Thursday, July 31, 2014

Guest Editorial: From our friend Andrew Bowen at


Russia Has 15,000 Crack Troops on the Ukrainian Border

And Putin’s itching for a fight.

As Malaysia Airlines' 298 passengers died over the skies of eastern Ukraine, so did the last trace of hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin would back down from his support of eastern Ukraine's separatist rebels or agree to a negotiated settlement to the seven-month-long conflict. Since the deadly incident, it is no longer in doubt whether or not the future of eastern Ukraine -- or Novorossiya (New Russia), as pan-Slavic nationalists call it -- will be decided by force. The only question remaining is how deadly the fight will be.

At the moment, the government in Kiev is ramping up its fight to reclaim Ukraine's restive eastern regions. At the same time, thousands of Russian troops are amassed along Ukraine's eastern border, and not just the elite Airborne or Spetsnaz troops that took over Crimea in February, but also units designed to fight conventional wars and armies, like Ukraine's. The result could be explosive.

There was little Ukraine could do to stop the "little green men" who invaded Crimea. By the time Kiev had realized what was going on, Russia's most elite and best-trained Naval Infantry, Airborne, and Spetsnaz troops (including the new Senezh unit, which seized the Crimean parliament) had prevented Ukrainian reinforcements from entering Crimea. But the separatist militiamen in eastern Ukraine, despite being equipped, trained, and funded by Moscow, are a different story. There, Kiev retains a vast advantage in firepower, materiel, and troops, along with the implicit backing of the international community against an increasingly fragmented and uncoordinated separatist movement.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has shown he is willing to use every available resource to retake the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk from the separatists. But does he have the force and commitment necessary to do so?

The best estimates place Ukraine's military strength at around 35,000 ground personnel, although only about 10,000 to 12,000 are able and ready to conduct offensive combat operations at any given time. So far, Kiev has committed six mechanized brigades, a tank brigade, and various special-forces units (such as the Interior Ministry's "Snow Leopard" brigade) to retaking the east. That's in addition to the one airborne and three airmobile brigades that have carried out much of the fighting and borne many of the casualties, such as on June 14, when separatists shot down an Ilyushin-76 transport plane, killing 40 paratroopers of the 25th Airborne Brigade and nine crew members. Additional forces along the lines of National Guard units have been hastily created, financed, and trained from the various groups and protestors who took part in the protests and clashes with police last winter that led to the current crisis. These units were put together to fill the manpower shortages created by years of corruption and inattention to Ukraine's military.

Ukrainian forces' recent gains against the separatists are a testament to Kiev's commitment and the strengthening of its army: The situation began to turn in Kiev's favor when the Ukrainian army repelled the Vostok Battalion's attack on Donetsk International Airport in May and caused significant casualties among the rebels. Since then, the Ukrainian army has continued its advance, gradually dislodging separatists from their bases, such as when the infamous rebel commander Igor Strelkov was forced to retreat from his stronghold in Slovyansk on July 5. These successes speak to Ukraine's distinct advantage in heavy firepower and airpower over the rebels, even despite Russia's supplying of tanks, rockets, and air defense systems to the separatists.

But these victories took place among the relatively open landscape of Donetsk and Lugansk. Because the rebels have retreated from their control of the countryside into the cities, the upcoming fight will take place not in the fields of Ukraine's eastern farmland but in its cities and urban areas -- where no modern army was designed to fight. An urban battle reduces the advantage of Ukraine's superior firepower and increases the potential for civilian casualties, making further gains for Ukraine a bloody and horrifyingly slow endeavor.

