Navigating Russia/Ukraine Warmongering Disinformation

Navigating Russia/Ukraine Warmongering Disinformation 1

Readers have been doing a very good job of navigating the very heavy propaganda surrounding Russia’s supposedly belligerent intentions towards Ukraine. We are featuring some key finds and commentary below, including from members of our Brexit brain trust.

To stress an overarching issue, which most of the Western press refuses to acknowledge: Russia’s position now very closely parallels that of the US during the Cuban missile crisis. We did not want Soviet missiles in Cuba. Russia does not want Ukraine turned into a staging ground to attack Russia, whether via NATO membership or less formal means. Russia is already unhappy about the NATO putting supposedly defensive missiles in uncomfortably close proximity of its borders.1

In addition, Russia does not want to occupy Ukraine. It is an economic basket case and would be a huge money sink, even apart from the high cost of holding the terrain. Russia wants Ukraine to be a buffer zone.

We’ll address three issues: the claim that Russia has escalated in recent months and is on the verge of attacking Ukraine; the backstory of what Russia was and thinks it was promised by the West; and the lack of good next moves for the West.

Is Russia Threatening Ukraine?

The notion that Russia is massing troops with an intent of attack doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. First, Russia not unreasonably has servicemembers near its borders. Those who want to depict Russia as a a belligerent are throwing in units not stationed close enough to be part of a strike force. Moreover, while it’s hard to get good numbers, any increase has not been huge (on the order of 100,000 soldiers) and took place early in 2021, contrary to claims of aggressive increases in October and November. On top of that, Russia has not put in place the logistical support needed for combat, such as medical teams. By contrast, the first sign the US was serious about invading Iraq was that it started pre-positioning hospital ships nine months before the attack.

Cat Burglar provided a good overview yesterday in comments:

The poor reporting on Russian troop levels in regions adjacent to the Ukrainian border make it hard to figure out what is happening. Getting so many soldiers into the CIA evidence room might mean finding a new place to store Saddam’s Weapons Of Mass Destruction and the torpedoes from the Gulf Of Tonkin incident, to say nothing of the bomb used to blow up the USS Maine. Some counting and basic geography have been absent from most reporting, so I took an excursion on google and Wikipedia to find out more.

But according to the Polish Institute For International Affairs in a 2016 report, the Western and Southern Military Districts in Russia had 372,000 troops stationed there as a matter of course. With the addition of 90,000 or 127,000 more, you could get up to a half million (about twice as many as we have in the states bordering The Mexico).

Not all those troops — the Russians, I mean — are close to the border according to the standards of western reporting. Yelnya, an alleged base of a big chunk of the 100,000 troops,has been declared “nearby,” and is 150 miles from the border, but the headquarters of the 20th Guards Army (2 divisions and 7 brigades) is 175 miles from Kharkiv — is that still nearby? The Southern Military District Headquarters are a couple hours away from the Ukraine border, in Rostov-on-Don, and the 8th army (about the same size as the 20th) is headquartered 175 miles from the border. There is also the Black Sea Fleet, and the 22nd Army Corps (smaller than the Armies) in the Crimea.

Just looking at this, and at the map, the extra 100,000 troops don’t appear to make that big of a difference from normal. If Russia wanted to, say, invade Ukraine as far west as the Dnepr, it looks like it could have done so any time it wanted to. There is also the unclearly reported fact that the extra troops appear to have been in place since April, after big military training exercises in the region — the advent of the 100,000 troops was no November surprise.

So my guess at this point is that the timing of the crisis at hand has been manufactured for political convenience.

dk linked to an article in Intellinews dated January 27 which described how some key Ukrainian officials are trying to dial down the war talk:

The chief of Ukraine’s Security Council, Oleksiy Danilov, can hardly be accused of being an appeaser of the Kremlin. It was he who signed off the sanctions against Putin’s man in Ukraine, Viktor Medvedchuk, the head of the Political Council of the Opposition Platform, For Life Party, at the beginning of 2021. That was one element in what appeared to be a co-ordinated attempt by Ukraine and the US to change the delicate equilibrium established after the hot phase of war in Ukraine’s breakaway Donbas region in 2014-15….

