What’s Going On in Ukraine?: An Explainer

So, this is another one of those essays I didn’t originally plan on writing for the month. But then the darndest thing happened about a week ago: Russia got back on its bullshit.

Now everyone is wondering if the war in Eastern Ukraine is going to reignite or potentially escalate even further than the heights it reached after the initial outbreak of war in 2014. Now I don’t think time is a flat circle, but I do think the idea that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes” has some merit here.

As this conflict is a bit of a hobby horse of mine, I’ve been keeping a close eye on it (perhaps too much for my own good) ever since things started to escalate at the end of March. As more of my friends and peers have started to ask questions and express concern over what’s going on and what may happen next and certain parties have started to spread bad takes or downright misinformation and lies, I decided that maybe a little explainer and synthesis of current analysis was in order for folks on what the situation is currently with Ukraine and Russia.

I was going to write about Iran this month, but I guess we’ll save one piece about a potential war crisis and trade it for a separate but different one.

Just up front: this is a situation that is changing every day, so I can only make this as current as the moment I post it – but I’ll do my best in this regard. Also, I’m going to make no illusion about my biases in this case (spoilers: I’m not on Russia’s side, and if you have a problem with that, I dunno: cry about it, tankie). Also, a lot of my sources for this are Tweets and threads by analysts and observers that have been popping up as things have been going on and have the potential to suddenly vanish – as Twitter is want to do – so I apologize for any broken links or lost sources.

What’s Exactly Is Happening?

Over the past week, we’ve seen an extensive Russian military buildup along its border with Ukraine. Now, that in itself is not unusual. Russia holds large-scale military exercises – including both planned and snap drills – on a pretty regular basis. None of that specifically is new or shocking. But analysts have pointed out that there are several factors that make this occurrence different in a worrying way.

First there’s the context. This military buildup happens in the midst of a sudden and sharp escalation in hostilities along the line of contact between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian rebels in the Donbas region. While the war in Donbas has remained very much active since reaching a stalemate in 2015, it has been relatively quiet and low-level until now. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has registered a sharp increase in violations of the ceasefire previously agreed upon between the belligerents in July of last year.  As of April 6, 2021, two more Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in the previous 24 hours, with four having been killed by enemy shelling in late March (it is unknown how many rebel troops have died, if any). It is against that backdrop that Russia is now flowing additional military forces into the region.

Another part of the context factor is the timing. While Russia does undertake large, seasonal exercises, analysts and observers have noted that these drills have taken place outside of the typical schedule. And while Russia has been known to undertake snap drills and exercises, again, experts note that they’ve never seen a sudden callup or mobilization like this one outside of scheduled wargames before. Its not an understatement to say that its pretty unprecedented. For what it’s worth, Russia has now declared a combat readiness check across the entire Ministry of Defense (after all of these movements had already been going on for several days, of course).

This leads into the second major factor, which is the sheer size of the buildup. Over the past week, social media has been flushed with photos and video of large amounts of Russian military equipment flowing west into illegally annexed Crimea and the western regions of Russia bordering on Ukraine. So far, it shows no sign of stopping, with train load after trainload of armor and other vehicles heading west. The Russian military has been using so many railcars that agricultural machinery manufacturers reportedly haven’t been able to ship their goods to farmers for the spring harvest season – a story that state media entity TASS was even reporting on. Other civilian passengers have also noted disruptions.

Closely tied to the size factor is the scope of the mobilization. Not only is Russia flowing large numbers of troops and vehicles to the border, but it’s also bringing them from far afield, all across the country. Some enterprising OSINT practitioners on Twitter were able to identify the original locations of some Russian military units by the numbers on their license plates that indicate which military district they are based in – that is, until the Russians seemed to get wise and start covering those numbers up, along with other identifying markings. Before the Russians started practicing better OPSEC, however, it was identified that many forces were coming from the Central Military District, which covers the Ural Mountains and parts of Siberia and doesn’t even border Ukraine. More questions abound.

The nature of the equipment and units being sent towards Ukraine is also notable and worrying. Main battle tanks with fuel tanks for extended range offensives and plows for pushing through minefields. Artillery and heavy mortars designed to try and break through tough defensive lines. Elite airborne units with high levels of readiness that already have a history of involvement in eastern Ukraine. Both short and long-range air defense systems. These are all also worrying signs. They once again, could very well be explained away by large scale offensive wargames, but combined with everything else it raises the blood pressure and anxiety levels of defense analysts such as myself.

Ukraine appears to be reacting to this increasingly tense situation as well. Aside from issuing strong statements and calling for support from the United States, NATO and the West – and receiving at least some military support thus far, it now also appears to be flowing its own reinforcements towards Donbas. It’s well within its right to do so and I can‘t blame it for doing that, but this in itself is a worrying sign that this all could potentially lead to a resumption of fighting not seen since the height of the initial Donbas war – potentially even surpassing it.

Why Is This Happening?

That is the million-dollar question on most Russia and/or military watchers minds right now and everyone on the internet has been offering their two cents as to why Russia is undertaking this buildup. My answer for now is a resounding “we don’t quite know yet.”