As Simon Saradzhyan, a Russia expert at Harvard's Belfer Center, notes, if Ukraine continues to suffer troop casualties at its current rate, it would "surpass 1,560 per year. That would be more than what the Russian army acknowledged losing in the deadliest year of the second Chechen war." In view of the increasing casualties on the horizon, Ukraine's parliament has just approved a call-up of a further 50,000 reservists and men under the age of 50, just 45 days after its last mobilization. But just how long Ukraine's cobbled-together military will be able to sustain increasing casualties is questionable at best -- especially if they suddenly find themselves up against more qualified Russian soldiers.
Throughout the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russian troops have watched from just over the border, implicitly threatening intervention.
Throughout the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russian troops have watched from just over the border, implicitly threatening intervention. Since the beginning of the rebellion, Russian troops have been conducting maneuvers and setting up the logistics network that would be needed for an incursion. Things have ramped up in recent days, with Russia conducting large-scale exercises with some of its most advanced helicopters. The threat hasn't been lost on Kiev.
  During the July 22 debate in the Ukrainian parliament on calling up reserves, the secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, Andriy Parubiy, said that Moscow was once again building up its reserves on the border with Ukraine. Parubiy claimed that the Russian force consisted of up to 41,000 troops, 150 tanks, and 400 armored vehicles. Washington and NATO have also backed up that assertion, although estimates on numbers differ: The Pentagon and NATO military commander U.S. Gen. Philip Breedlove put the estimates of Russian troops at the border at 12,000 to 15,000. This may be the best estimate, as the United States has no incentive to downplay the level of troops at the border and American satellite imagery is likely to get the most accurate picture.

Even if the number of Russian troops at the border is far lower than the 41,000 discussed by Ukrainian security officials, there is still good reason to worry. "These battalion groups consist of infantry, armor and artillery, and also have organic air defense capabilities," the Pentagon notes. These are the units that comprise Russia's "New Look" army and exemplify the Kremlin's effort to modernize its armed forces over the past six years. The units on Ukraine's borders are far more advanced than the Soviet divisions that were pointed at NATO. While skeleton crews manned the old Soviet forces, the New Look army is supposedly manned at 90 to 100 percent. And these troops can also be mobilized more quickly.

Since 2008, the Russian military has reformed its army from old, unwieldy divisions and regiments into a brigade structure that would allow for full manning and quicker mobilization. At full strength, these brigades consist of 4,200 to 4,300 servicemen each, with 2,200 in tank brigades. But the biggest difference between the New Look brigades and their predecessors is that each was created with the intent that they would be able to operate independently, with their own artillery, armor (tank), and anti-air capabilities. This makes them much more dangerous and maneuverable: Instead of individual infantry or tank units, these are nimble, deadly, all-in-one brigades.

The rationale behind this move was to more effectively engage in the threats that Russia envisioned in its future. Rather than facing off against NATO tanks in lowlands, the Russian General Staff envisioned focusing on regional conflicts that require mobility and flexibility -- exactly like Ukraine right now. The special-forces troops that invaded Crimea are not designed to fight a heavily armed and armored force. They are meant to strike fast and hard, and then be quickly supported by regular brigades with heavier firepower. The troops currently on Ukraine's borders are the support that typically follows behind the "little green men."

Russia does not have the force ready at the border for a full-scale invasion and occupation of eastern Ukraine. But it doesn't need to. Putin does not want to annex the large and economically depressed region, despite the increasingly vocal calls from Russia's nationalist right and the Russian commanders in charge of the insurgency. Even if he did, from a strategic point of view, he has missed his best opportunity. In May and June, Russia had its best units poised and positioned on Ukraine's borders. Since then, however, the rotation of conscripted soldiers has put fresh, less-than-battle-ready soldiers into the field.

But what the Kremlin really wants in Ukraine is to foster anarchy and instability, putting pressure on the new regime in Kiev and the West to acquiesce to Russia's dominance in the east and to stop what Putin and many in his circle believe are EU and NATO incursions into Russia's backyard.

That means that the forces currently amassed on the border are capable of launching a quick incursion into Ukraine to halt the progress of Kiev's forces and allow the rebels to reassert some control, along with effectively signaling Moscow's dominance over events in the region. Whether this is a quick strike or a longer-term incursion, these new brigades have the firepower and logistics support to effectively deal a blow to Ukrainian forces.

Political analysts and intelligence agencies alike were surprised when the Kremlin annexed Crimea. The economically depressed region, already under Moscow's influence, seemed like an unnecessary addition to the Russian Federation. And then Putin surprised the world. Another surprise may be possible soon. The Russian president is stuck in a dangerous position between the vocal proponents of Russian revanchism and the international community that condemns interference in Ukraine. He can ill afford to allow eastern Ukraine to return to Kiev's hands and he may be willing to use the troops he has built up along the border to stop that. An incursion by Russian troops to stunt the Ukrainian advance would be well within Russia's capabilities, and very likely would not meet much resistance by the international community, other than further sanctions.

