These days ‘cyber warfare’ is all the rage among those doing military threat analysis in geopolitics. Mutually Assured Destruction by launch of ICBMs is passé, vulnerable to ABM systems, although Russia insists its latest variable range hypersonic missiles Avangard, Tsirkon and Kinzhal evade interception and will get the job done. The West does not yet possess hypersonic missiles, whereas it is going full blast on cyber, so that is the talk of the town here.
All of the foregoing ignores a much older martial art that also gets the job done without harming a soul. I have in mind psychological warfare, in military slang “Psy Ops.” In what follows below, I argue that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been applying precisely that art on us these past several weeks and months, with some notable successes already scored and likely more to come in his ongoing pursuit of a US-NATO capitulation, meaning the roll-back of physical threats to Russian national security from the forward positions at Russia’s doorstep presently obtaining.
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Over the past month, every few days I have been publishing commentary on the unfolding crisis around Ukraine as Russia massed at the Ukrainian border what was variously reported in our media as between 75,000 and 150,000 troops. Some of these articles have elicited words of praise from readers of my website or of other sites reposting me including www.antiwar.com and LinkedIn.
Accordingly I open with a mea culpa, acknowledging that over this month my interpretation has zig-zagged, with my expressing at one moment confidence that Russia had no interest or intention to invade Ukraine and at another moment allowing for the possibility. However, I think it is better to have done flip-flops than to have stayed with one consistent story all this time, given that my flip-flops were prompted by the changing information flow coming in.
We have all been in a state of confusion over the Kremlin’s intentions. By “we all” I also include Russia’s own think tank experts, going as high as Fyodor Lukyanov, who is widely interviewed on Russian state television as well as by Western media and is assumed to be in the know. He did not have a clue, as I remarked reading his latest analytical article in The Moscow Times.
Vladimir Putin has kept his game plan very close to his chest and has successfully confused us all, especially over the past three weeks in the various public meetings and forums in which he and his team participated.
The declaration of a crisis situation came from the American side in mid-November, which sent diplomats, including the Secretary of State Blinken, scurrying to confer with allies in Europe, to share with them military intelligence about the numbers and structure of the Russian forces near Ukraine and to try to reach consensus over draconian economic and other sanctions that all would apply against Russia should an actual invasion take place. One notable general gathering for this purpose brought together all NATO member states in Riga on 30 November – 1 December. Afterwards, the United States intimated that all ducks were lined up. The Europeans tended to remain silent.
Then finally came the Biden-Putin video conference of 7 December, which seemed to be a white knuckle event at the end of which very little was given out to the media by either US or Russian sides. We only heard that working teams would be formed to discuss Russian complaints. But nothing changed at the Ukrainian border.
On 15 December, there was the video-conference between Putin and Xi Jinping , highlighting the closeness of Russian-Chinese bilateral relations in a number of areas including defense, and implying by its timing that if the US moved incautiously against Russia following the expected invasion of Ukraine, it might face a second front in the Pacific. After that came a bombshell, the release on 17 December of Russia’s draft treaties with the USA and NATO to wholly revise the security architecture in Europe to Russia’s benefit. And then there was the speech by Putin to the Collegium of the Russian Defense Ministry on the 21st in which he said that if the talks with the Americans over these draft treaties did not go well, if it appeared that the other side was just buying time, then Russia would immediately implement what he called ‘military-technical’ retaliatory measures. Our media tended to believe this meant an invasion of Ukraine, or worse. Why they were wrong, I have explained in an essay I published two days ago in which I deciphered the term “military-technical.” I will revert to this further on.
I emphasize that during this whole period the Russians did nothing to reduce their military presence at the Ukrainian border, while denying that they had any intention of moving into Ukraine, saying it was their right to post their soldiers anywhere inside their own territory and that the Americans were just making self-serving propaganda to reinforce control over their European allies.
During this entire period, Western commentators in mainstream media, and even in alternative news outlets, were drawn into the idea of an impending Russian invasion. Everyone speculated on what forces the Russians would deploy, their numbers and equipment, on how long the Russians would need to take Kiev. At the other end, they speculated on what sanctions the Americans and their allies would impose: cutoff from SWIFT, refusal of Western banks to convert rubles, scrapping the Nord Stream pipeline and much more was in the list that Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland released to journalists. The pundits opined on how damaging these sanctions would be to the Russian economy and to popular support for the Russian leadership.
As I now see it, most everyone was taken in by what has been a masterly Psy Ops move by Russia.
It has already brought them a great achievement: the United States, France, Britain have all now declared publicly that they will not send a single soldier to defend Ukraine if Russia attacks. From this it is not a far step to accept the Russians’ first demand, that the USA and NATO abandon the offer made to Ukraine in 2008 to admit the country to NATO at one date or another in the future. That would effectively end the dogma underpinning the entire U.S. foreign policy: denial of the right of any other state than itself to have national interests and spheres of influence. It would remove the principal objections to Russian demands today for the roll-back of NATO forces along all the “front line states” in Eastern Europe.
The Psy Ops has achieved other positive results for Russia which I will get to in a minute. But first I am obliged to explain what was the point of massing their soldiers at the Ukrainian border in the first place if not to stage an invasion or to frighten and confuse the Americans over the likelihood of such an invasion.
