Category Archives: Battlefields

Russia and the Ukraine – my thoughts about the whole thing

Although not technically a ‘geogeek’ subject there is a geo-military-political aspect to the whole thing…that and it’s my blog and I’ll write what I want to ;).  This post is a bit different as it is mostly the result of my thoughts and opinions rather than cold, hard facts, but I will try to justify my opinions.

Flight MH17

I’d like to start with comments on the latest tragedy.  My thoughts go out to those who have lost loved ones on that flight.  The investigation has begun and like many others I await the findings, though the initial reports would indicate that it was shot down…though by which side we don’t know yet.  If this is true then such an act will have dramatic consequences, and not just for those who are currently grieving.

Moving away from the emotional side to this event, it bears a striking resemblance to Korean Air Lines Flight 007 which was shot down on the 1st September 1983.  I suggest you read more about it and the Wikipedia article is a good summary.  In the case of KLA 007 the plane accidentally (yes I realise there are those that claim it was deliberate as either a recon mission or to provoke a war) flew over Soviet airspace and in response an Su-15 shot it down.  269 people died.  There was public outcry and the with increased Soviet-USA tensions of the early 80’s the incident caused a diplomatic crisis.  I can’t help feeling a sense of déjà vu with Flight MH17, even more so now that the flight recorders are missing and the local pro-Russian forces are not being very cooperative.  With the situation on the ground being so volatile I’m sure that more information will become available soon.  Whoever shot it down, the consequences will be far reaching and it only heightens tensions in the region.

Motive for the Crimean Annexation

Like any event such as this there must be a motive behind it.  So what could motivate the Russian annexation of the Crimea?  In my opinion two things; Sevastopol and Encirclement.

Sevastopol: I’m surprised that this hasn’t had more airtime.  I’ve yet to read anything really significant about this, and yet to me it seemed to be the most obvious motivation for the Russian annexation.  Sevastopol has been a major Russian naval base for centuries, it was even one of the objectives of the Anglo-French forces in the Crimean War.  The Russians have four blue water fleets; the Northern Fleet, the Baltic Fleet, the Black Sea Fleet and the Pacific Fleet.

Russia 1

The fleets are based at the above locations.  The blue stars are the Baltic, Northern and Pacific fleet bases with the Black Sea Fleet based at Sevastopol (the red star).  So other than being a naval base what is the significance of Sevastopol?  Linking in to the Encirclement issue, in the event of a major war in Europe between NATO and the USSR it was realised by both sides that NATO’s forces in Europe would need to be supplied from the USA and Canada.  The Soviets figured that the best way to disrupt this supply chain and thus bring them victory in Europe was to follow the German example and use submarines.  They realised that the Soviet surface fleet could not match the combined naval might of NATO (in particular the US Navy, the French Navy, and of course the Royal Navy), so submarines would do the work.  In response NATO’s navies made a move towards submarine detection & hunting.  The Royal Navy exemplified this with its emphasis on submarine hunting at the expense of air defence…something that would haunt them in the Falklands War.

These submarine operations would be carried out by the Northern, Baltic and Black Sea fleets, and here is where Sevastopol comes in.  It is the only warm-water port for the Russian Navy that has access to the Atlantic. The Northern & Baltic Fleets are based in seas that are regularly ice-locked in winter, this leaves Sevastopol as the only major port that can maintain naval operations in the Atlantic year round.

So if Sevastopol is so important why invade the Ukraine now?  The break up of the Soviet Union left Sevastopol in Ukrainian territory but many nations hold over seas bases, and so long as the owning nation is friendly this situation is fine.  This is where the issue goes global.  For me two factors have contributed to the invasion in 2014.  The first is that the Ukrainian government and its people as a whole have been flip-flopping between pro-European and pro-Russian over the past decade or so.  The pro-European uprising and the ousting of the then president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 emphasised the point that the Ukrainian people are shifting even closer to Europe and away from Moscow.  This situation means that the Russian naval base at Sevastopol has in the long term become increasing untenable with the very real possibility of Ukraine in the near future joining the EU and eventually NATO.  Is this an unrealistic assessment of Ukraine’s future?  Not if the rest of eastern Europe is anything to go by.  Most of the former Soviet controlled states in eastern Europe have done the same; Poland, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have all followed this pattern, and as all of these nations have a majority population that is non-Russian in ethnic origin it is not beyond reason to think that given time Ukraine would also follow suite.  My prediction looks like it might be confirmed with the signing of new trade treaties between the Ukraine and the EU since the ousting of Yanukovych.

