While nobody is watching, COVID-19 may allow Russia to crush Ukraine

In a popular collage shared on social media, Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen donning a hazmat suit he wore to visit coronavirus patients in Moscow

In a popular collage shared on social media, Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen donning a hazmat suit he wore to visit coronavirus patients in Moscow  

Featured, Hybrid War

Editor’s Note

While everyone is busy with coronavirus, the cards are stacked in Russia’s favor and against Ukraine. Will the pandemic allow the militarist superpower to finally achieve its strategic objective in the hybrid war? Military analyst Hans Petter Midttun weighs the odds.

In an article published in March, I conceptualized the Hybrid War, highlighting its two crucial elements:

  1. Hybrid War is about influencing people to make conscious or unconscious choices beneficial to the aggressor. It’s the battle of minds and it’s a fight for influence.
  2. Russia intends to win the Hybrid War with limited use of military force. Still, the military power remains a crucial part of the Hybrid War since it, if the primary strategy fails, is an alternative option.

Let’s now examine the Ukrainian current situation through the prism of the postulate that the Hybrid War is “the parallel and synchronized use of both non-military and military means.”

Only a presidential signature away from failing

A document leading to the legal recognition of Russia’s puppet “republics” in Donbas was signed at a meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group on 11 March 2020. Photo: screen from video, via 24tv.ua

After six years of war, Russia is only a “Ukrainian presidential signature away” from achieving its strategic end state. This is the potential outcome of Ukraine agreeing to the establishment of a Consultation Council with representatives of the Russian-backed “republics” in Donbas during an extraordinary meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk 11 March.

After six years of war, Russia is only a “Ukrainian presidential signature away” from achieving its strategic end state

Having seemingly won the battle of minds and influence, an “implementation of the agreement reached in Minsk would lead to the political and legal recognition of Russian aggression and occupation of Donbas as a presumed “internal conflict” in eastern Ukraine, which will lead to the collapse of sanctions enacted by other countries against Russia.”

It “would lead to shifting the burden of responsibility for human and material losses during Russian aggression in the East onto Ukraine’s shoulders, to Ukraine losing its right to justice, as it would allow war criminals to evade responsibility for crimes ‘against the Ukrainian people and universal principles of humanity, and undermining the positions of Ukraine in the international courts in cases related to Russian aggression,” says a statement signed by leading Ukrainain civic figures.

Russia was to take the role of an observer on par with Germany, France, and the OSCE. A Ukrainian signature would be understood by many as a Ukrainian signal to the world that the Kremlin is not guilty.

According to an article published by Deutsche Welle (DW) 24 March, Kyiv did not consult with European partners on the establishment of a Consultation Council with the participation of representatives of the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics.” This was confirmed by Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Reintegration of the Occupied Occupied Territories of Ukraine, Oleksiy Reznikov, the following day. The international partners were consulted on 25 March.

The DW article referred to experts, claiming “that the introduction of an [Consultation Council], which will remove Russia as the arbiter of the Donbas conflict, could create a legal basis for reviewing the EU’s sanctions policy on the Kremlin.”

In the face of huge opposition from parliamentarians from both opposition, 60 MPs of the Servant of People faction and civil society, COVID-19 offered President Volodymyr Zelenskyy an excuse for temporarily stepping back from the agreement. Moscow responded in frustration.

The COVID-19 factor

Medical personnel in a Kyiv hospital undergo training for dealing with coronavirus patients. Photo: RFE/RL

As the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine are hanging in the balance, in enters COVID-19. In the context of Hybrid War, which is described as “warfare that exists round-the-clock; not a set campaign; it is a way of life,” COVID-19 opened new vulnerabilities of Ukraine to be exploited.

