IV. Great Power Competition (II): Crisis in Ukraine
It is July 2016, and over a quarter century has elapsed since the Berlin Wall fell, signaling the Cold War’s end. Now once again Russia and the United States find themselves at loggerheads. This time, the competition is not occurring on a global scale. Rather, its focal point is the country of Ukraine.
Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The regime in Kiev experienced a very difficult post-separation period. The economy, already weak from nearly 75 years of communist rule, initially seemed on the verge of collapse. Ukraine’s would be business class had little experience in free market economics. The country’s energy supplies came almost exclusively from Russia at market prices. Cleaning up the vast environmental degradation that had occurred during the Soviet years proved a long, arduous, and expensive proposition.
Still, Ukraine is resource rich. Since tsarist days it had been known as the “Breadbasket of Russia,” thanks to its rich agricultural belt. It possesses a long seacoast on the Black Sea, with a number of fine ports. Ukraine also boasts a potentially strong industrial base, thanks to the resources of the Donets Basin, and a technically literate work force.
Despite the Soviet Union's collapse and Ukraine’s early economic dependence on Moscow, the leadership in Kiev very early on stakes the country’s fate, both in economic and security terms, with the West. Western economic aid is solicited, and received (although at far lower levels than most Ukrainians feel is appropriate). Although there are disputes with Russia early on over the disposition of the Black Sea Fleet, the status of the Crimea, and the substantial number of Russian nationals living in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian leadership dismantles its formidable nuclear arsenal, which had been part of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces.
To hedge against a return of Russian expansionism, Kiev looks for potential allies in the West, but finds its overtures rebuffed. To be sure, NATO does expand, but only into Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, and not until 2006. Ukrainian membership in the European Union proves a chimera, even after Kiev achieves steady economic growth rates in the 5-7 percent range. The principal reasons for the West's aloofness are the decline in U.S. military presence in Europe, the unwillingness of the European NATO states themselves to take up the slack, and the general fear that expanding NATO to include Ukraine will lead to a crisis in NATO's relations with Russia. For its part, Washington offers Ukraine encouragement, but little else. Although Germany emerges as Ukraine’s principal economic partner, Berlin remains very reluctant to stress its relations within NATO or the EU by serving as a forceful advocate for Ukrainian membership in either organization.
Remarkably, however, Ukraine manages not only to survive, but to thrive. Several factors are responsible for this happy state of affairs. First, the Ukrainians, after a slow start, prove themselves to be good capitalists. Independent farms yield record harvests from Ukraine’s black earth. The growing stability of the regime in Kiev produces first a trickle, and then a growing stream of foreign investment.
Another contributory factor is the substantial decline in energy prices, the product of several key events. First, Russia’s energy production recovers from the depredations of communism and the turmoil following the Soviet Union’s collapse. Second, Persian Gulf production soars as U.N. sanctions on Iraq are removed following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 1999, and as a moderate ruling faction rises in Iran, which welcomes western investment and development of that country’s enormous natural gas reserves. Third, there is the transformation of the global economy (to a more efficient economy) driven by the information revolution. Finally, renewable sources of energy (e.g., solar, wind) are becoming increasingly practical.
Ukraine’s growth is viewed in Moscow with envy. Russia’s brand of democracy proves similar to that enjoyed by Mexico for much of the twentieth century. Opposition parties exist, the press is somewhat free, religious freedom is not questioned, and elections are held regularly. But one faction, comprising a mix of Russian nationalists and pragmatic former communists, predominates. Its unifying theme is restoring Russia’s status as a true great power. “Restoration” is seen as coming from a combination of economic growth (market economics are supported), military strength, and Russian domination of its traditional sphere of influence in the “near abroad” — the former Soviet republics and eastern Europe.
Russia views NATO’s expansion to the east as an unfriendly act. Never seriously considered for membership in the European Union, the Russians become increasingly aloof politically from the West. Ukraine’s clear tilt toward the West, and especially Germany, contributes to Moscow's anxieties. All this is made worse by Russia’s failure to realize its own economic miracle. To be sure, the Russian economy has recovered from its near-collapse in the 1990s, but growth rates are steady, not spectacular. Consequently, Russia’s GDP is now the world’s fifth largest, behind the United States, China, Japan, and the EU.
Still, by 2015 Ukraine is the only former Soviet republic over which Moscow does not cast a large shadow. The combination of Russia’s recovery and NATO’s gradual decline (notwithstanding its one-time expansion, which is privately regretted in some NATO member capitals given Russia’s strong hostile reaction) facilitates Russia’s return to dominance in the near abroad. The former Soviet republics retain their independence (save Belarus, which votes to rejoin Russia in 2003). Still, they are either economically dependent upon Russia, or clearly within its military orbit. All except Ukraine.