The second factor that has contributed to the invasion this year is what is happening in Syria.  What’s Syria got to do with it?  Simple really.  The largest Russian naval facility outside of former Soviet territory is/was in Syria.  Although no fleet is based there, it has acted as a major resupply base for the Russian navy since the 1970’s.  Officially this base is still operational, in reality it has become untenable due to the ongoing Syrian Civil War.  This means that the only two warm-water facilities that can supply the Russian Navy in the Atlantic are now at risk.  The base at Tartus in Syria is a lost cause, Sevastopol however is a lot closer to Russia, has a largely Russian ethic population and is pro-Russian in its attitude.  All of this makes it an obvious choice to put Sevastopol under direction Russian control as it guaranties Russian naval operations in the Atlantic for the foreseeable future, maintaining their military standing in the world.

Encirclement: This is more to do with Russian psyche and their traditional military strategies.  In the first 4 decades of the 20th century Russia was invaded three times from its western border.  The first was in World War I, when the forces of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires marched well into western Russia, capturing much of what is now Poland, the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine from the Russian Empire.  The Nazi-German invasion of Operation Barbarossa in 1941 is well known, as is the fact that over 20 million Russians died in what they refer to as The Great Patriotic War.  What tends to get forgotten is the Russian Civil War of 1917-22, when the the various European Powers, the United States and Japan sent tens of thousands of men into Russia to support the anti-Bolshevik forces, most of it through eastern Europe and into what was then western Russia.  Together this has had an effect on the Russian psyche and left an element of mistrust and paranoia regarding the West and left them seeing their western border as vulnerable to invasion.  This shouldn’t be too unfamiliar an attitude especially for the British, who after facing several centuries of invasions (or threat of invasions) have become distrustful of Europe.  The difference being the lives of 20 million people and that the Russian experience is more recent.

This paranoia was plain to see in Stalin’s post-war conditions to the Allies of basically controlling the nations of eastern Europe.

396px-EasternBloc_BorderChange38-48.svg

(Image from Wikipedia)

One of his aims was to maintain a buffer zone to prevent a repeat invasion.  During the Cold War the USSR would try to maintain this buffer, whilst NATO started to encircle the and ‘contain’ the spread of Communism (see the Korean & Vietnam Wars amongst others).  This paranoia hasn’t gone away as was seen in the Russian reaction to the Ronald Regan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (the so called ‘Star Wars Project’) and with George W. Bush’s proposal to station anti-ballistic missile bases in Poland.  In the post-Cold War world the reality is that NATO has expanded into eastern Europe, right up to the Russian border…this doesn’t help the paranoia, in fact if you were in the Russian camp this would seem to confirm your suspicions of the West.

Vladimir Putin is former-KGB, grow up in the Cold War and seems to be acting like a Cold War warrior.  His use of the loop-hole in the constitution to switch between President and Prime Minister ensures his maintaining of power, the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the use of veto to counter NATO actions involving the Arab Spring and his actions of almost merging Russia and Belarus together seem to point towards his attitude as being of expanding Russian power & prestige in a similar way to what use to happen in the Cold War.  It is all about growing Russian power & prestige in the modern world, along with maintaining their national security.

Invasion of Crimea

The events of the Russian invasion of the Crimea is well known to the public due to intense media coverage and a good timeline can be found on Wikipedia so I won’t repeat it all here.  What did strike me is how well organised it was.  When you have the militias doing coordinated assaults on key buildings and facilities, it showed expensive planning and professional execution and to be honest scream special forces not local militia.  To me this suggests the Spetsnaz (Russia’s special forces) were leading the operations.  What indicated to me that this was a serious invasion was something I saw on a BBC news report (I haven’t been able to find the footage) of a few days into it.  The Russian navy was blockading the Ukrainian navy in Sevastopol.  One of the warships on the horizon was a Kirov-class battlecruiser.  This ship has a distinctive profile and so I am fairly certain it was not a case of misidentification.  With a little research I found that only one of these ships is currently operational – the Pyotr Velikiy (formally the Yuri Andropov).  This ship is the flagship of the Northern Fleet, is the largest surface-combat vessel in the world and is normally based in Severomorsk.  This means that unless it was on operations elsewhere it would have taken several days to travel from the White Sea to the Crimea and along with the actions of the Spetsnaz suggests a considerable amount of planning for the invasion and that it was not just taking advantage of the chaos in Ukraine.

RIAN_archive_669522_Long-distance_voyage_of_Pyotr_Veliky_nuclear-powered_cruiser

The Pyotr Velikiy (Image from Wikipedia)

Escalation 

Is the invasion of the Crimea the first part of an invasion of Ukraine?  I doubt it.  Crimea has the advantage of being close to Russia (via a flight over the Kerch Strait) and although the eastern oblasts of Ukraine are bordered by Russia and are currently in either open revolt against Kiev or at the very least are protesting against it, I don’t see a full scale Russian invasion.  Why?  Take a look at the map below which I obtained from Wikipedia (made by RGloucester), this gives you an idea of the areas that are causing problems.

