In recent weeks, as Russian bombs and missiles have started landing in Homs, Hama and Aleppo in Syria, concern has grown among Ukrainians that one of the primary targets of the barrage actually is their country.
The reasoning gets complicated, but Ukrainian fears boil down to this: Having failed to win the war in southeastern Ukraine, Russia now is focusing on gaining control in the region by winning the peace.
“In the past two years, we’ve moved from war to a geopolitical conflict,” said Serhiy Zhurets, the director of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. “Syria is part of the new conflict. Russia is haggling with the West. He’s using Syria as evidence that he can be trusted, can be a good friend and partner, and that he needs more freedom in Donbas,” as Ukrainians call their conflicted eastern region.
Ukrainian officials and experts are not unique in seeing a motive beyond vanquishing the Islamic State – and propping up Russian ally Syrian President Bashar Assad – in Putin’s actions in the Middle East. The Russian economy is suffering from global economic sanctions, and in particular the loss of European trading partners. At the same time, Europe is buckling under the pressure from hundreds of thousands of Syrian war refugees landing on its shores. Recent reports from the Greek island Lesbos note that a boat of refugees still arrives every three minutes.
So Russian actions to stabilize the Assad regime are seen as having the potential of stemming the refugee flow, thus currying favor on a continent where only Germany has welcomed refugees with open arms, and even Germans are wondering if they’ll soon reach capacity.
Meanwhile, precise Russian cruise missile strikes show a Europe that has spent a pittance on defense for the past several decades that in addition to being a good friend, Russia can be a powerful enemy.
Dmytro Tymchuk, a member of the national security and defense committee of the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, and one of the foremost military experts in Ukraine, credits a vastly improved Ukrainian military for Putin’s pivot to Syria.
“Putin’s goals have not changed, it’s just that we were able to rebuild our military fast enough to stop him,” Tymchuk said recently during an interview at the Rada. “When his initial plan failed, he changed his plan.”
Part of this plan are elections in the contested area. Tymchuk noted that the contested area is completely under Russian control and the control of Russian propaganda. An election at this point is almost certain to legitimize the Russian presence and control. Kiev’s nightmare scenario is a vote that firmly puts Russia in charge of the area but requires Ukraine to pay for rebuilding the war damage in the region.
But elections aren’t expected to be the end.
Ukrainian military experts and officials agree that Russia’s military actions in southeastern Ukraine have stalled.
They also generally agree that the current collection of pro-Russian separatists – usually described as drunken and unprofessional– and the actual Russian military that supports, trains and tries to control them, will neither be easily pushed out of Ukraine nor be able to push forward. But the working assumption here is that Putin still plans eventually to control eight regions in Ukraine’s south and east to provide a land route to Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula Russia annexed two years ago.
But that, Tymchuk said, is unlikely now without an assault by tens of thousands of Russian troops – a move, with support from Russian planes and ships, that would be impossible to hide or deny. Europe and NATO, which has largely shown little commitment to combating Russia in eastern Ukraine, might be forced to respond. Putin couldn’t pass off such an assault, as he does now, by saying the Russian soldiers fighting there are simply volunteers using their vacation days to wage war in Ukraine, or that units got lost, or, most commonly, that they aren’t really in Ukraine at all.
“The forces he can currently call upon, an allegedly secret force that Putin’s been able to pass off as having nothing to do with official Russian policy, are not capable of accomplishing his aims,” Tymchuk said. “Perhaps the most important part of those aims, creating a land bridge to Crimea so that he can efficiently supply the peninsula directly from Russia, would now require the sort of full-scale assault he’s tried to avoid.”
Turas Kostanchuk, a 51-year-old attorney who recently returned from a year fighting for Ukraine on the front lines, says the presence of Russian troops was never in question for those fighting. He remembers when the Russian regular army arrived in Ilovaisk.
“Frankly, the separatists were less organized than we were, and we were having little problem pushing them out of the territory,” he said. “Then one afternoon we ran into soldiers who knew what they were doing. Those we captured all said the same things, they were Russian army. We were volunteers, and we were soon overwhelmed.”
The reality in Ukraine today is that while they’ve reached a military standoff in Donbas and for the most part a year old cease-fire has been holding, there is no sense of being able to force out the Russian military and pro-Russian separatist units that now occupy the region.
Ukraine’s military, once thought so weak that battle-ready troops numbered as few as 2,000, has improved so vastly that the days are gone when a Russian invasion was thought likely to take Kiev in a matter of days. Today, Ukraine has 240,000 soldiers, 60,000 of whom are considered ready to fight.
Tymchuk notes that the days are gone when Ukrainian officers made more money from illegal weapons sales than they did from their salaries (the Ukrainian defense minister once famously asked top officers “to steal a bit less”).
“It’s hard to compare the Ukrainian army of today to what it was even 18 months ago,” he said. “Back then, fearing a Russian invasion, we needed tanks. We were able to find two in working condition. Today we have 500, and new ones on order.”
Still, there is great concern that Putin’s Russia is simply waiting, and that the Syria intervention is just part of the strategy, and that if he’s successful there, Europe and NATO won’t object to his seizure of more of Ukraine, which is not a NATO ally.
“In Syria, he’s wants to show the West that the United States is unable to solve the conflict without his help,” said Mykola Sungurovskyi, the director of military programs at the Razumkov Center, a research center in Kiev. “If Europe is convinced, then we are the new Syria.”
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews