The Ukraine quagmire

The Ukraine quagmire

Russia and the West are at war – over fruits, veggies and bank loans. The cause is Ukraine, a vast emptiness formerly unknown to the Western world, but now deemed a vital national security interest worthy of risking war.

Economic embargos such as those launched by the United States against Russia may seem relatively harmless. But they are not. Trade sanctions are a form of strategic warfare that is sometimes followed by bullets and shells.

Think, for good example, of the 1940 US embargo against Japan that led Tokyo’s fateful decision to go to war rather than face slow, economic strangulation.  

Frighteningly, there are senior officials in Washington and Moscow today who are actually talking about a head on clash in Ukraine between Russian forces and Nato.  

Intensifying attacks by Ukrainian government forces, armed and financed by the US, against pro-Russian separatists and civilian targets in eastern Ukraine are increasing the danger that Moscow may intervene militarily.

A full-scale military clash could involve a Russian-declared ‘no fly’ zone over the eastern Ukraine, such as the US imposed over Iraq, to stop bombing and shelling of Ukrainian rebel cities by Kiev’s air force.     Russia’s leader, President Vladimir Putin, is under growing popular pressure to stop the killing of pro-Russian Ukrainians – who were Russian citizens until 1991.

Nato could deploy its potent air power against Russian aircraft. US and Nato aircraft flying from new bases in Romania, Bulgaria and Poland could seriously challenge the Russian Air Force over the Russia-Ukraine border region. More US warplanes would be rushed into Eastern Europe. Russian air defences are strong and its air bases close to the sphere of action. Still, Nato air power has a technological superiority over the Russian Air Force and better-trained pilots.

On the ground, Russia has a slight advantage. It has 16,000-18,000 troops on the Ukraine border made up of mechanised infantry, armour, mobile air defence and artillery. A competent but small force and hardly a menace to Europe, as the pro-war media howl. Compare this small number of troops to the Soviet 1st Ukrainian Front of WWII alone, made up of six armies and thousands of tanks and heavy guns.

Russia could fight border skirmishes but certainly not retake Ukraine with this paltry force. Russia’s once 200-division army, which boasted some 50,000 tanks is today a shadow of its past: 205,000 active soldiers and 80,000 indifferent reservists. Russia, as always, has excellent heavy artillery and good tanks, but nothing compared to WWII when Soviet 152mm guns and rocket batteries were lined up wheel-to-wheel for kilometres.

Any attempt by Nato to capture Crimea would likely be defeated by Soviet air, naval and land force. The constricted, shallow Black Sea could prove a death trap for US warships.

Ukraine’s cobbled together army, about 64,000 men, suffers from logistical problems and weak leadership. During Soviet days, it numbered over 700,000 with the cutting edge of Russian weapons.   Today, foreign mercenaries and far-rightists from Kiev stiffen the army. Even so, it could not stand up to Russia’s better-armed, better-equipped troops.

What about Nato? In 1970, the US Army had about 710,000 soldiers in Europe, mostly based in Germany. Today, US has only 27,500 troops left in Germany, largely non-combat support units. At best, the US could probably assemble two weak combat brigades — about 5,500 men — to rush to Ukraine. The rest of US forces are based in Afghanistan, Kuwait, the Gulf, South Korea and Japan, or at stateside.

But the US still retains large airbases in Germany that could support military intervention in Ukraine. Lately, small US and Nato contingents have been quietly inserted into East Europe and the Baltic region – large enough to spark a war, but too small to win one.

Britain, now a toothless old lion, would support the US in Ukraine; so would France, Denmark, Poland and Holland, to a limited degree.  Germany and Turkey, Nato’s two heavy hitters, want to avoid any conflict with Russia and might well stand aside.

So any military clash in Ukraine would initially be limited in scope and intensity. But a confrontation could quickly escalate into a dangerous crisis. The Cold War taught that nuclear powers must never fight. Nothing is worth the risk of nuclear war, even a limited one.

*This article is published at Khaleej Times online.