights of Russian tanks who can demolish the city if they see fit.

In the south of Ukraine, Russia will certainly push at least as far as Odessa, thereby controlling the entirety of the Black Sea and cutting Ukraine off from a major Black Sea port, also joining up the Crimean peninsula (annexed by Russia in 2014) with mainland Russia. Indeed so little extra effort is required that the Red Army will probably push through to Transdniestr, the breakaway Soviet-cultish part of eastern Moldova, where Russian troops have been located to keep the peace between the two parts of Moldova since the early 1990’s. What remains of Ukraine will be landlocked. Gas can be run through southern Ukraine without the need to supply any gas at subsidised prices to the rump Ukrainian state. The Ukrainian army will be decimated because it cannot fight tank battles against the Russian Federation. What is left of Ukraine will become even more dependent upon western largesse, whereas the West will have ever less incentive to maintain that largesse. Europe needs Russian gas, and Russia will have eliminated Ukraine as a stumbling block in the transit of Russian gas to Western Europe. Because Western Europe is so dependent upon Russian hydrocarbons, there is very little that can be done by way of sanctions: Western Europe cannot afford to impose them. To the extent that this is attempted, Russia can squeeze the rump Ukraine dry by applying her own sanctions against Kyiv and the western territories still nominally controlled from the capital. The net result is that the Russian bargaining position will be vastly strengthened. At that stage, Russia will pause and survey her work.

From a close reading of reports of recent geopolitical negotiations between Russia and the West over Ukraine, none of the foregoing events can realistically be prevented. The military outcome is impossible to prevent unless western countries place their own troops in uniform on the Russia-Ukrainian border: something of course they will not do. The West will then be forced to negotiate a humiliating breathing bubble for rump Ukraine, in which sanctions against Russia are foregone in favour of Russia maintaining civilian supplies to rump Ukraine. Kolomoisky will have been evicted from his Dniepropetrovsk duchy. The oligarchs will be evicted from Donbas, and Russia will get the steel industry back up and running in some sense. The war will be wildly popular with the Russian public, reinforcing support for the Russian President Vladimir Putin after some recent years in which his support had to an extent crumbled. The Russians will be the dominant force in the Black Sea. The regime in Transdniestr will be perpetuated. The Ukrainian nation state then risks dissolving into nearly nothing, as has happened on a number of prior occasions in her history.

This is the grim prophecy for events of the next month or two. Moscow will move quickly and hard, as it assesses that it has an increased comparative advantage while the weather remains cold. The whole thing may be over by April. The next article in this series will ask what foreign policy choices are available to the West in light of the scenarios this article has described; and how to decide which one to pursue. But before we turn to those questions, let us see whether this author is right about the course of February and March in eastern and southern Ukraine.

The politics of Russia and of Ukraine have been intimately intermingled ever since the formal divorce of the two countries from the Soviet Union in 1991. As with many collapses of larger states into smaller ones, the old political habits do not just disappear overnight and power relations between the two capitals remain. Russia’s principal problem with Ukraine is that Kyiv’s current political leadership is seeking to strike out in a direction independent from Moscow’s foreign policy, causing perceived damage to Russia’s national interest as Kyiv’s actions raise the possibility of NATO troops coming ever further towards Russia’s borders. Hence Russia is now moving her troops ever close towards NATO’s borders. The concept of Ukraine as a buffer state in which there is neutrality between the two sides is dissolving.

The principal reason for Russia’s imminent invasion of Ukraine is Moscow’s antipathy towards the strongly pro-western regime in Kyiv, led by President Volodimir Zelensky who is mere puppet of one of the wealthiest and most powerful Ukrainian oligarchs, Igor Kolomoisky. If one doubts this, recall that Mr Zelensky had no previous political career, no political party, no substantial funds of his own, and virtually the entirety of his political campaign to become Ukrainian President in 2019 was funded by Mr Kolomoisky. Zelensky won the election over the incumbent President, Petro Poroshenko, because votes were straightforwardly bought. Carousel voting in the amounts of 10 to 20 EUR per vote is common in Ukraine. (Carousel voting is a form of electoral corruption in which a voter is given a pre-marked ballot paper by an agent to place in the box and brings the blank ballot paper out of the polling station in his pocket, in exchange for his fee.)