Despite the increasing number of concerning factors and unanswered questions raising doubts about the Russian intent behind this buildup, the safe money is still (probably) on this being an attempt at posturing/signaling/intimidation. Russia has many reasons to want to intimidate and posture against Ukraine given their acrimonious relationship since 2014 and far before, but chief among them is discouraging Ukraine from any attempt to retake the rebel-held Donbas or annex Crimea by showing that Russia is willing and able to mobilize its military might to defend their pro-Russian allies. Likewise, it doesn’t hurt to demonstrate to the rest of the world – including other potential adversaries – that you’re able to mobilize and rapidly transport a significant portion of your military across vast distances to meet a perceived threat.

 That being said, while posturing is still the most likely outcome, enough unusual facts and elements have emerged with this build-up to raise questions as to whether its only posturing. This is the opinion of Russia analyst Michael Kofman from the Center for Naval Analyses, who was initially far more certain about this being a posturing exercise by Russia. As of today, while still leaning towards posturing and intimidation as the explanation, says there’s still too much uncertainty and concerning factors to be sure of the motive and that the situation still merits cautious and careful observation and analysis before being too sure about what is going on.

None of this is helped by the fact that Russia is notoriously opaque about its intent when it comes to these things, more so than even the usual song and dance of geopolitics that states and nations engage in. Further alarm bells are raised by the way the Russian propaganda machine appears to have suddenly gone into overdrive, both in terms of spreading disinformation on social media, but also in the sudden bellicose tone taken by state-run media as well. All of this raises deeper questions about Russia’s intent in this situation, with no real satisfactory answers so far.

What Might Happen Next?

That’s the next big question on everyone’s minds, after “why this is all happening.” If this is all just posturing, the most likely outcome is Russia decides it has enough forces in the region for its liking, does a series of drills and exercises along the border to try and intimidate Ukraine and the West, and then wraps everything up and sends all the troops back to barracks without incident. The war in Ukraine resumes its Frozen Conflict status – until the next crisis of course – and everything goes back to “normal”.

But what if it’s not all just for show? Could Russia launch a wholesale invasion of Ukraine? That’s not impossible, but it would be a significant escalation on Russia’s part and is probably the least probable of all the outcomes if you were to ask any Russia watcher. If Russia openly launched a full scale invasion of Ukraine, it could at best further isolate and cement its international status as a pariah among nations. At worst, that could even bring NATO fully into the conflict, escalating what was a regional, internal conflict, into a full-scale European or even world war. Again, none that doesn’t mean such an escalation is impossible (unfortunately), but Russia would be taking an exceptional risk – one that I don’t think it would take on a whim and with the eyes of the world on it unless it suddenly had an excellent excuse fall in its lap or it felt it had no other choice in order to defend some vital interest or its very existence as a state.

What might be more likely – and what Kofman lays out in one of his previously mentioned twitter threads – is that a significant escalation of fighting within the Donbas might be in store. We may see fighting of the same intensity as the early days of the war but limited to skirmishes and clashes in that region and not spreading beyond it. That’s not great, sure. But its not as bad as the war spreading beyond the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces and escalating. He also points out that if any escalation happens, it may not be in our immediate future, but could happen later in April or even in May (guess I better strap myself in for a month of anxiety then).

But, even if Russia’s intent is to simply posture, or only to go on the offensive within Donbas, there’s always the possibility that events on the ground could get out of theirs – and Ukraine’s – grasp and escalate of their own volition. When you pump up the propaganda machine, there’s always the possibility that things can take on a life of their own. Add in the fact that the number of both Russia and Ukrainian forces in the area are increasing, tensions are rising, and additional stress and pressure are being put on everyone involved and you may have problems. Even if neither party wants outright war, its important to remember that states and governments are not single, monolithic, rational actors. They are made up of multiple elements with different – sometimes conflicting – interests and goals. This means that even when its absolutely in a state’s best interest to avoid war and its leaders know that a comedy of errors and missteps can potentially lead them right to that war anyway (Full disclosure: there are some decent arguments against this very idea of “accidental” war but I still think its worth mentioning as an aside).

Isn’t Ukraine Fascist Anyway?

Ok, this one is starkly different in tone, but I want to address this claim in particular because it’s making the rounds by tankies and campists alike to basically justify whatever Russia may or may not end up doing in Ukraine. So, let’s deal with it right now, bluntly.

Does Ukraine have a problem with the far right? Absolutely and undisputedly, it does. Has it done a great job at dealing with that problem? Nope, it has not – as some recent evidence shows. However, it does Ukraine and the regular people living there hoping not to become engulfed in fresh fighting a disservice to simply write the entire country off as a fascist state in its entirety. This thread on Twitter does a far better job than I at addressing some of the tankie talking points being used to try and paint Ukraine as a whole of being in the wrong and worthy of destruction while putting Russia up on a pedestal. To put it simply, while the far-right has been a persistent issue in Ukraine since the 2014 revolution, its power and influence is often overstated for propaganda purposes and the far right is more often than not at odds with the government rather than a full integrated part of it – with many Ukrainians protesting against it as well.

