Fighting around Kramatorsk, Slaviansk Airports / All Sides up against a Wall

“Delo” (Kiev newspaper) —  — is reporting that Ukrainian forces have retaken the Kramatorsk airport from Russian separatists.   BBC confirms.  Delo’s reporting is more detailed … apparently the Ukrainians deployed aircraft and three helicopters (gunships?) in Kramatorsk, and eyewitness claim a firefight occurred.   In Slaviansk airport guards beat off an attack by Russian separatists.  The Ukrainians also had air support here.  If the Ukrainians are using elite units and aviation, they should have no problem cleaning up the separatists outside the government buildings.  However attacks on government buildings held by separatists will probably be accompanied by large scale civilian casualties.  Moreover, if Russian regular forces intervene, the Ukrainians will be badly wrong footed, outclassed militarily and with too many of their assets concentrated in the eastern part of the country, highly vulnerable to Russian airpower and to encirclement.

The independent research and analysis groups Stratfor and the International Institute for Strategic Studies both claim that given Russian military commitments elsewhere — opposite the Baltics, in the Caucasus, in Central Asia, on the Chinese frontier — Russia does not have the military resources to control large swathes of eastern and southern Ukraine.  This would certainly militate against military intervention.

But we are, frighteningly, well past the point of rational calculation.  Everyone is up against the wall.  Not only are Ukrainian nationalists in Kiev demanding use of force against Russian separatists in the east, but if the Ukrainian government fails to act, it risks becoming a semi-colonial dependency of Russia.  Putin, whose original goal may have been a federalized Ukraine, will find it hard not to intervene militarily if the Ukrainians embark on large-scale use of force in the east, especially given the state of Russian public opinion.  The “West” really does not have viable policy options other than increased sanctions, and I think that the situation is probably beyond the point where the threat of sanctions has much weight.  The Russian separatists in the east, having declared an independent “Don People’s Republic”, will find it hard to climb down from that position.

Although I have been playing the prediction game, and debating those predictions with my friends, historians are not actually supposed to predict — we recognize the fluidity and contingency of events.  The problem is that things are very fluid in east Ukraine right now and a lot of the probable outcome are not looking good.  Civil war, ethnic cleansing, Russian intervention with all of its consequences — all of these are becoming more likely outcomes.  At best, we may end up with a “frozen conflict” as in Trans-Dnestria or South Ossetia.

The saddest thing is that most people in east Ukraine or Ukraine do not want any of this.  They want to be left alone to live with their neighbors and go about their lives.  It is the game players — Putin and his government, perhaps the US CIA, Ukrainian oligarchs — and the fanatics among Russian and Ukrainian nationalists, who are driving things towards catastrophe.  Let us hope cooler heads prevail.


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