The word “invasion” with boots on the ground has monopolized Western analysis of Russian intentions with respect to Ukraine. Our commentators uniformly point to a precedent: the “invasion” of Crimea in March 2014 that led to occupation and ultimately to annexation. But the analogy is totally false. Our Western media have either forgotten the details of how Crimea was lost by Ukraine or care little for the facts and are just engaging in naked propaganda.
In 2014, the Russians indeed defeated the Ukrainian forces in Crimea. But there was no movement of troops across a border, no pitched battles to conquer ground. What happened was something far more sophisticated and difficult to execute. At the time, our journalists called it ‘hybrid warfare.’ That was just a newly minted term for psychological warfare, or Psy Ops.
No Russian troops crossed the border, because under the existing Russian-Ukrainian state treaty governing the lease of the Russian naval base in Sevastopol the Russians had the right to station 17,000 military men on the peninsula, a number which was incidentally roughly equal to the number of Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea. True, very likely there was a rotation of Russian troops, substituting special forces for the regulars in the barracks ahead of the eventual Russian move.
In any case, when Crimean residents refused to accept the new, illegitimate government in Kiev following the U.S- directed coup d’état by radical Ukrainian nationalists in February 2014, the Russians made their move with what they had on the spot. They cut all means of communication between the local Ukrainian units and their command in Kiev, then they instructed the confused and despairing Ukrainians to surrender and either go back home to the mainland or change sides and take an oath of allegiance to Russia. I am told that as many as 75% of the Ukrainian forces chose to stay. Hardly a shot was fired and perhaps one Ukrainian soldier died.
This operation by the Russians was a perfect execution of the Clausewitz rules of war: overwhelm the enemy so that they surrender without slaughter. The naval forces of Ukraine also abandoned ship and cleared out without a fight. The net result was the immediate capitulation of Kiev and Russian take-over of Crimea.
So, did the Russians bring their 75,000 or 150,000 troops to the Ukrainian border two months ago just to exact concessions from the United States by threatening war with Ukraine and expulsion of the U.S. backed regime in Kiev? Surely that has been a nice advance dividend from their operation, but it was not the driver.
Until Vladimir Putin spoke yesterday at his annual press conference, we did not have a clear statement from the Kremlin on why so many of its troops were massed within striking distance of Donbass. Now Putin said directly that they anticipated a Ukrainian assault on the ‘separatist’ Russian-backed provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk. The aggressive intent of the Kiev had been encouraged by the delivery over the past two years of $2.5 billion in military equipment and trainers to Ukraine from the United States, which was supporting the radical forces within the Ukrainian defense establishment. Russian media have for weeks reported that half of the total Ukrainian army had been mobilized and sent to the western border of Donbas, ready to strike. He added that it would be intolerable for the Russians to abandon Donbas civilians to the anticipated onslaught, so that if it began the Russians would have to enter Ukraine to turn it back. In effect, the Russians were at the eastern border not to stage an invasion but to make an invasion unnecessary by stopping the Ukrainian forces at the western border in their tracks.
Let us be very plain: the Russian commitment to support the Donbas has a number of justifications. That Kiev would intend upon occupation to engage in ethnic cleansing, to drive out to Russia a large part of the population is beyond doubt. Russia would bear a moral obligation to protect civilians against possible genocidal intentions of the extreme Ukrainian nationalists, akin to the ‘right to protect’ principle invoked by NATO when it entered the civil war in Libya to overthrow General Qaddafi. Still more, there would be an obligation to its own citizens residing in Donbas. As we know some 600,000 Ukrainians in Donbas accepted Russian Federation passports when they were made available by Moscow over the past couple of years.
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We will see in January to what extent the Americans and Russians can reach agreement on redrawing the security architecture in Europe so as to satisfy the Kremlin’s concerns. If they fail, then Putin will not invade Ukraine, he will not stop gas shipments to Europe, but he will implement the ‘military-technical’ means of retaliation mentioned last week. This means, as I observed in my essay published a couple of days ago, that the Russians will likely begin the next phase of Psy Ops. They will install nuclear capable missiles in Belarus and in Kaliningrad which will threaten NATO capitals in Europe; they will position their various submarine and surface vessel launched cruise missiles just outside U.S. territorial waters, threatening the political and defense installations of the U.S. with a 5 minute time to target. In this way they will subject their adversaries to the same threats as they face coming from NATO. And there is every reason to believe these measures, in which not a soul perishes, will bring the U.S. and Europe around to common sense, equitable solutions.
In the meantime, aside from the U.S. public disavowal of sending troops to the aid of Ukraine, the Russian Psy Ops have begun to crack the stubbornness of Cold Warriors among the U.S. foreign policy establishment.
Yesterday an analytical article on the situation in Ukraine and Russian demands was published by The Washington Post that would have been unimaginable a month ago. It would not be out of place if posted on www.antiwar.com I heartily recommend it to my readers.
If other leading newspapers and electronic media follow this lead as the United States modifies its security doctrine in Europe to satisfy some key demands of the Russians, then I, Ray McGovern, Patrick Armstrong and other “dissident’ observers of the West’s relations with the Kremlin may find ourselves in the midst of “mainstream” as the tide comes in and lifts all boats.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021