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In his excellent article “Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” Valeriy Pekar highlights Ukraine’s triple crisis (or what he describes at the “ideal storm“), namely medical, economic and political. He argues that while the medical crisis is clear to everyone, being an epidemic of global scale, “the economic crisis is worse for Ukraine than the medical one. [However,] the political crisis is worse than the economic and medical ones.” He argues that Ukraine cannot fight effectively on three fronts and stresses the need to uphold the fight for the integrity and sovereignty of the state. Failing to prioritize the [hybrid] war, Ukraine will be powerless to rebuild the economy and fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • As recent as 24 March, The Institute for the Study of War concluded that “Russian President Vladimir Putin is using multiple ongoing crises, including the COVID-19 outbreak, to advance his strategic objectives in Ukraine without drawing attention from the West.”
  • In the article Controlled Chaos: How China and Russia will Use Coronavirus to Finally Win the Cold War,” Oleksandr Danylyuk explains how a “coordinated Sino-Russian engagement in using this crisis to change the global geopolitical landscape, weaken the United States, the European Union, and NATO, to enhance their own international influence” through military diplomacy, humanitarian support and coordinated information operations.

The abovementioned analyses are further highlighted by the Russian nationalist philosopher, Alexander Dugin and his article “Coronavirus and the horizons of a multipolar world: The geopolitical possibilities of epidemic. He argues that “Russia has a historical chance to strengthen itself as an independent civilization which will see an increase in power as a result of the sharp decline of the West and its internal geopolitical fragmentation.” He underlines the message by ending the article with the following message: “What neither ideologies, nor wars, nor fierce economic battles, nor terror, nor religious movements have been able to do, has been accomplished by an invisible, yet deadly virus. It brought with it death, pain, horror, panic, sorrow… but also the future.”

How does this translate into the present-day environment, where Russia is waging a war involving the parallel and synchronized use of both non-military and military means?

Diplomatic

The Russian state-run outlet RT reports on Russian specialists visiting Italy as part of the aid package “From Russia with love.” The Italian newspaper reported that 80% of Russian aid was “useless,” but the package was widely covered in Russian state media

The initiative by the deputy head of Putin’s Presidential Administration, Dmitry Kozak, to establish a Consultation Council and its potential fallouts has been already covered. This is one of several initiatives to end the war on Russian terms.

The list includes the Minsk Protocol (2014/2015), RAND/German Friedrich Ebert Foundation for Cooperation and Peace in Europe reports “A Consensus Proposal for a Revised Regional Order in Post-Soviet Europe and Eurasia” (Jan 2019) and its Russian adapted version (Feb 2020), and not at least “Twelve Steps Toward Greater Security in Ukraine and the Euro-Atlantic Region” (Feb 2020). All have been heavily criticized for both failing to safeguard Ukrainian sovereignty as well as leaving its future in the hands of the great powers.

According to Paul Goble, “If such a mechanism is adopted, it turns out that it is Russia that will determine the fate of other countries.”

The attempt to legitimize the Kremlin puppets in Donbas and reducing Russia’s role from aggressor to a mere observer/meditator raises the risk of international sanctions being lifted.

In the recently published reportRussia in Review: Kremlin Attempts to Exploit COVID-19 Crisis to Remove Sanctions on Russia and its Partners, the Institute for the Study of War argues that

“The Kremlin has launched an information campaign on this issue and is leveraging its sanctioned allies around the world, alongside networks of Russia-amenable actors in Europe, to amplify the Kremlin’s message. The Kremlin is trying to position itself for a win-win scenario – either advancing its goal of sanctions relief or framing the US as inhumane for maintaining sanctions during a global pandemic.”

The report includes multiple efforts, including Humanitarian Aid to Italy and USA, bilateral and international diplomatic initiatives, mobilization of its network of Kremlin-amenable European public figures, as well as a comprehensive information campaign.

This includes a proposal from President Putin to freeze on economic sanctions to allow countries to better combat the coronavirus pandemic. Knowing that Russia is under numerous sanctions due to its aggression against Ukraine, he argued that “restrictive measures imposed on countries should be lifted on humanitarian grounds to ‘facilitate mutual deliveries of drugs, food, equipment, and technology’.”

