FPI Bulletin: Warning Signs of a New Russian Offensive in Ukraine

April 7, 2015

In February, negotiators hammered out a second ceasefire agreement between Ukraine, Russia, and the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. This came after a first Ukrainian ceasefire fell apart because of flagrant violations by Russia and its proxy forces. Immediately after the conclusion of the second agreement, Russian forces supported a full-scale assault against the strategic railway town of Debaltseve. Now, after several weeks of relative quiet, it appears that the situation in Ukraine will soon deteriorate once again.

Vladimir Putin’s Aggression

After visiting both Kyiv and the front lines in the east, retired General Wesley Clark, a former head of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, described the next wave of aggression as “imminent”. He forecast that Russian regular forces and their separatist partners would attempt a spring offensive to secure a “land bridge” to Crimea from separatist-controlled territory.  Should this be achieved, it would consolidate Russian control of the Crimean peninsula while ensuring the dismemberment of Ukraine for the foreseeable future.

General Clark said that the spring offensive could begin as soon as April 12, and “most probably” before VE-Day on May 8.  Other Ukrainians expect an offensive after VE-Day, when Russia will seek to bolster its international image by holding several high-profile events to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.  Russia is well-positioned to begin this offensive, Clark says, with 9,000 Russian troops and 30-35,000 separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine, the latter armed with 400 tanks and 700 artillery units.  In addition, 50,000 Russian military personnel are “located along or near Russia’s border with Ukraine,” with another 50,000 Russian personnel in Crimea. 

Air Force General Phillip Breedlove, the current commander of U.S. and NATO forces, offered a warning similar to General Clark’s. He reported, “We continue to see disturbing elements of air defense, command and control, resupply, equipment coming across a completely porous border.” These are the same capabilities that Russia previously employed to support the separatists. As General Breedlove noted in February, he saw “hundreds of Russian regulars in eastern Ukraine providing capabilities like air defense, electronic warfare support to artillery, [and] command and control.”

American Inaction

While the Kremlin is pouring weapons into eastern Ukraine, President Obama refuses to provide Kyiv’s democratic government with the weapons and equipment necessary to defend itself against the superior capabilities of the Russian military.  “Ukrainians do well against the separatists and irregulars,” General Clark said, “but cannot withstand direct engagement with Russian regular forces.”  He added, whereas “Ukraine is using old Soviet-era equipment combined with limited numbers of modern equipment and capabilities. … Ukrainian forces are at a huge military equipment shortage.”

Despite President Obama’s hesitation, there is overwhelming bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for helping Ukraine to defend itself. In December, the Ukrainian Freedom Support Act sailed through both the House and Senate without opposition. The act gave President Obama the authority to provide lethal aid to Ukraine, as well as authorizing expenditures for that purpose. It also imposed new sanctions on Russia. Facing veto-proof majorities in both chambers, President Obama reluctantly signed the bill into law, while insisting he had no intention of using the authorities it gave him, although he would not rule out using them in the future.

With over 6,000 Ukrainians killed over the past year, Kyiv’s need for assistance is immediate. In order to compete with Russia’s advanced arms and equipment, General Clark recommends that the U.S. provide assistance in several areas, including:

  • Intelligence that is “detailed and timely enough to be able to provide warning of an impending attack”
  • Long-range, mobile anti-armor systems, as well as the shorter range Javelin system
  • Secure tactical communications down to vehicle level
  • Long-range, modern counter battery radars able to detect firing positions for long range rockets
  • Modern intelligence collection and EW systems effective against Russian digital communications
  • And “whatever counter UAV systems can be made available on a near-term basis.”

According to Clark this support “would go like a shot of adrenalin from top to bottom of the Ukrainian armed forces.”

Although President Obama may believe that providing arms and assistance to Ukraine would further destabilize the situation, in truth, it is the President’s reluctance to provide this aid that has left Kyiv at the mercy of Moscow. As General Breedlove explained, “In the West, we tend to wait until it becomes a really big deal before we engage. And I think what we learn is that if we were to engage earlier, when the problem is smaller, we might be able to deal with it quicker…Could it be destabilizing? The answer is yes. Also, inaction could be destabilizing.”

Both President Obama and his European counterparts should remind themselves of the exact nature of the Ukraine conflict as well as its significance.  As General Clark explained, “the fighting in Ukraine is not a civil war driven by Ukrainian separatists. It is a war directed, financed, and supplied by the Kremlin.” With this campaign, Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to carve out a sphere of influence in Ukraine, force Kyiv to remain outside of Europe’s political and military institutions, and split the transatlantic alliance.  “At every level,” Clark said, Ukrainians “are very conscious of the fact that they are fighting what they consider the battle for Western civilization.  They are fighting for us.”  President Obama should take all necessary action to support Ukraine in its fight for the West.  A good first step would be to give Kyiv the tools it needs to defend itself. 

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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