It was this abrupt change of tack in Ukraine’s behaviour in the first two months of Biden’s presidency that has likely prompted the amassing of Russia troops at the Ukrainian border at the end of the same month. Their menacing presence continues up to the moment. Observers with better knowledge of regional politics and Putin’s patterns see it as a show of force that backs up Russia’s negotiating position but is unlikely to result in war. The White House has chosen to interpret it, at least publicly, as a threat of imminent invasion.

A year after it all started, Ukraine and the US are hardly speaking with one voice.

Interviewed by the BBC on January 24, Danilov accused Western allies of spreading panic by hyping up the possibility of Russian invasion. He claimed that the scaremongering, primarily fuelled by the US and the UK, was harming Ukraine and benefiting Putin…

Danilov mentioned that he even attempted to argue with the Washington Post after it ran an article on October 30, which was the first in a massive wave of alarmist publications….But he said the newspaper wouldn’t listen to him.

The WaPo piece was based on comments by anonymous US officials claiming there was a serious uptick in October in the number of Russian troops deployed near the Ukrainian border. These comments were backed up by military analyst Michael Kofman, who in the next few weeks emerged as a vocal proponent of the looming invasion narrative. But it also contained a quote by Danilov who contradicted the premises of the story by putting the number of Russian troops massed at the border at 80,000 to 90,000, the same or even lower than what was estimated back in the spring.

John Pilger describes what the Chinese would call a provocation:

Last March 24, the Ukrainian president decreedthat Ukraine would take Crimea back from Russia, with “military measures” to achieve “de-occupation.” The U.S. and NATO voiced “unwavering” support.

In April NATO backed a Ukrainian offensive in its civil war against Russian-allied separatists in the eastern provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk. That is when Russia moved more troops to its borders with Ukraine, signaling it would defend its allies (Former CIA Case Officer and CAM columnist John Kiriakou has reported that the actual number of Russian troops massed on the Ukraine border, estimated between 70,000 and 90,000, was the same number that had been there for the last eight years, and that Western media reports of a Russian troop buildup were inflammatory. Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, the head of the German navy, was forced to resign after saying talk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine was “nonsense” and that Russia was merely seeking “respect”for its security concerns in Europe).

The West’s Broken Promises to Russia about Its Security

Russia is correct to deem the US “not agreement capable,” particularly in light of this history. From vlade by e-mail:

One of the Czech internet dailies has a long-form take on the NATO/Russia, specifically the “no inch eastwards”.

But since you probably don’t want to google-translate it, here’s a summary:

They say that:
– There was no formal promise of NATO non-expansion from NATO, ever.
– There were informal pronouncements by Baker and Genscher (the then West Germany foreign minister), mostly by the latter

– who had no mandate to make any such promises, while he had a clear interest in getting USSR to agree to German unification
– both Baker and Genscher presented USSR with options that were at least somewhat misleading (not only in terms of NATO).

– US/Germany formally committed to

– limit the size of German military
– not deploy any WMD to former East Germany
– not deploy any non-German troops to former East Germany/West Berlin
– not expand any NATO-specific infrastructure in East Germany/West Berlin
– i.e. basically “exclude” East Germany territory from NATO.

– Gorbachev accepted in 1990s that NATO expansion is likely, “as a number of Eastern European countries expressed with to leave Warsaw Pact and enter NATO”.

– although he didn’t like it, and considered it against what Genscher/Baker said, cf above

– In 1990/91 most Western leaders were against expansion of NATO, and the US was against NATO expansion until at least 1993

– the change was driven primarily by Havel and Walesa, who spent much time persuading Clinton and his team about the expansion
– while there were attempts to include USSR, including talks about how NATO would one day include USSR.
– cf 1994’s Partnership for Peace (see Interestingly enough, it also talks about Ukraine, and the need not to alienate Russia..
– personal note. When I keep commenting that “I have this from the person who was in the room”, this doc has the name of the person I mean. Go, have a guess 😉

– They point out that Putin in 2002, when Baltics entered Nato, said about Ukraine: “Ukraine is an independent sovereign state, and it will choose its own path to peace and security,”

– of course, the situation then was quite different, but it shows the distance pols managed to create….

– They point out that regardless of what was/wasn’t said in ’89, in ’99 Russia signed up to Founding Act, which restricted NATO from “permanent deployment of any significant forces” or WMD on the new member’s territory, but at the same time explicitly acknowledged the right of countries not in NATO (including former Soviet Republics) to join NATO.>

This is consistent with the major point we’ve made, that when the USSR was about to disband, James Baker promised Russia that NATO would not expand eastward. This was a verbal commitment only. Russia, based on its belief about how top-level negotiations worked, took this as binding when it wasn’t.

