In 2014, at the height of the Ukrainian crisis, I did virtually zero blogging, only posts on Facebook (I was was too busy with other matters). So for ease of reference, I have converted my most substantial FB posts from that period into blog posts.

Russia’s Game Plan in Donbass

Reprinted from Facebook (2018/02/14):

Quick piece I scribbled off for RIA:

First off, an elementary observation: Donbass is not Crimea.

Crimea features prominently in Russia’s historical memory, having undergone two epic sieges over two centuries. It was only given over to Ukraine as a pure formality, to mark 300 years since the Treaty of Pereyaslav that was to usher in Russo-Ukrainian unity, and the overwhelming majority of Crimeans have wanted back ever since Ukraine became an independent state. It hosted Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and Ukraine hadn’t shied from using it as a lever to extract more favorable gas terms from Russia. Finally, though it needs major investments to lift it up to the level of neighboring Krasnodar, once that happens it can be reasonably expected that it will stop being a net drain on the budget and will become the major tourism center for all Russia that it was during the Soviet era.

Donbass has no such significance in the Russian cultural imagination – one doubts that a majority of Russians can find Lugansk, let alone Sloviansk, on a map. It was always part of Ukraine, or to be more precise, Novorossiya – though separatism is not entirely foreign to it (recall the short-lived Donetsk–Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic). Though it is nominally rich, the coal mines – the mainstay of Donetsk’s economy – are antiquated, and unlikely to survive far into the future; and in any case, they are not much use shorn from the neighboring industrial powerhouses of Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, and Poltava, where separatist sentiment is much more subdued relative to the Donbass. Though the latter provinces might support a federal Ukraine, they will almost certainly be very much against joining Russia outright. And Russia itself doesn’t need the Donbass, especially by itself.

Now, bearing this in mind, I will draw two conclusions:

1) Any help or coordination that Russia provides to the separatist militias in Donbass and other cities in the east isn’t a prelude any unification, as in Crimea, but is meant to exert pressure on Kiev to agree to wide-ranging federalization. Ukraine was “lost” to the Eurasian Union when the Maidan overthrew Yanukovych in their coup. The plan now is to win at least half of it back.

2) Short of truly massive bloodletting on the part of the Kiev regime – and I do not think it will come to that, though I have learned not to be surprised to the downside by those folks – the Russian Army will NOT intervene. The ball will be in Kiev’s court. It can either leave the separatists in control, and they will proceed to carry out referendums that Russia could then exploit to cajole Kiev into federalization. Or it will – inevitably, violently – try to wipe out the “terrorists,” which will totally alienate eastern populations that are already very much unhappy with it. Given the mass defections to the separatist cause amongst the eastern siloviki, and the fact that Kiev can only truly rely upon Western Ukrainian units, the chances of success are low. If it were to pursue this route, it may well truly get a civil war on its hands, as historical Novorossiya rises up against the regime.

My Advice to the Maidan

Reprinted from Facebook (2018/02/14):

I’m not a Euromaidan supporter. But if I was, and was interested in the junta’s success and a smooth transition to an EU-orientated Poroshenko Presidency…

–> First of all, it has to be realized that Ukraine is weakest precisely in the short-term. An election would give Poroshenko a democratic mandate to carry him through the coming years of austerity and economic hardship, after which the situation will inevitably start to look up again (conveniently just in time for the 2018 elections). The pro-Russian electorate is getting older, and is concentrated in the demographically weaker eastern provinces; all else equal, the political power of the European vector is bound to increase over time at the expense of the pro-Russian vector. Meanwhile, passions in Russia over Crimea will die down, and Putin will start becoming preoccupied with the next election cycle.

The primary challenge, then, is just to survive the next few months.

I am assuming that Russia does not want to annex Donetsk – what for? it’s a subsidized rustbelt – but to use it as a lever for federalization, the consequent development of tight links between the SE provinces and Russia, and eventually, possibly, their independence (Novorossiya) or outright annexation. This can be preempted by Kiev offering decentralization itself, but in a manner that minimizes the actual political autonomy offered to the provinces. Incidentally, this is EXACTLY what Yatsenyuk and co. are doing – they are not the naive, limp-wristed fools that many here take them for.