The proposal came after Russia had manoeuvred itself into a position as a crucial party for resolving the global recession. More about that later.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine found it necessary to issue a firm reminder to the international community:

“Amid the global crisis, when the world especially needs unity, the Russian Federation decided to take advantage of the situation to advance its own narrow political interests. Ignoring the lack of support of the vast majority of the UN member states, Russia submitted an alternative draft resolution. Its main message, despite the inclusion of COVID-19 in its title, fully fits into the logic of Russia’s previous calls to lift restrictive measures introduced in response to the armed aggression committed by Russia – the worst international crime.”

Political

The political situation in Ukraine is presently being dominated by three issues.

  1. The dismissal of Prime Minister Alexei Honcharuk and, consequently, the entire government 4 March.
  2. The concessions made in Minsk 11 March by the head of the office of the President of Ukraine, Andriy Yermak, and the deafening silence from the President in the aftermath.
  3. The political scramble to meet IMFs conditions for the start of a new economic stabilization program.

The internationally renowned expert, James Sherr summarised the decision to dismiss “ten of the most reformist ministers of his still newly formed government.” event as the end of President Zelenskyy’s dream. “The moment that a government of respected figures was replaced by a government of unknowns, investor confidence collapsed.”

President Zelenskyy’s party Servant of the People faction was already split over the Minsk negotiations. Ukrainian law says that holding negotiations with Russian proxies in the Donbas is considered treason. The president is being strongly criticized by parliamentarians from within as well as outside his party. He is being openly condemned for crossing the “red line” and for committing treason. Several members of Servant of the People asked the President to withdraw his consent for the council.

The president had to rely upon the Opposition Platform – For Life, led by the pro-Russian parliamentarian, Viktor Medvedchuk to secure a vote of no confidence in his Prosecutor General, Ruslan Riaboshapka. The renowned Ukrainian journalist, Vitaly Portnikov, concluded that the “Zelenskyy-Kolomoiskyi-Medvedchuk coalition [ ] rules Ukraine with the tacit support of Akhmetov. It is a coalition of treason, Putin’s coalition.”

The ongoing process demonstrates a potentially dysfunctional parliament at a time when national unity is required. The parliament urgently needs to adopt a land market reform and a law blocking the return of nationalized banks to their former owners (the so-called “anti-Kolomoiskyi law”). The former was adapted, and the bank law passed first reading in the parliament on 30 March. Hopefully, the bank law will pass the second (and hopefully, final) reading shortly. Pro-Kolomoisky forces have however mobilized in order to stop it. In what is called “legislative spam,” 16,335 amendments have been submitted to block it.

The voting shows that Zelenskyy has lost his majority in parliament. One predicts an open war between the president and Kolomoisky, a situation made worse by the knowledge the Servant of the People faction has a strong pro-Kolomoisky fraction. The voting also showed that Batkivschyna (Tymoshenko) voted as the pro-Russian “Opposition Platform – For Life”: Not in favor (of Ukraine?).

Behind this all, there is a sense of a growing influence of the Ukrainian oligarchs in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Several of these are suspected of having strong links to Moscow.

Energy

Following the COVID-19 outbreak, demand for oil has largely plunged as a result of softened industrial output as well as the huge decline in the travel and airline industry.

The global economy is facing a recession as a result of both COVID-19 and dropping oil prices. The prices dropped after Russia March 6 failed to reach a compromise with OPEC aimed at cutting the global oil production. OPEC had advocated a cut in output by 1 million barrels a day, depending on Russia to cut an additional 500,000 barrels.

However, the expectation was unmet. According to an article published by The Guardian on 30 March, Saudi Arabia and Russia are preparing to saturate the global market with oil as part of an oil price war to win a stranglehold on the market. Amid the plumetting demand for energy during the coronavirus-caused economic crisis, this is expected to drive oil prices even lower than the current lowest record in 18 years, $23 a barrel.

It’s worth taking into account that for the last two decades, Russia has made sure that it is a vital partner to the resolution of conflicts in its “near abroad,” either through instigating the conflict or becoming an active partner to one of the parties of the conflict. This has allowed Russia to both retain influence in its former Soviet space and elevate Russia’s significance in world politics.