And while it may seem farcical to some, not too long ago so was the notion of Russia training the separatists and giving them rocket launchers. In Ukraine, the farcical becomes reality.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Muse: War and the Media in the Gaza Strip

The Buffalo:

Ever since the Vietnam War, when the media first endeavored to bring war and all its calamitous effects into the daily lives of a mass audience, the reporting of war has always been stained by accusations of bias toward one side in any given affair or conflict. Back then the media had the intentional effects of a highly contentious Cold War to contend with, which usually brought a certain degree of partisanship among most news outlets to conform to the customary ‘east versus west’ political chasm. The line between friend and foe was always underscored in vivid detail to accentuate the ‘us versus them’ mentality between western freedom and democracy and eastern oppression and communism. 

Today’s media no longer has the onus of a clear-cut variance in political philosophy to abide by. They’re no longer accustomed to depicting the same story in the same perspective. The message can therefore be molded, altered and distorted to appeal to a wider number of people with broadly divergent interests and political viewpoints. Because of the powerful expansion of media outlets with the advent of the internet and social media networks, the information disseminated has become progressively muted and dispersed. Media outlets today tend to exceedingly rely on shock value and sensationalism to pique the curiosity of the unfamiliar reader or viewer.

You could say that the detrimental effects of politics has reared its ugly head into the news media, like it certainly has done in places like FoxNews, MSNBC, CNN and the Wall St. Journal. However, politics isn’t always the prime adjudicator in divulging a particular slant on the news that’s reported. Sometimes it’s the outlet’s sole reliance on shock and sensationalism that tips the scale in favor of one particular side and this is not always done intentionally or begrudgingly. Shock and sensationalism doesn’t always have the effect that is intended. More importantly, it is a method that attempts to play on one’s emotions and many times emotions are open to varyingly loud and unsympathetic interpretations. 
Palestinian victims of shellfire in Gaza refugee camp

Nowhere is this dilemma more poignant than in the reporting of war and conflict. There seems to be a growing gap in today’s war coverage among many media outlets between the customary reporting of a military campaign and the unfortunate collateral effects of its progression. Many times the actual reporting of the war is forced to take a back seat because of the media outlet’s attempt to sensationalize war’s most agonizing residual effects. This is usually exhibited in the way the media reports on the agonies suffered outside the realm of military operations; the so-called collateral effects of battle evinced through the illustration of civilian casualties, mass homelessness and the destruction of whole communities.

This experience is seemingly magnified tenfold in asymmetric warfare usually because the military belligerents are quite averse to tipping their own hands to the enemy by accommodating the presence of news-reporters during their operations. It might’ve been newsworthy and convenient to place several “embedded” reporters in a military formation engaged in somewhat conventional war zones like Iraq or the Persian Gulf War, but there isn’t too many commanders who would approve the presence of reporters in their soldiers midst while they actively seek out and engage guerrilla insurgents in an urban environment. These are the battles that the media must rely almost exclusively on the voluntary news contributions of the military forces currently engaged. 

Yet the media will often extend to their reporters a wider avenue of responsibility to extract the whole story when their investigations are officially restricted or curtailed by the military commanders in the field. This usually restricts them to the jurisdiction of the civilian communities affected by the battle. But in doing so the media sometimes inadvertently attunes its audience strictly to the emotional consequences of the conflict, which in war will never bode well for the civilians caught in the midst of the fighting. 

Civilian victims tend to look exclusively at the assaulting or occupying army as the root cause for the overall disruption to their lives and their emotions are exceedingly enhanced when innocent bystanders, especially their own family members, are killed or maimed because of the battle all around them. Hence the reporters are often involuntarily feeding the flames of animosity against one particular side because the emotional scars of the other are more sensationalized because of the perception of injustice done to the victims. And this isn’t always the case, especially when one of the belligerent armies has a comprehensive goal to demonize their enemy to outsiders in order to curry favor for their undefined pursuits.