Since the current authorities do not enjoy legitimacy in the east, especially in Donetsk/Lugansk, using force now is a pretty stupid idea. Especially since the local siloviki have either defected, or are apathetic. I suppose Kiev can still use units from the far west or mercenaries, but that would be doubling down on the stupid. Let them occupy administrative buildings for the time being, while painting them as foreign agents who don’t represent the will of the people (which is, again, what is actually being done). Administrative functions can be moved elsewhere for the time being. Absolutely no fire orders to avoid giving Moscow any kind of excuse for more overt intervention. Take solace in the fact that, at least before February, the opinion polls showed that no more than a third of Donetsk residents – the most seccesionist province – actually wanted full independence/merging with Russia. In the meantime, all efforts should be focused on stabilizing the economy. If that doesn’t happen – worse, if Crimea flourishes against this backdrop – then Kiev might have to deal with a Maidan 3.0 before too long, and not in the east but on the streets of the capital itself. How to stabilize the economy? Short of the EU/US putting their money where their mouth is, it will have to open up serious discussions with Russia. And this will require concessions. You might not think that fair, but it’s a fact. At least for the time being, promise to halt EU integration, and pointedly ignore Crimea (don’t accept it as Russian, but also don’t make scenes about it). Yes, this will enrage the Maidan, but unless I seriously underestimate Right Sector’s power, the caretaker government should survive long enough to run the elections and hand the Presidency to Poroshenko.

Once that is done, and full control over the country is regained as the effects of cadre replacements make themselves felt, promises made before can be broken (they can say they were made under duress, and/or that they were made by Turchinov, and Poroshenko is another Preisdent). As Kolomoysky said, “Promise the scum everything, then hang them.”

Was Crimea Worth It?

Reprinted from Facebook (2018/02/14):

Was Crimea worth it? [editorial tone – neutral/objective]

Pros
* Secures major Black Sea naval base; Ukraine no longer able to link it to gas discounts.
* Demonstration that Russia still counts to putsch leaders, pro-Russia elements in S/E Ukraine, and the West. From a realist, non-sentimental perspective, it’s better to be feared than laughed at.
* Massive surge in popularity for Putin and national unity.
* Has confirmed a fundamental wedge between the West and the “Rest”/BRICS on global politics. In particular, both China and India have tacitly supported Russia’s position.

Uncertain
* If it succeeds, it will serve as a beocon on the hill for Ukrainians. (In the same way that “free” and “democratic” Ukraine was supposed to serve as a beacon on the hill for Russians tiring of Putin’s authoritarianism, though that didn’t quite work out). If it fails, of course, it will create the opposite effect. But I think the former is likelier than the latter.
* Western sanctions are fairly moderate for now, mostly touching just a part of the elites. Arguably, some of these will actually have positive effects, with Russia forced to accelerate economic ties with East Asia and to lessen its dependence on Western institutions (e.g. a national payments system independent of Visa/Mastercard).

Cons
* Russia loses any talking points it might have had as a strict adherent to international law (but this wasn’t worth much in the first place). Ukrainians have become less positive towards Russia; in particular, support for NATO accession, always low, has recently soared. It’s unclear whether this is temporary or permanent. Considering the economic and political straits Ukraine is in, one strongly suspects that the Crimea/Russia issue will quickly move from the forefront in the next few months.
* Pundits might talk of Russia “winning Crimea, but losing Ukraine.” I disagree. Ukraine, at least as a unitary whole, was lost on February 22.
* Kicked out of G8, freeze on OECD accession, NATO cooperation – negative but of marginal import.
* Deficit territory in fiscal terms (but irrelevant in the big picture).

Overall
I think that this all adds up to a big overall plus. True, assigning different weights to these factors could move it down to a minor plus or a even a neutral position, but I just don’t see how one could possibly pass it off as a strategic error or blunder.

Navalny and Sanctions

Reprinted from Facebook (2018/02/14):

While Gorbachev supports Crimea’s return, Navalny is helping the EU to compile sanctions on those who made it possible (http://www.alde.eu/uploads/media/Crimea_list_FBK_ALDE.pdf).

All ideology aside, I really do think that this marks the end of him as a serious politician. (Note that I say this as someone who unlike most pro-Putinists predicted he’d get a high result in the Moscow elections).

Reprinted from Facebook (2018/02/14):

Couple of quick notes:

(1) Agree with Alexander Mercouris that the US bought into its own propaganda of “Putin’s billions” and has visa banned/frozen the assets of Timchenko, Gunvor, Kovalchuk, Rotenbergs, and other businessmen seen as close to Putin. Looks like its following the lead of its media and Navalny on these matters.

(2) Speaking of whom, I’ve always thought those who said Navalny was a CIA asset conspiracy theorists. Considering the close correlation between his own suggestions in the NYT and those the US just sanctioned, I will now have to seriously reconsider. The only unusual thing is that it seems America’s asset is leading it by the nose, as opposed to the other way round (though this is by no means unprecedented, recall “Curveball”).

(3) At this point, it would be not only proportionate but also poetically just to visa ban those US journalists who spread the story of Putin’s billions.