Russia might very well have used the very same strategy as the world is entering a recession. The oil price war will continue until Russia has achieved the concessions it is seeking. Lifting of sanctions and resolving the conflict in Ukraine on Russian terms could be the prize.

According to open sources, Trump “called Vladimir Putin on 10 March to discuss Russia’s oil-price war with Saudi Arabia.”

Economic

On 4 March, Ukraine’s Cabinet under ex-Prime Minister Honcharuk (pictured taking a bow) was sacked . Photo: Press service of the Servant of the People party

The governmental reshuffle 4 March came at the worst possible time. It was a result of vested interest in Ukraine, many of which have close links to Moscow. While we cannot blame Russia for COVID-19, it is responsible for the economic consequences of the hybrid war.

The war has undermined the Ukrainian economy. This includes everything from financial response to the war (e.g. loss of international investments, loss of credit rating, increase in the cost of living, dramatic fall in the exchange rate, inflation, and more) to Russian sanctions against Ukraine, loss of resources (e.g. industry, coal, gas, and oil), destruction of infrastructure and the cost of rebuilding the Ukrainian Security and Defence Sector.

Infrastructure destroyed in Donbas alone is estimated to amounts to 9-15 billion USD. A third of hospitals and clinics in Donbas have been damaged or destroyed and over 750 education facilities and 50,000 homes have also been damaged.

The COVID-19 pandemic adds further burden on top of an already vulnerable Ukrainian economy and leaves Ukraine more vulnerable than ever.

The present quarantine is presently assessed to reduce the economy with more than $ 300 million per week. According to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Ukraine, about 500,000-700,000 have lost their jobs so far. According to a survey made by Gradus, 57% of the Ukrainians will not be able to survive unpaid quarantine for more than 4 weeks. As of 22 March, 19% expected to be able to survive two weeks or less. A recent poll indicates that half of the Ukrainian businesses may not survive a long quarantine.

According to Anders Åslund (senior fellow in the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council), the yield on short Ukrainian Eurobonds skyrocketed from 3.5% a year to 7.75% in the space of a few days.

“The hryvnia is now falling, compelling the NBU to intervene. The international financial market is swiftly closing to Ukraine, as was the case for several years from 2012.”

Dragon Capital forecasts that depending on the duration of the quarantine over the coronavirus, Ukraine’s gross domestic product (GDP) may shrink with 4%-9% by the end of 2020. However, during the Great Recession of 2008-2009 Ukrainian GDP contracted 15%.

Depending on the scenario, the hryvnia may devaluate to between UAH 30 to 35 per the U.S. dollar at the end of the year.

Three economic scenarios have been developed, where even the most optimistic one paint a pretty grim picture. The scale of damage to Ukraine’s economy depends on whether it gets support from IMF (and consequently, macro-financial assistance from the EU  – 500 million euros) and a loan from the World Bank (up to $1 billion) or not.

Any assessments of the impact on the Ukrainian economy are made difficult by the fact that Ukraine’s shadow economy was 47.2% of its GDP in 2018. Additionally, it was assessed that more than 11% of Ukraine’s GDP came from a Ukrainian workforce abroad in 2018. International borders closed due to the pandemic will, therefore, potentially have a huge impact on a mainly “domestic demand, both consumer and investment” driven GDP.

Most experts assess that if Ukraine fails to receive support from the IMF, it faces immense hardship. Default is a worst-case scenario, resulting in Ukraine being excluded from the global capital market for 2-5 years and deepening the economic crisis. It would also come at a very high political and diplomatic cost.

The global recession and COVID-19 push Ukraine two steps closer to the cliff edge. Russia might only need to give the Ukrainian economy one final push.

Information

The Kremlin’s chief spin doctor Dmitry Kiselev exploits the Coronavirus crisis to push Russia’s favorite propaganda message – that the EU is falling apart

COVID-19 is beingly actively exploited in the everlasting Russian information campaign. As of 19 March, the East StratCom Task Force has collected over 110 corona-related disinformation cases in the public “EUvsDisinfo database” since 22 January 2020. These messages are characteristic of the Kremlin’s well-established strategy of using disinformation to amplify divisions, sow distrust and chaos, and exacerbate crisis situations and issues of public concern.