One of the underlying yet detrimental effects the media has on the war zone is to revile the invading combatant whenever collateral damage occurs because it might never have occurred had the army elected to stay put and refrain from assuming an offensive posture. Suddenly the acute disruptions to the lives of the civilian community can manifest into prolonged armed resistance because of the proliferation of unchecked, emotional anguish accentuated by equally emotional and often biased news reporters. Maybe the world doesn’t react so forcefully to the image of a soldier’s corpse defiled in battle but the image of an innocent child mutilated by an errant artillery shell usually can provoke the most impassive bystander to the thresholds of human emotion.
Palestinians struggling to cope with the war

 The causal effect of this particular media bias usually means increased slaughter among the insurgent’s side, with a corresponding increase in innocent civilian deaths among the insurgent population. They might be fueling the fires of a popular insurgency against seemingly reckless military might but they also threaten the viability that the military mighty can be persuaded from seeking only military solutions. And if the mighty military’s own civilians have been subjected to the same type of innocent civilian slaughter as the insurgent’s brethren, who are the media to judge which one’s civilians are the victims of injustice as opposed to misfortune?  

 The war in the Gaza Strip is now well into its second week and many of us here in America are still in the dark about its daily progression. We’re inundated with daily pictures of the brutality inflicted on the civilian population in Gaza but little is said about the disruption in the lives of Israel’s citizens who are faced with an hourly deluge of rockets and mortars raining down on them for no other reason except that Hamas does not differentiate between soldier and civilian. Does this make me pro-Israeli and unfit for media approval because I question the reasoning for the Palestinian’s sufferings at the hands of their misguided leaders?

Maybe this was not meant for prime-time consumption but I believe that the current morass in the Gaza Strip can be defined in a nutshell. Six months ago Palestinian rockets started hitting Southern Israel in short, intermittent spurts. No Israelis were killed but the disruption to normal, everyday life was enough to deem the outside threat as a gross violation of international law. As the Hamas guerrillas started amassing newer, more powerful and far-reaching rockets they began increasing the daily deluge into all sectors of the Israeli state. No longer deemed a mere nuisance to Israel’s well-being but a grave provocation to the sovereignty of the Jewish state, the Israeli Defense Forces resolved to eliminate the threat once and for all by overrunning the areas where the rockets had originated from and neutralizing the factories where many of the more crude rockets are being manufactured. 
Israeli airstrike on main Gaza City power plant

Although it pains me deeply to view the images of innocent Palestinian civilians falling victim to the Israeli-Hamas fighting, it must be noted that Hamas has recklessly endangered its own civilians by wantonly and knowingly utilizing residential areas to fire off their rockets and crude projectiles. This is a direct violation of the Geneva and Hague Conventions governing war, which explicitly means that Hamas has no intention of ever abiding by the fundamental rules of international law that most of the free world readily adheres to. The fact that the political leadership of Hamas does not even recognize Israel’s right to exist and openly calls for its utter destruction merely reinforces Israel’s right to defend itself against all its most imminent threats and nemeses. 

As sad of a tragedy the current fighting in Gaza is to its Palestinian civilians, the real calamity is that these tragic affairs will continue to increase in frequency and potency until the Palestinian people resolve to elevate a new political leadership into power that puts the welfare of its citizens first and foremost amongst its national priorities. Currently Hamas spends more than 70% of its expenditures on arms and other military equipment. The majority of its citizens are destitute workers eking by on the bare necessities of life. The major humanitarian functions of the state are provided exclusively by foreign grants and endowments from affluent Arab neighbors and religious institutions. They account more for the survival of the Palestinian people than the militant and irresponsible leaders of Hamas. 

Civilian tragedies during war are a cruel but inevitable consequence of a nation’s resort to armed conflict to enhance its national prerogatives. As long as Hamas is determined to bring pain and suffering to its Israeli neighbor, than the world can expect more scenes of cruelty inflicted on the people residing in the Gaza Strip. The media might not like what the IDF is doing in Gaza and they might be equally determined to cast the Israelis as the lone aggressor in the current field of battle, but they will never prevent the Israeli nation from defending its sovereign right to exist by eliminating its most threatening external enemies. Right now Hamas is more of an enemy to the Palestinian people than the Israelis are. That’s what the media is afraid to tell everyone.