With some 22 million people voting in that election, of which some 17 million voted for Zelensky, we might estimate the costs of buying that election at some EUR 250 million: an acceptable fee for Kolomoisky, whose precise wealth is not known but conservatively stands at some EUR 2 billion. The bank was used to paying dividends in the region of EUR 1.5 billion per year or more to its shareholder (Privatbank is the largest bank in Ukraine, some 50% of Ukrainians banking with it). It was nationalised on dubious legal pretexts (legal pretexts in Ukraine are always dubious; it must have the worst legal system in Europe bar none) in 2016 by the Poroshenko regime. The same happened to Ukrainian International Airlines, the flag carrier that was curiously owned by Igor Kolomoisky as well. which while never hugely profitable holds a valuable asset base of airport infrastructure and aircraft. Hence the expenditure of some EUR 250 million to remove the Petro Poroshenko regime from power and obtain de facto renewed control of his bank and his airline, Kolomoisky bought the election.

To understand how a renewed civil war emerged from disputes involving two commercial entities, we must go back at the very least to the Maidan Revolution of 2014. This western-backed and western-funded revolution against the Presidency of the Russia-leaning Viktor Yanukovich was surprising in its timing, taking place only a few months before he was due to stand for re-election. The Ukrainian political classes had come to understand the Presidency to represent a very delicate balance of power between those in Ukraine who look west and those who look west, with Presidents alternating between these two peoples in subsequent elections. In each case the President would be backed by one or more of the small class of Ukrainian oligarchs (there is only a handful) and the election results would proceed accordingly.

The Maidan Revolution upset that delicate status quo, and represented a real danger of a break-up of Ukraine. The political classes in Kyiv were wondering why there should be a revolution then, when a western-leading President would be installed only a year later in elections. However the western leaders had missed the point that Ukraine is not a democracy at all but rather an anarchy in which elections are purchased with money, and they feared that a pro-Russian President such as Yanukovich might stay in office in Kyiv indefinitely. Moreover Yanukovich, a rough and boorish man, made a lot of mistakes, aggravating both west-leaning Ukrainians and Moscow. So the west funded a revolution, and he went.

Moscow was not prepared to tolerate this slap in its face to Russia’s right to exercise political influence in Ukraine which had been shared between Moscow and the West for several years by then. Hence Moscow implemented a long-dormant plan to occupy Crimea and claim it as Russia’s; and Russia funded and provided logistical support to Ukrainian oligarch militias based in Donbas, thereby creating what we now called the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (two entities that might be reaching the end of their lives most shortly). As to the successor President to Yanukovich, a rough deal was hashed out whereby a wealthy Ukrainian businessman Petro Poroshenko (not in the circle of top oligarchs but nevertheless of some limited influence in Ukrainian business and political circles) would be elected as a compromise President. In practice Poroshenko would criticise Moscow before the West, in order to obtain aid and development funding and foreign policy concessions such as allowing Ukrainian passport holders to travel visa-free in the Schengen Zone. But at the same time he would hold regular (some said daily) talks with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to ensure that Ukrainian trade and foreign policy actions were private coordinated with Moscow. Hence peace of a sort was reached in Donbas, and the annexation of Crimea was completed.