The ”humanitarian aid” to both Italy and the USA, are two brilliant examples. Sergio Germani, director of the Gino Germani Institute for Social Sciences and Strategic Studies, described it as “half-propaganda, half-intelligence operation.” The disinformation operation is aimed at strengthening the “anti-EU feelings and to reinforce the impression that the EU is crumbling, to make propaganda gains and gather intelligence at the heart of NATO.” Russian media applauds Russia for stepping in “where Europe and NATO failed.”

Ukraine is of course exposed to COVID-19 disinformation operations. Perhaps the most vivid case is the riots in Novi Sanzhary, where graphic protests against evacuees from China were incited through the exploitation of local fears by online and local provocateurs.

Recently, the Security Service of Ukraine claims to have identified 79 people who were spreading coronavirus fakes, including 4 Internet agitators acting on the Russian side. In accordance with a report published 30 March, SBU cyber-specialists have also blocked the distribution of fake content to more than 1,000 online communities with more than 500,000 subscribers.

The COVID-19 information campaign supports Russia’s everlasting attempt to destabilize Ukraine. As the consequences of the restrictive measures imposed by the Ukrainian authorities start taking full effect on people’s life (e.g. political, economic, and more), the campaign will most likely intensify.

Legal

Russia has been building the legal case for a humanitarian intervention since the active phase of the conflict started in 2014.

Even though the Russian Federation has repeatedly used the UN Security Council as a platform to argue against humanitarian intervention (by the West), several military interventions show that Russia has signed up to the justification of Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) and humanitarian intervention.

This has been demonstrated in both Georgia and Ukraine. In 2008, Russia argued that it was “necessary to end what it termed a genocide against South Ossetians and to protect Russian civilians (many South Ossetians had Russian passports).” In 2014, “Putin claimed that the annexation of Crimea “was a response to “real threats” to Russian-speaking minorities in the region. This is the same kind of argument made by other world leaders for a humanitarian intervention to stop the Syrian civil war.”

Fact-finding has, however, never established that the stated threat existed. Russia has used humanitarian intervention and RtoP as a pretext to use military power to secure its national interests.

According to the Russian information campaign, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine is portrayed as a civil war and Ukraine is to blame for the humanitarian situation. As late as in February, the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to UN, Vassily Nebenzia, claimed that:

“For 6 years the Ukrainian Authorities, first the old authorities an now the new ones, have been exploiting a very convenient legend. They assert that there is no civil conflict, but Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. This is a convenient position. It enables them to shirk implementation of the Minsk agreements. It enables them to portray themselves as a victim, rather than as an aggressor, which in 2014 send its army and nationalist battalions to Donbas in order to quell popular protests there.”

Angered by the Ukrainian failure to establish a Consultation Council during the Minsk meeting 24-26 March, the Russian Envoy, Boris Gryzlov, claimed that:

“only in the last day the Kyiv security forces repeatedly carried out shelling of the territory of Donbas, including residential buildings. There are new destructions, damages to residential buildings and other civilian objects, and there are wounded.”

Accepting the Consultation Council format would in the eyes of many imply a Ukrainian acceptance of these narratives, thereby substantiating a Russian justification for intervention.

Russia has not only caused the dire and deteriorating humanitarian situation but also conducted an intensive information operation depicting Ukraine as being responsible for the atrocities.

Additionally, Russia has reportedly issued more than 126 000 passports to the population on the temporarily occupied territories. Three days after President Zelenskyy won the presidential election, Putin signed an order establishing a simplified procedure for obtaining Russian passports available to the residents of the so-called “DNR” and “LNR.” By issuing passports, many believe Russia is preparing further escalation.

It has simultaneously created a national legal framework, developed the key strategic documents, and built the military capacity needed to conduct a “humanitarian” intervention. Russia has even argued for an international peacekeeping mission to Donbas, on terms unacceptable for both Ukraine and the West (as a possible justification why Russia had to act unilaterally).

