A Russian Pullback Won’t Save Ukraine

by Jonah Shepp

Analyzing Russia’s most recent announcement that it will withdraw troops from the Ukrainian border, Linda Kinstler stresses that, even if it’s true, the Ukrainians are still sitting ducks:

[I]f Russian troops do retreat to their “usual garrisons,” plenty of Russian forces will still be well within striking distance of Ukraine. There are multiple Russian bases along the Ukrainian border, so for troops to move back to their permanent stations might not mean all that much as far as de-escalation goes. “It seems that [Putin’s] agents are having more problems [in eastern Ukraine] than they bargained for, and he is now perhaps looking to minimize his overexposure,” said Stephen Blank, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. “But the fact of the matter is they could withdraw five miles and then they could come right back.” Russian forces, Finch says, “are not that far from the Ukrainian border to begin with. For them to turn around wouldn’t be that big of a move.”

Even more dangerous, as Ukraine discovered in Crimea, was the presence of Russian soldiers on their soil. Dmitry Gorenburg draws lessons from that experience:

First of all, having Russian bases on the territory of one’s state makes an invasion much easier to carry out. Russian naval bases in Crimea were used as a beachhead for covertly moving Russian forces into Ukraine. Since the number of troops actually based in Crimea was significantly lower than the maximum of 25,000 agreed to between Russia and Ukraine in the 1997 treaty that regulated the status of the Black Sea Fleet, Russia could even claim that the increase in the number of Russian troops in Crimea did not violate the relevant treaty.* This precedent should be a concern to Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and other states with Russian troops stationed on their territory.

Second, former Soviet states need to watch out for Russian agents and collaborators working in their security and military forces. One of the reasons for the ineffectiveness of Ukraine’s military and security response in Crimea and subsequent covert activities in the country’s east is that that Ukraine’s secure communications channels are almost certainly compromised by Russian agents. Most other former Soviet states most likely have similar problems, though perhaps not to the same extent.

Meanwhile, Sarah Chayes examines how corruption left Ukraine militarily unprepared for Russian aggression:

Chronic underfunding “enhanced the role of the human factor” in choosing among operational priorities. Ostensibly outdated equipment was sold “at unreasonably understated prices” in return for kickbacks. Officers even auctioned off defense ministry land. Gradually, Kyiv began requiring the military to cover more of its own costs, forcing senior officers into business, “which is…inconsistent with the armed forces’ mission,” and opened multiple avenues for corruption. Commanders took to “using military equipment, infrastructure, and…personnel [to] build private houses, [or] make repairs in their apartments.” Procurement fraud was rife, as were bribes to get into and through military academies, and for desirable assignments.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian factories kept on turning out high-quality materiel that was exported for cash to China, Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Russia. The results have been on display for the past two months: helicopters and armored vehicles immobile for lack of fuel or missing parts; soldiers in Crimea turning in their uniforms for promises of a Russian salary five times the paltry $200 per month Ukraine was paying. Ordinary citizens donating some $2 million to the defense budget by texting 565 on their mobile phones.

Previous Dish on Ukraine’s strategic vulnerability here.