Mr Kolomoisky was one of the oligarchs with influence in what is now the semi-autonomous regions of Donbas. He also controls the industrial city of Dniepropetrovsk and its surrounding oblasts (regional areas). Kolomoisky with Poroshenko’s dealings with the Kremlin, because his bank in particular flourished on the basis of its leaning westwards, being one of the most disciplined and well-run banks in Ukraine and opening financial markets between Ukraine and the West. Likewise, Ukrainian International Airlines had become a reasonably tolerable Western European carrier. Kolomoisky’s business interests had become co-aligned with those of Western Europe, particularly after the Donbas’s descent into chaos in 2014. Therefore the centrist President Poroshenko, who spoke in public as a western-leaning patriot but acted in private in coordination with the Kremlin, became unappealing to him. Kolomoisky found his influence diminished, as his own lines direct to the Kremlin had been foreclosed by Poroshenko. The nationalisation of the bank and the airline were blatant moves by Potroshenko to weaken Kolomoisky. Kolomoisky therefore started plotting to remove Poroshenko from office, as a result of which Poroshenko nationalised Privatbank and UIA in 2016, and placed Kolomoisky under criminal investigation. Kolomoisky had to flee to Israel, Ukraine issuing warrants against him that could have touched him elsewhere in Europe.

Nevertheless, even deprived of his bank and his airline, Kolomoisky maintained sufficient wealth to cast a long hand into Ukrainian politics from his place of temporary exile in Israel. He would not suffer being removed from Ukraine, and so, as the Ukrainian oligarch with perhaps the largest reserves of liquid funds, he decided to enter into the Ukrainian election to remove Poroshenko and replace him with a robustly pro-western figure. The way he did this was to fund a popular television show in which the main character acts as the President, in order to give facial recognition to Volodymir Zelensky; and then to buy him into office. He also paid for the campaign of an earlier disgraced western-leaving Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, to give the appearance of a genuine three-way competition. Poroshenko, not having access to anywhere near the funds in Kolomoisky’s war chest, did not stand a chance despite having served as a tolerably good President in times of extreme stress for the country. He had picked a cabinet mixing pro-western and pro-eastern names, and managed to keep them working approximately together insofar as that is possible in a country like Ukraine. But he had chosen a powerful enemy in Kolomoisky, who removed him.

Because Kolomoisky’s politics had tipped toward the European Union and the United States, once he was back in power via his proxy Zelensky he caused Zelensky and the Ukrainian central government as a whole to take a whole series of anti-Russian actions and to deliver bouts of anti-Russian bile across the western world. This made it virtually impossible for Russia to achieve its principal foreign policy goal, the lifting of western sanctions imposed after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, in exchange for which Moscow would gladly have cleared out the People’s Republics in Donbas and handed that territory ambiguously back to Ukraine. Hence from Moscow’s perspective, Kolomoisky had become a problem. He had bought an election – that is fine from Moscow’s perspective, it’s the sort of thing Russians are used to – but he had put in place a viscerally anti-Russian President who was inviting US clandestine troops into Ukrainian territory and sounding the need to increase the number of NATO troops on Ukraine’s western borders: something Moscow wishes to prevent at all costs. Kolomoisky had become an irritation to the Kremlin. And the one thing you don’t want to do when you were formerly close to and under the protective umbrella of the Kremlin, is to disappoint the Russian President with your disloyalty.

Hence the forthcoming war is about removing Igor Kolomoisky from his de facto position as President of Ukraine. Under Zelensky, former President Poroshenko had been the subject of “corruption investigations” and had fled the country. (The reader may be spotting a pattern about the fates of Ukrainian politicians who fall from grace.) However on 18 January 2022 Poroshenko flew back into Boryspil, Kyiv’s main airport, went straight to court, and was released on bail despite having fled the charges abroad over an extended period. Obviously the Judges understood the politics of this act very clearly. Poroshenko will be exonerated of his “corruption investigations” once Zelensky (and hence Kolomoisky) have been removed from office by actions of the Red Army. No doubt some “corruption investigations” will then be opened against Volodymir Zelensky, who at some point would do well to flee Ukraine in the time-honoured tradition of Ukrainian politics.