COVID-19 reinforces the sense of both scale and urgency. This is reinforced by the measures taken by the Russian Hybrid Forces (so-called separatists).

The OSCE SMM’s freedom of movement is already impaired across the non-government-controlled areas. SMM ability to operate in the temporarily occupied territories will be gradually reduced due to impact of both the coronavirus itself and the comprehensive COVID-19 emergency measures imposed globally, as well as the unique restrictions imposed by the Russian Hybrid Forces. The closure of the frontline will lead to additional hardship to civilians, including lost jobs, interruptions in education services and access to healthcare, and restriction of movement of civilians to care for their ill relatives.

COVID-19 and the additional hardship due to the closed frontline increase the possibility for Russian humanitarian intervention. The reduced footprint of international observers and aid organizations on the temporarily occupied territories increases Russia’s freedom of action. The supporting narrative, the legal framework, and the military capacity are already in place.

Military

HMS Tyne shadows the Russian corvette Steregushchiy. Photo: www.royalnavy.mod.uk

This article was triggered by the deployment of a Russian Task Force which passed through the English Channel 19/20 March. It consisted of three Steregushchiy-class corvettes, two Ropucha-class landing ships, two Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates, plus supporting auxiliary ships and tugs.

Navies have always been excellent tools for military diplomacy as they are free to roam 2/3 of the world, unhindered by national borders. The maritime force was most probably bound for the Eastern Mediterranean and Syria. It might, however, just as well end up in the Black Sea.

The Russian aggression against Ukraine has had a maritime element since the very start of the conflict in 2014. The most important part of it was the loss of most of the Ukrainian Navy. It has evolved during the last six years and includes the capture of Ukrainian deposits and drilling rigs captured (2014) which was later equipped with surveillance systems (2016-18), illegal gas extraction, the opening of Kerch Bridge (2018), a maritime “blockade” of Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov (2018) and the attack on and detention of 3 Ukrainian warships (2018). Additionally, Russia has taken an increasingly more aggressive Russian posture towards NATO units operating in the Black Sea (2018) and at times, imposed huge restrictions on Freedom of Navigation in Black Sea (2019).

The situation in the maritime domain has been under communicated and not at all given the attention it requires. Despite a tremendous effort of the Ukrainian Navy and Ukrainian experts like BlackSeaNews and Andriy Klymenko to explain the evolving security situation and risk involved, the Ukraine Armed Forces remain focused on conventional land warfare.

In the article The (un)foreseen storm-2 – from Crimea to Odesa. Maritime risks in 2020: the Black Sea,” Andrii Klymenko highlights the fact that the main export-import routes of Ukraine are in the Black Sea and lead to/from the Bosphorus. The Ukrainian economy depends on the sea lanes remaining open.

BlackSeaNews predicts that the obstruction of maritime trade in the Kerch Strait will continue in 2020. They see the “Azov crisis as an “exercise.” Russia is expected to expand its efforts to obstruct freedom of navigation in both the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. As a consequence, Ukrainian trade will suffer.

I have previously argued that Russia has been gradually building its military capability to execute an operation based on the “need” for humanitarian intervention but designed to break the back of the Ukrainian economy. The emergence of a Russian “peacekeeping force” in Donbas, supported by a maritime embargo in the Black Sea and a no-fly-zone over parts of Ukraine, would have a devastating impact on all sectors of Ukrainian economy.

This scenario has been likely since the very start of the conflict. The opportunities offered as a result of Ukraine’s single-minded focus on land warfare, the ongoing oil price war and COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the consequential economic recession, has only increased its likelihood.

Window of Opportunity

Russia is itself facing huge problems and should by all accounts, be focusing their attention on internal challenges. From a Russian perspective, however, the present situation offers a unique opportunity that might never return.

1. “Opportunity knocks.Ukraine has for several reasons, probably never been more vulnerable than today.