2014_pro-Russian_unrest_in_Ukraine

Now the Crimea is an easily controlled area.  It is close to Russia and can be resupplied via the Kerch Strait.  It has only one small land connection that the Ukrainian army could move through to make an attempt to retake the area.  It is easily defensible, and has a dominant Russian ethnic population that is not likely to launch an insurgency against an occupying Russian force…it is easily controlled, would be very difficult for the Ukrainians to retake and to keep, which is one reason why they haven’t been able to retake it.

The area in armed uprising is considerably bigger than Crimea and has few if any natural boundaries that can be used to to defend against a counter attack.  Now should Russia and Ukraine go into an ‘official’ war I have no doubt that Russia would win, but Ukraine’s army is the second largest in Europe and such a fight is going to be very messy.  But then again Russia doesn’t need to invade eastern Ukraine.  Why? Because despite what Putin claimed about protecting Russians this is not his real goal, that as I have already stated is protecting Russian power & prestige.  To do this he does not have to invade eastern Ukraine.  Such an act would be bad for his global image, would cost a considerable amount of money and cause the many deaths of Russians.  Their war in Afghanistan in the 1980’s ruined the economy and contributed to the collapse of the USSR, so to do a repeat in Ukraine would be counter-productive.  It is far easier and cheaper to make a bunch of false promises to the Russians living there, provide them with some weapons and send in a few specialists for the serious work.  The USA was doing similar things in various nations in South America for most of the 1970s and 80s.  His goals are achieved;

  • Sevastopol is in Russian hands, maintaining Russian naval power
  • Ukraine’s pro-European government has its hands full with an uprising in the east, making it an ineffectual government that is not likely to join the EU or NATO any time soon, reducing the risk of encirclement
  • Makes NATO look ineffectual as they can’t do anything about it, increasing Russian control over Ukraine without the need for an expensive invasion,  and destabilising the region in a pro-Russian way
  • Any crimes against humanity can be levelled at either the Ukrainians or the separatists, giving Russia plausible deniability.  Russia can then move troops in if needed, taking control of the area with the excuse of “we’re doing it to stop such war crimes”

Basically I don’t think there will be a full invasion because Russia doesn’t need to do so to obtain their larger strategic goals.  Is the situation unstable & fluid?  Yes.  Is it going to settle down any time soon?  Not likely.  I see this conflict going on for many more years, with relations between Russia and the West deteriorating as it goes.

And that’s my thoughts on the whole thing.  It’s a bit different from my usual post.  I haven’t really referenced much as most of this is a compilation of general knowledge and recent observations in the news.  Feel free to comment, I’m sure there are many other factors I’ve missed out.  From the perspective of history it will be interesting to see how things develop.  From the perspective of a human being it’s a tragedy.

Ypres

Last week myself and a few friends went crossed the channel for a short visit to Belgium.  We went to the beautiful town of Ypres in the north of the country to look at some of the World War I sites.  With the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the war later this year I would recommend a visit to one of the war graves, memorials or trench sites.  The whole experience is an emotional one, especially if like me you are in to your military history.  We went to the Menin Gate in Ypres.  It is one of the World War I memorials to those men of the British Empire & Commonwealth who have not been found.  Those individuals that have no know grave but will lie somewhere in the Ypres area.  There are almost 55,000 names on that memorial.  The gate is an area where the weight of history feels heavy and a certain atmosphere is present.  Being into my history you get use to hearing numbers in the tens of thousands for WWI and WWII battles, but to actually stand there and see name after name lovingly carved into the stone…the feeling is hard to describe.

IMG_1530

IMG_1541

IMG_1553As for the town of Ypres itself, the place is a beautiful town, the people are friendly, the food is good and although most of the sites to see relate to the Great War it is worth going to see.

IMG_1528

Above is a shot of the beautiful medieval Cloth Hall…except it isn’t medieval, and neither is the cathedral behind it.  The town has the look of a medieval centre but the reality is that the whole place was flattened in WWI as this image that I lifted from Wikipedia shows below.

799px-Belgie_ieper_1919_ruineThis is the Cloth Hall and cathedral in 1919.  It’s fantastic to see such effort has been made in rebuilding, but then again what else would you do.  Living in the latter part of the 20th century it is hard to visualize such destruction, but this helps to keep the memory alive.

Elsewhere you can visit areas of preserved/reconstructed trenches.  We went to such a place just east of the town.  Visiting after so much rain the past month made the clay soil rather boggy and helped give me some idea of what those brave soldiers lived in.

IMG_1574IMG_1584IMG_1589IMG_1582 Even with a modern pump taking out some of the water, this trench is still flooded.

I’ll leave you with a image from these allied trenches to the town of Ypres, and as a closing thought some of those 54,896 commemorated at the Menin Gate will lie in these fields.

IMG_1591