What happens next to Poroshenko remains something of an enigma. Presumably Moscow has promised him something to return to Kyiv amidst a frankly dangerous political dynamic. The Kremlin may have him in mind for a return to the Presidency; or if not, then another senior role in which he may continue to serve as a private liaison with Moscow. Poroshenko undertook the role of national healer once; the Kremlin may think he can do it again. Unlike Yanukovich, who Moscow was unimpressed with because his rhetoric was blatantly pro-Russian and Moscow saw no value in that (President Putin does not need his fur stroked; all such rhetoric could do was upset the West), Poroshenko knows what to say to western powers to serve as a useful mediator between the West and Moscow. Whether he will obtain the top job will depend upon whether the Kremlin wants him to have it and how much money they are prepared to throw at the problem (presumably a lot, given that they already have a standing army of some 100,000 troops and corresponding armour amassed on the Ukraine-Russia border).

Once a satisfactory candidate for President is installed in Kyiv, Moscow may well withdraw. It depends upon how much political resistance the west puts up to the installation of a candidate in the vein of Mr Poroshenko. Russia will assert that she has “stabilised” the political situation. The Ukrainian army will be “restructured” with Russian military “technical assistance”, to remove foreign influences and to step back from proximity to the Russian border. The People’s Republics will be abolished, either being handed back to Kyiv if Russia receives something in exchange for that; or being absorbed into the Russian Federation if not. And we will get back to something approximating to the political situation in 2014.

And what about Mr Kolomoisky. He is too senior, and too great a traitor, to be placed under “corruption investigations”. He might find himself having an unfortunately prepared meal at a very particular type of Russian restaurant. Or (which amounts to the same thing) he might be invited to commit suicide. The Russian President usually gives betrayers that option, on the basis that after their deaths their glorious deeds will be written up in the media and in the alternative who is to say which family members and friends will be hunted down by GRU (elite Russian military intelligence) units for assassination across the world. Mr Kolomoisky in particular needs to consider his next moves very carefully indeed, if he is not to suffer the fate of many an oligarch or unwise senior official who Mr Putin concluded to be a betrayer. The game plays out rather as though an episode in the history of the Roman Senate, the wealthiest oligarchs serving as conspiring Senators who the Emperor periodically catches and invites to poison themselves. The politics of Russia are a rough business, and those of Ukraine are, alas no better.

The West needs to understand this final point, if it is to get its Ukraine policy right. The Ukrainian state is an appalling impoverished shambles with the lowest GDP per capita in Europe, of GBP3,700. There is no central government of significant effect. The country is divided up between oligarch Dukes who compete for influence both East and West. Ukraine is a constant sponge for aid money from the west and hydrocarbon subsidies from the East. The country makes virtually nothing exportable in any quantities to speak of. She is important solely because she is a buffer state; and now she is getting buffeted around. In time the West will come to understand, and they will not impose substantial sanctions because significant sanctions would be self-defeating: Europe relies upon Russian gas that flows through Ukrainian pipes. A careful power-sharing arrangement is therefore necessary for Ukraine, and sophisticated diplomacy will be required to record the accord given the parties’ implacably hostile publicly stated ideological divisions. Let us hope that diplomacy succeeds sooner rather than later, to mitigate loss of life that is the inevitable corollary of war.

*Matthew Parish is the Managing Partner of The Paladins, www.the-paladins.com, a private firm of legal, security and intelligence consultants. He is the author of three books and over four hundred articles  on international law, international relations and geopolitics. www.matthew-parish.com. Follow the author on Twitter @parish_matthew.

This article was originally published by The Paladins and is available by clicking here

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

TransConflict

TransConflict was established in response to the challenges facing intra- and inter-ethnic relations in the Western Balkans. It is TransConflict’s assertion that the successful transformation of conflict requires a multi-dimensional approach that engages with and aims at transforming the very interests, relationships, discourses and structures that underpin and fuel outbreaks of low- and high-intensity violence.

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