Another critical point that goes virtually unmentioned is the Ukraine problem was supposedly solved in 2015 in the Minsk II agreement, except the US effectively retraded that deal by not implementing it. An indirect mention of Minsk II came when Macron pushed last week for Europe to have a seat at the table in any negotiations with Russia, invoking the Normandy format (having the West represented by the US, France, Germany, and the UK) as it was in the seemingly-successful Minsk II talks.

John Pilger elaborated:

The Normandy format has been a vehicle for implementing the 2015 Minsk agreements designed to end the separatist war in Ukraine’s Donbas region. This solution has already been proposed and accepted in principle, according to Anatol Lieven, who wrote in The Nationthat the Minsk II agreement was already adopted by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine in 2015, and endorsed unanimously by the UN Security Council.

Key elements of the Minsk II deal are full autonomy for Ukraine’s eastern regions in the context of decentralization of power in Ukraine, demilitarization, and restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty. Despite agreement by all parties, political analyst Anatol Lieven says “because of the refusal of Ukrainian governments to implement the solution and refusal of the United States to put pressure on them to do so,” the settlement is a kind of “zombie policy.”

As David in Santa Cruz remarked in comments:

Macron’s remarks to the MEP’s and Biden’s off-the-cuff remarks about proportionality are evidence that Blinken and Nuland are nothing but a pair of Cold War-nostalgic chicken-hawks who confuse Russian-Roulette with diplomacy…..

This should be a purely European issue. The United States has no business deploying missiles in Poland and Romania — Yves is precisely correct to compare these missile launchers to the Soviet launchers deployed in Cuba in 1962.

As I read the English language Russian outlets, there is a very likely chance that the Russian government will launch “surgical strikes” against these launch sites, as well as missile sites in “Ukraine.” Based on the doctrine set forth by JFK, Rusk, and McNamara during the Cuban Missile Crisis, such strikes would be justified.

Since the EU was foolish enough to admit the economically weak quasi-democracies Poland and Romania (the reason some of my British friends supported Brexit), this makes U.S. threats over “Ukraine” an issue that should be resolved by the European Union.

Western Paper Tigers Growl

The US does not appear to have any good plays despite its shows of aggression (and no, resorting to nukes is not a good play). At best, it appears to be trying to provoke Russia into being so stupid as to throw the first punch. A second concern is a false flag attack in Ukraine….and not even organized by the US. All it would take would be some local hotheads workings towards the Furher.

Our Clive offered a brutal take via e-mail:

From a UK perspective, this in one of those where it is a case of everyone, and that doesn’t exclude anyone, is all-aboard the failboat.

In some sort of order of causality (but not attempting to say who is most to blame):

  • The Anglosphere. The UK and the US want to intervene, but don’t want direct military involvement in the Ukraine. And everyone knows that. So they have limited tools in their toolbox, which means that they’d be better off doing nothing. But since when did the Anglosphere be content with doing nothing? Never, that’s when. It became, then, a matter which could only be influenced by economic sanctions on Russia. Which…
  • Isn’t going to happen because Germany. Mercantilism is going to be pulled from Germany’s cold, dead hand. So it will continue to make obtaining raw materials, Russian gas, here, the top priority, outcompeting everything else. Including any obligations to Ukraine, which it foolishly started incurring when it pushed Ukraine to become more aligned with the EU and NATO.
  • Germany is then an unreliable security partner for countries which need, or think they need, solidarity against Russia, such as Poland and Romania. Those countries are left looking to something which might give them some support. Like France.
  • France can’t convince Germany to do anything that might interfere with its economic aims, so its notions of a “European” security or defence positioning is in tatters. It might get somewhere through the EU. But…
  • The EU has no competency in either foreign policy or defence. But still it tries with its High Representative. Who, between the Commission undermining them and the Member States either ignoring him or expecting him to stich up their pet policy aims with the other Member States, a task he has neither the authority nor leverage to achieve, almost defines the adage “responsibility for everything, power over nothing”.  And it’s never going to fly anyway. Once one country claims “it” is “the EU”, there’s no EU. The only country which has any hope of making good on any promises of a joint EU security framework is France, but few if any of the other Member States will hand that much power to France and, if France can’t convince Germany (or any of the other big-hitter Member States) to let it have it, and it can’t, it is bye-bye European Defence Force.