Over the years, matters other than Moscow’s envy of Ukraine’s economic growth and frustration at its independence lead to friction between the two states. To begin, there are the lingering effects of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster. Russia essentially disclaims any responsibility for helping cope with the enormous human and economic costs resulting from the reactor’s explosion in 1986. The situation is made worse when, in 2007, a Russian nuclear reactor of the Chernobyl model type also suffers a catastrophic failure. Its radioactive cloud passes over part of Ukraine. Moreover, Russian nationalists are clearly vexed by the fact that the Russian nationals in eastern Ukraine are quite content to remain apart from Russia, and apparently share none of the nationalists' desire to see Russia restored to its former greatness. Then there is the Crimea — held by Russia for nearly 200 years when it was “given” to Ukraine in 1954 by the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. At the time, it seemed a harmless act, given that Russia dominated the Soviet Union, whose existence as a superpower seemed assured. Finally, many Russians have never clearly understood why their Ukrainian Slavic “brothers” would ever want to secede in the first place.
As in 1914, the crisis of 2016 is the product of unintended consequences, stemming from the issue of Russian nationals living in the “near abroad.” Strong nationalists among the Russian leadership argue that the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and in the Crimea (which constitute a majority in those regions) are a “repressed” minority. Moscow both cultivates and amplifies the “grievances” of a minority of Russian nationals in the Crimea. Covert financial support for the disaffected nationals is soon forthcoming from Russia. A series of demonstrations and acts of sabotage by Crimean Russians occur in late 2015 and continue into the early months of 2016. These acts culminate during a mass rally in a violent exchange between Russian demonstrators and Ukrainian police in the streets of Sevastopol. Over twenty Russians are killed and scores more wounded. Moscow reacts quickly, demanding that Kiev accept the deployment of Russian military units to Crimea and eastern Ukraine to enforce order and protect Russian nationals.
The Russian leadership expects the Ukrainian leadership to accommodate its demands, especially when Kiev realizes that neither Germany nor the United States will risk a crisis over the Crimea. That proves to be Moscow's first mistake. The Ukrainian leadership not only refuses to negotiate, it reacts vigorously to what it considers to be Russian attempts to subvert its independence. On July 2, 2016 the Ukrainian armed forces are put on alert. Martial law is declared in the Crimea.
Faced with this unexpected display of Ukrainian resolve, the Russian leadership is put in the awkward position of backing down and appearing weak, and perhaps eroding the influence it has labored for twenty years to gain over the former Soviet republics, or ratcheting the crisis higher. The latter course is chosen, again under the assumption that Ukraine is militarily and diplomatically isolated. (“Ukraine is not Poland,” observes the Russian foreign minister.) This proves to be Russia’s second mistake.
Russian forces are put on high alert status on July 4, 2016. Twelve army divisions deploy along Russia’s border with eastern Ukraine, while another 20 watch along Ukraine’s northern border with Russia. But, unlike the old Cold War era, these forces are not to spearhead the Russian attack; rather, they are seen as prospective forces of occupation, to be employed only after the victory is won.
The Russian Strategic Rocket Forces, comprising some 800 missiles, six SSBNs, and 45 bombers assume heightened alert status. Russia’s satellite constellation, while not up to U.S. standards of reliability and sophistication, nevertheless provides Russian commanders with GPS capability through Glonass. Remote sensing support is provided by Russian, Chinese and French satellites (the latter two being used as a backup). Multi-spectral imagery at 1-5 meters resolution is available from Russian and Chinese systems. The Russians also are subscribers to several global communications satellite systems, including Inmarsat and Globestar.
It is known that Russian military doctrine calls for disabling enemy space-based assets if the situation demands it. The means to be employed include “electronic strikes” against enemy satellites, and employing nuclear weapons to generate an electromagnetic pulse. U.S. intelligence sources also suspect that the Russians have a limited number of weapons, perhaps 60-80, that are designed to generate a high-powered microwave pulse, to disable enemy field forces or other targets. These weapons are believed to be deliverable by aircraft, or by cruise and ballistic missiles.
Except for the United States and China, Russia has the world’s largest inventory of precision-guided weaponry, ranging from over one thousand cruise missiles, to a variety of laser and optically guided munitions employed by the Russian Air Force, which comprise some 1,100 aircraft, many of them of late Cold War vintage. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is not formidable. Still, it boasts 11 surface combatants with vertical-launch systems (24-36 each), and an estimated 16 diesel submarines, seven of which have a modest (4 VLS) cruise missile launch capability. (The Ukrainian share of the fleet, which was divided after the collapse of Soviet Union, comprises only five surface combatants and eleven aging submarines.) In summary, the Russians are judged to have a formidable long-range precision strike capability (LRPS), and all unhardened fixed point targets in Ukraine, such as ports and air bases, are considered to be held at risk.