Again, I’m not trying to excuse any behavior here. Ukraine continues to disappoint me in not more effectively dealing with this problem – much as the United States and most of Western Europe does. But this is not a reason to simply abandon the country or actively root for Russia to rip it to shreds. Plus, the same people who are likely to promote these kinds of narratives are also the same ones who are likely to ignore that more than a handful of far-right Russians have found themselves fighting on the opposite side of the conflict. You ever wonder why the infamous Russian mercenary group Wagner got its name? Well that was from its founder, who fought in the early stages of the war in Ukraine and took the nickname “Wagner” because he was fascinated with Nazi Germany – Wagner being one of Hitler’s favorite composers – and would wear a World War II-era German steel helmet into combat. So, take that home with you I guess.

There are plenty of things you can criticize the Ukrainian government about. But I don’t think any of them rise to the level of painting Russia as being the ‘good guy’ in any of this. What Russia has done to Ukraine since 2014 is inexcusable and illegal, whether it be the annexation of Crimea, the invasion of Donbas, and other forms of interference and undermining. I have no problem taking a side when I think someone is in the right or in the wrong, as I did with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Whatever you think about Ukraine, its not in the wrong for defending itself.

Why Should I Care?

I usually end these with a mix of “what happens next” with “why should I care”, but seeing as I already hypothesized a bit on what might happen next, I’ll focus on what this should matter to you (though if you’re reading this I’m going to assume you already care somewhat).

From a national security standpoint, what’s going on in Ukraine is important even if it doesn’t escalate. It shows a continuing pattern of concerning behavior by Russia that, even if it doesn’t culminate in a disaster today, could do so another time. The fact that the media seems to hype up any Russian action as potentially being the harbinger of World War III – especially since the 2016 election interference – may make some people numb to Russia’s activities or even actively push back because of a not-unfounded mistrust of mainstream media narratives. Obviously, we shouldn’t treat every suspicious Russian action like the greatest threat to civilization, but we should be able to view them broadly and recognize a pattern of bad behavior that is becoming increasingly more threatening and could eventually spill over into outright conflict if not responded to properly.

If some kind of war does actually emerge from this crisis, then I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain why you should care. If the conflict spreads out from Donbas and draws in surrounding countries or even NATO, obviously we should care as it may become a threat to us. Even if it remains limited to Donbas in particular or Ukraine in general, we should care because of impact it will have on a people who have already been suffering from the effects of over seven years of on-again, off-again warfare – potentially affecting even more.

This is where the leftist angle comes in, and the spirit of internationalism – and part of why I felt I wanted to write this piece, aside from it being an issue that’s important to me and being current. If leftists are going to take a stand against imperialistic attitudes and actions by the United States towards the rest of the world, or those by any of its allies, then it can’t turn a blind eye to imperialist adventures by other states as well. What’s going in in Ukraine is only the latest event in a long and tortured history between Russia and Ukraine going back to when the Tsars first marched into the region and eventually annexed it into the Russian Empire in the 18th century. Whatever you can criticize Ukraine for, you can still support its people wanting to fight back against an imperial power that simply will not leave it alone. Its one thing to simply not be aware of it, but if you actively reject it, then you’re quite simply just a tankie or a campist and are unknowingly – or knowingly – carrying water for Russia and its own brand of oppression.

To be fair, can we really do anything about this? No, I suppose not. I guess if you really want you could go in fight in Donbas but I wouldn’t recommend that (and probably, legally shouldn’t). I realize it’s a lot to ask people to devote mental and emotional energy to caring about this when A.) we have our own pressing concerns at home; and B.) there is virtually nothing most ordinary people can do to have a direct impact on what’s going on in Ukraine. That being said, a point I often return to is you can’t be a leftist without some empathy, and that includes the plight of people in other countries. Being a good leftist means being a good internationalist and caring about the rest of the world and what happens to it and at least offering some words of support.

Likewise, if we ever hope of actually governing and changing anything some day, these are issues we need to be aware of and have actual policies and plans to address with should we ever (hopefully) get to that point. As much as some people might lead you to believe that if the United States ceased to exist that imperialism and war would suddenly vanish, Russia and its history with its neighbors – the vast majority of which predates the founding of the United States – is a pretty good reason to point out why that’s bullshit.

As I said before, this situation is changing day to day, hour to hour. As of writing this, Russian tanks and vehicles are still heading towards Ukraine and there are (unconfirmed) reports of more skirmishes in Donbas – such as around Donetsk airport, the site of previous battles. For the time being, all we can do is remain aware of what’s going on, not jumping to any conclusions but also preparing ourselves for the unexpected and undesired. Simply put: “watch this space.”

While I’m a student of war and fascinated by it, I certainly don’t hope war happens. That’s not something anyone should wish for. As much as I think war is sometimes unavoidable or even necessary, I don’t think this is one of those cases. I don’t have the magic solution to what’s been going on in Ukraine, but I know an intensified war would only mean more suffering and death for everyone involved. Hopefully, the most likely course of action will play out and this will all amount to nothing. If not, we should hope that any conflict that emerges is short, does not escalate to highly destructive heights, and ends in a way maybe buys some stability. We’ll see.

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