(4) While noting that these steps are run completely afoul of the rule of law and due process that the West pretends to care about so much, it is my impression that the vast majority of Russians (including myself) either do not care or in fact support these sanctions. It will help Putin to nationalize the elites and (in the long-run) help Russia diversify its economy and its relationships with non-Western Powers.

What If?: Ukraine vs. Russia

Reprinted from Facebook (2018/02/14):

I’m almost certain it won’t happen, but it’s always fun to consider these what-if military scenarios.

Namely, Ukraine vs. Russia.

In terms of numbers, it will be about 100K vs 150K – Russia has more, of course – 300K in the ground forces – but can only devote a certain percentage of its forces to one theater (so divide by two for air and armor too). Ukraine will of course try to call up reservists, but their military worth is negligible and in any case the reported response rate (1.5% from the Orange provinces) is minimal anyway. Most of Russia’s soldiers here will be kontraktniki; most of Ukraine’s soldiers are its last crop of conscripts, halfway through their one year draft, and a sprinkling of professionals.

As many people have pointed out, the loyalties of these troops – especially in the east – are questionable. Even a few cases of desertion can wreck morale across the board.

For all intents and purposes Ukraine now has no navy.

It has 120 modern fighters, but of these, only 40 can be classed as active. Russia has 500, of which almost all are active. Due to budget problems, Ukrainian pilots have enjoyed fewer flight hours than Russian ones, and as such will also be less experienced. Russia will have total air superiority after the first few days.

Tanks are the one area in which Ukraine isn’t totally outmatched. Ukraine has around 350 of what can be considered active, modern MBT’s. Russia has 1,300, plus a further 1,500 upgraded T-72’s. Ukraine also has many T-72’s, but they are all rusting away in storage and will be unusuable. It does have 700 active upgraded T-64’s, yet even upgraded, they are still rather obsolete.

The critical big unknown is Ukraine’s air defense. If it holds its own, then Ukrainian and Russian armor can clash on equal ground, at least for some time. Georgia’s air defense, likewise Soviet legacy, wracked up an impressive (for their small scope) set of kills in 2008. A lot will depend on whether the Russians have managed to draw lessons from that episode. If however it turns out to be ineffective, then Ukraine’s armor will consist of smoking hulks of metal within two weeks, and Russia’s entrance into Kiev within the month.

I am assuming no NATO intervention, which is politically very unlikely even in this extreme case. In any case, it will take months to effect the necessary buildup, by which time – even in the best case scenario for Ukraine – the campaign will have been long over.

#warnerd #armchairgeneral

Crimea Info

Reprinted from Facebook (2018/02/15):

It’s very uncharacteristic of the Kremlin to blatantly violate international law (they typically make sure to follow its letter). So what explains the increasingly unequivocal signs of Russian military involvement in Crimea?

The fact of the matter is that Russia has a legal right to military transit across Crimea SO LONG AS it informs the Ukrainian authorities. THE CATCH – whom does it consider to be such? Yanukovych, not the putschists in Kiev.

Revolution

Reprinted from Facebook (2018/02/15):

From what I am observing on Twitter, things are rapidly spiraling beyond our usual frames of reference so far as Ukraine is concerned.

Yanukovych, nowhere to be seen, is fast becoming something of an irrelevance so far as both sides are concerned. The new government is being formed without his input, and he is nowhere to be seen at the “separatist” congress in Kharkov. The revolutionaries now apparently have a super majority in the Rada, and if that is true, his impeachment is now just a matter of time.

Meanwhile, the Rada has also passed a law illegalizing separatist movements period. Whether that will dampen or inflame the incipient centrifugal tendencies in Crimea, Donetsk, and Kharkov remains to be seen.

Argument for Libertarianism

Reprinted from Facebook (2018/02/15):

Dear 23andMe Customers,

I’m writing to update you on our conversation with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and how it impacts you.

If you are a customer whose kit was purchased before November 22, 2013, your 23andMe experience will not change. You will be able to access both ancestry and health-related information as you always have.

23andMe has complied with the FDA’s directive and stopped offering new consumers access to health-related genetic results while the company moves forward with the agency’s regulatory review processes. Be sure to refer to our 23andMe blog for updates.

Revealed Preference

Reprinted from Facebook (2018/02/15):

Revealed preferences: The language settings on Vkontakte social network throughout Ukraine.

Premonitions

Reprinted from Facebook (2018/02/15):

The reason the police were “barely in control” is that Yanukovych demoralized them by criticizing them for breaking up yesterday’s Maidan, in a bid to appease protesters who will not be appeased.

Apparently, the ProFFesor believes balancing between two stools is a good strategy for Ukrainian domestic politics too. What other explanation can there be?

Though in theory his position should be secure, his perennial incompetence means that actual revolution before March 2015 is a distinct, if still unlikely, possibility.