Russian capabilities for tracking and destroying mobile targets are unknown. What is known is that the Russian military has been experimenting with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and, recently, with significant numbers of unmanned weaponized UAVs (UWAVs). Although Russian combat aircraft have minimal stealth characteristics, both their UAV and UWAVs incorporate low-observable technology.
Russian missile defenses are inferior to those of the United States. The Russians have a theater missile defense that is judged to be “adequate” against a Third World rogue state threat of a few dozen ballistic missiles and perhaps a few score cruise missiles. With respect to space, U.S. and allied (i.e., French and Japanese) intelligence sources conclude that the Russians have tested a direct-ascent ASAT, and deployed four maneuverable “space mines” in low-earth orbit (LOE), although Moscow vigorously denies this. Finally, they have refurbished much of their once-impressive space launch infrastructure, giving them a formidable rapid-re-launch capability. They have combined this with a significant stockpile of small, LOE, short-duration reconnaissance, surveillance, and communications satellites, some of which they produced indigenously, with the remainder purchased from France, China, and Japan.
Perhaps most intriguing, U.S. intelligence reveals that the Russian military has a number of information warfare units. One unit, under the direct command of the defense ministry, is apparently tasked to produce and disseminate information and disinformation viruses, and to develop antidotes, both for Russian-developed and hostile viruses. All Russian field armies and air armies have information warfare units attached, both to support “electronic strike” operations and to defend against such strikes. Finally, it is known that Russia has a cadre of agents (the “Hacker Brigade” in Pentagon-speak) operating abroad who are capable of infiltrating national information systems and doing potentially enormous damage to communications and financial networks, among other things. (The Pentagon asserts that U.S. defense information assets are well protected against such prospective intrusions.)
Kiev demands support from Germany/EU and the United States, pointedly reminding both countries that Ukraine voluntarily relinquished its nuclear arsenal 20 years earlier with the understanding that its security would not be compromised as a result. The Germans temporize, waiting to see how Washington will respond. Somewhat surprisingly, both France and Poland offer to support a vigorous U.S. response in support of Ukraine.
The president of the United States calls an emergency NSC meeting on July 8th. The president’s preference is to support Ukraine in the crisis, in the hope that it can somehow be diffused without war, and without Kiev falling under the lengthening shadow of a resurgent Russia, which would weaken U.S. interests along an arc running from the newest members of NATO in eastern Europe, through Turkey, and even into an increasingly cooperative Iran. Concerns also are voiced that Germany, which is banking on its partnership with the United States, might itself adopt a more “evenhanded” policy between Russia and the United States if it becomes clear that Moscow's influence in European affairs is growing, while Washington's is declining.
The president poses the following questions to his military leadership: Can we offer a credible deterrent to a Russian attack on the Ukraine quickly — say, within three weeks? Can we do it without placing U.S. forces at high risk? Can we do it while protecting our information systems at home, and those of our friends and allies abroad (i.e., the Ukrainians and Germans)? The president also asks his national security advisor and the intelligence community to produce an assessment of the risks of crisis escalation, especially with respect to any possible use of Russian weapons of mass destruction. An address to the nation is scheduled for July 15th. In the interim, the United States undertakes a diplomatic “blitzkrieg” in the United Nations and among the great powers with the purpose of finding a way to diffuse the crisis before things become any worse.
As planning proceeds feverishly in the Pentagon, on July 13th, U.S. news correspondents in Kiev report that the Ukrainian stock market’s information network has suffered a catastrophic failure. Later that day U.S. intelligence sources report that, prior to the failure, sums amounting to several billions of dollars in U.S. currency are surreptitiously electronically transferred from the Ukraine’s central bank to bank accounts in Switzerland. The CIA attempts to identify the owner of those Swiss-based accounts.
On the evening of the 13th, the major news organizations report large-scale power blackouts in Maryland and in Munich, Germany. The problem, in both instances, is attributed to “computer malfunction.” On the morning of July 14th, the U.S. embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia reports that a number of oil flow control valves are malfunctioning, causing a shut down of production in some fields, and a near explosion at one refinery. It is reported that, for several minutes, Ukraine’s major television network and its two largest radio stations have gone off the air.
The president requests an assessment by the military and the intelligence community as to whether the United States is already under attack. Based on its findings, he also asks the Pentagon to determine the implications for U.S. troop deployments and operations.
Shortly thereafter, a personal message is received from the Russian president over the “hot line.” The message acknowledges Moscow's responsibility for the “demonstration” electronic strikes on Ukraine, Germany, and the United States. It goes on to say that the United States and Germany should pressure Ukraine to accede to Russia's demands for Crimean autonomy which, after all, are “quite modest.” So as not to panic the public or upset Western financial markets, Moscow will not publicize these attacks.
If the United States refuses to accept the Russian offer, Moscow intends to declare an “anti-access zone” in and around Ukraine. Russia's military will enforce the zone through its dispersed LRPS units, and with its electronic strike forces.