Smart money wants Vladimir Putin, a student with a passion for military history, to learn from Napoleon and Hitler not to fight land battles during the Russian winter. Smart Money wants Russian elite tank units rolling towards Ukraine to be just pawns in an elaborate chess set designed to pressure Germany to turn on the Nord Stream 2 , the Russia-Germany gas pipeline. Russian leaders still follow the cardinal rule of Soviet foreign policy: âWe create the problem. Then you thank us for creating the solution.
But, it is useful to take a step back from the delicate debates about when the ground will freeze on Russia’s border with Ukraine. Let’s take a holistic approach.
On the ground of Europe’s only war, tension is higher than ever along the 280-mile trench line cutting the Donbass in two into sections controlled by Ukraine and Russia.
Over the Halloween weekend, international observers recorded 1,500 ceasefire violations. Last week Moscow started talking about the need to protect âRussian citizensâ in Donbass. These are the 600,000 Ukrainians in the occupied zone who have received Russian passports in the past 18 months. Russia’s statement came after a Turkish-supplied drone shot down a Russian howitzer that killed a Ukrainian army sergeant.
At the helm, the ebb and flow of people went from 1.2 million in May 2019 to a trickle. Today, the line is “virtually closed”, reports the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Far from the close-up of the Donbass, more alarming is the vitriol directed against Ukraine from the Kremlin.
First, a 7,000-word rant written last summer by Putin. Denying Ukraine’s right to nationality, he insisted that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people”. Referring to Ukraine’s independence 30 years ago, he says: “Russia has been stolen”. In his view, Ukraine could be seen as an autonomous area on the southwestern edge of Russia – perhaps a Slavic Texas where people talk funny, carry guns, and have right-wing political views.
Last month, the second propaganda punch landed with an essay by Dmitry Medvedev published in Kommersant, Russia’s respected national economic newspaper. To set the mood, the essay begins with a Ukrainian proverb: “When the goat becomes entangled with the wolf, only the skin of the goat will remain.” Guess: who is the goat? Who is the wolf?
Echoing the attacks of the last Stalinists on Soviet Jews as ârootless cosmopolitans,â Medvedev writes: âUkrainian leaders, especially senior officials, are people who have no stable self-identification. Unhappy people. Who are they, citizens of what country are they, where are their roots, what is their historical identity, their ethnic component, what gods do they pray to? Who do they feel they are for? Are they Ukrainians? “European”? Russians? The Jews? Tatars? Hungarian? Karaites? “
Medvedev describes Volodomyr Zelenskyy, the elected Ukrainian president who is Jewish, as “a person with certain ethnic roots”. Medvedev writes that Zelenskyy serves with awe “the most enraged nationalist forces in Ukraine”. Otherwise, “his brains will be spread on the walls.” In a warning to the President of Ukraine, he wrote: âOne cannot be sure that at some point when the political situation changes, they will not come and sew a yellow star on your back.
Medvedev is not a madman throwing manifestos in a Siberian public housing project. Until last year he was Prime Minister of Russia. In total, he was President or Prime Minister of Russia for 12 years. Ten years ago, when I lived in Moscow, he was a respected world leader, meeting with Vice President Joe Biden in the Kremlin.
Medvedev’s essay was widely rebroadcast by Russian state-controlled media. TASS reports that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: [Medvedev] the publication is very important because it names a lot of things by their names …
In Washington, the same intelligence experts who missed the collapse of Afghanistan are debating again. Do satellite photos show new concentrations of Russian tanks rushing for the winter? Do the YouTube videos show railroads of tanks and armored personnel carriers moving to winter bases in the north or to field positions in the south?
There are two points of agreement. Russia’s 41st Combined Arms Army is not returning to its Siberian home in Novosibirsk, but is deploying to Yelnya, a Russian garrison town within striking distance of Belarus and northeastern Ukraine. Likewise, the 1st Guard Tank Army, an elite unit that rarely goes beyond defending Moscow, “trains”, also near Yelnya.
Ambiguity and surprise have long been the hallmarks of Putin’s strategy towards his neighbors.
Never fight in winter? Putin’s troops and surrogate forces took control of Debaltseve, a key town at the Donbass road and railroad crossroads, in February 2015. This decisive victory forced Ukraine to accept a standoff that persists to this day.
Yes, Ukraine stuck it out. Their trenches in the Donbass lasted much longer than the trenches of WWI. But, what if the trenches – and the US-supplied Javelin anti-tank missiles and Turkish Bayraktar TB2 “killer” drones – all pointed the wrong way? Taking a page from Nazi Germany’s successful six-week Battle for France in the spring of 1941, Russia could simply bypass Ukraine’s Maginot mini-line and enter Ukraine from its virtually unprotected northeast. Ukraine’s land border with Russia is 1,226 miles, the equivalent of the distance between Boston and Orlando, Florida.
Or today’s Germany could opt for Putin’s âsolutionâ: avoid all this mess by speeding up approval of the Gazprom pipeline. After all, Russia didn’t spend $ 11 billion to build an economically unnecessary pipeline to get blocked by EU bureaucrats. But this is another story.
PS On November 21, I will be giving a lecture at the Lenox Library entitled: “Ukraine: The Gates of Europe”.
James Brooke, of Lenox, has traveled to approximately 100 countries for the New York Times, Bloomberg and Voice of America.