I really do have to hand it to Putin. Just by having “a hundred thousand troops” faff around on the Ukranian border (or even, maybe more likely, a few tens of thousands of troops, but moving around a lot so it confuses everyone trying to find out how many troops are really there), he’s a) exposed a whole six-pack of cans which the US, the UK and the EU have kicked down the road for decades, b) shown how utterly conflicted and divided the whole lot of them are and c) got record prices for selling the same old natural gas into a market which paid nosebleed prices, all winter long. And, just for kicks, he can keep pulling this same stunt for a whole lot longer, if he likes, before there’s any chance for demand destruction to get going. Oh, and he can pull it again at any time in future he wants. Masterful.

In fairness, you can’t blame Russia on the prices Russian gas buyers are paying. Gazprom actually encouraged customers to enter into long-term, fixed price contracts, but they opted into market price deals. Oopsie. From CNBC:

Russia has repeatedly dismissed charges it has played politics over gas and says it is meeting all the amounts it is contracted to supply. Companies with supply deals have also said their contracts have been met.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak said Europe was missing out on additional Russian supplies because of delays to Nord Stream 2, which still needs German approval to start up…

He also said European leaders had made mistakes in reducing the use of long-term supply deals in favor of the spot market, where prices are more volatile.

“The countries, which receive gas via the long-term deals, they receive it much cheaper,” Novak said.

David (the former UK civil servant) added:

The thing in politics, especially the international flavour, is that the long term tends to be a succession of short terms, often decisions taken under pressure for reasons that seemed good at the time, but which nobody can now explain. As a result, a very common reaction when a real crisis breaks out is to say “****! how the **** did we get here?”, where “here” is a place that you would never wanted to have been at the beginning, given a free choice.

It’s no comfort to those of us who predicted this kind of outcome a generation ago (let’s face it, it wasn’t difficult), that the outcome was indeed predictable, but part of that is that very few decisions in this game are ever taken with the genuine long term in mind. Say you are the Defence Minister of a medium-sized country, confronted with the latest proposal for NATO enlargement. You may have all sorts of doubts (where will this lead, What about country X?) but even if you can get your government as a whole behind you, you’ll be attacked by the opposition and in the media for appeasing Putin, your major allies will be cross, the Foreign Minister will be upset as a result, and, in the end, you won’t be able to sustain the pressure from advocates of enlargement, so you can’t win. In which case, why bother? After all, by the time the consequences arrive, you’ll be doing another job: you may well be out of politics altogether. Notice that none of these judgements have anything to do with the underlying merits of the case.

That’s pretty much what’s happened here. The long-term is finally the short-term, and I think that NATO nations are actually rather bewildered and don’t know what to do. Apart from anything else, the intra-NATO and intra-EU politics are now so massive and complicated that they by themselves are creating enough problems to keep Foreign Ministries busy all day.

So it’s obvious, as it has been for a while, that the US should de-escalate and find a face-saving way to back off without looking like it has. Recall the US offered the USSR a concession regarding missiles in Turkey in 1962 which really wasn’t a new deal but was bruited about as if it were. Instead, the US acts as if it can bring Russia to heel with yet more sanctions….when having been leveling sanctions since at least 2014, that cupboard is bare.

It would be nice to think that saner heads will prevail. But Blinken has been anything but, and Biden does not seem willing or able to knock heads on his team together. The best hope now is the Europeans injecting some sanity into these discussions (or alternatively, gridlocking them, which would also put some brakes on the US). Keep your fingers crossed.


1 For instance, from Radio Free Europe in 2019:

NATO’s land-based missile defense system in southern Romania has been a bone of contention between the alliance and Russia since it began operations at the start of 2016.

Russia claims the facility, along with a similar NATO base in Poland, are meant to undermine Moscow’s nuclear deterrent….

Fitzpatrick said the 24 SM-3 ballistic missile interceptors at the facility are mounted on a “Mark 41 Vertical Launch System.” The same launchers can be used to fire a range of surface-to-air missiles as well as Tomahawk cruise missiles and other offensive weapons.

My understanding is these launch systems can have their missiles swapped out in a matter of hours, and can launch nuclear missiles.

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