The world is facing a global recession due to both COVID-19 and a Russian induced oil price war. Russia has induced itself as a part of the solution to international economic challenges. Additionally, both the USA and Europe are preoccupied with their own internal, national problems.

Ukraine is in “lockdown” after the government introduced extensive emergency measures. The political situation is anything but clear and the tension within society is high. The economy is (in the worst-case scenario) facing a possible default.

The humanitarian situation in Donbas is becoming increasingly more difficult due to COVID-19 and continued Russian aggressions, possibly creating a “just cause” for intervention.

2. Status of the Russian Armed Forces. Russia has the means needed to execute a humanitarian intervention. After years of reform, modernization, and warfighting, the combat potential of the Russian Armed Forces have according to the Russian Minister of Defence,

“increased more than twice, which allowed [Russia] to maintain strategic parity with NATO. [ ] All commanders of military districts and their staff officers, as well as all commanders of combined arms, air force and air defense armies, commanders of divisions, brigades and regiments, 90% of aircrew, 56% of air defense specialists, 61% of the Navy, 98% of the military police received combat experience.”

The assessment if firstly a political statement, secondly a report on progress. However, after years of training for war, military engagements and unchecked aggressions the statement might very well reflect Russian self-confidence.

3. Temporary setback. Russia is disappointed after the Minsk video meetings 24-26 March. They have temporarily lost the initiative and a unique opportunity to legitimize the “DNR/LNR.” They claim Zelenskyy is listening to the “parties of war.”

For the last six years, Russia has used military power (both directly and indirectly) to make Ukraine pay attention to the Russian demands. This includes the occasional spike in ceasefire violations, limited offensives, major military exercises in Russia or the deployment of forces along the borders of Ukraine.

This will happen again. The present situation, however, might inspire a more comprehensive action. Being just a “Ukrainian Presidential signature away” from reaching a political solution favorable to Russia, it might execute a humanitarian intervention. A maritime embargo, a No-Fly Zone and a Russian Peacekeeping Force in Donbas might force Ukraine to “take the last step over the edge.”

4. Cost-Benefit. A maritime embargo would cause huge problems for Ukraine at any given day. Today, loss of export and import would place Ukraine in an impossible situation.

Whatever the challenges Russia is facing, a maritime embargo comes with extremely limited cost. Due to Ukraine’s critical vulnerabilities within both the Air Force and Navy, a humanitarian intervention will not necessarily result in increased military skirmishes.

Ukraine’s ability to counter an embargo is close to non-existent. NATO’s ability is, unfortunately, limited by both lack of political will, its present preoccupation, as well as the Montreux Convention.

Value of predictions

As the USA and Europe are seemingly preoccupied, President Zelensky might end up believing that he has a “choice without a choice.”

Conceptualizing the Hybrid War is paramount to develop and analyze the most probable and dangerous scenarios. These do not necessarily involve a full-scale invasion and subsequent occupation, but rather the “parallel and synchronized use of military and non-military means to destabilize Ukraine from within.” The military means is, however, always an essential element of the Hybrid War. The use of force or the threat of use of force, as well as its impact (e.g. diplomatic, economic, humanitarian and psychological) across society, defines the real battlespace.

I hold a Humanitarian Intervention and a Maritime Embargo as far more likely, and far more dangerous for Ukraine than full-scale, conventional war. Just as importantly, it far less costly for Russia in all meanings of the word.

Like so many other predictions and analyses, it might come to nothing. Or Russia will use other tools altogether. The surprise is, after all, an essential part of a military operation. Or to paraphrase former Secretary of Defence Robert Gates: “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right.”

I feel confident that Russia has already conveyed its different military alternatives (threats) to the Ukrainian President. Additionally, Russia has already succeeded in bringing President Trump to the negotiation table, possibly opening for concessions. As the USA and Europe are seemingly preoccupied, President Zelensky might end up believing that he has a “choice without a choice.”

My key point remains the same: Si vis Pacem, Para Bellum (“If you want peace, prepare for war”).

Do not lose track of Russia amid the COVID-19. It offers Russia a unique opportunity to exploit the consequences of the pandemic, enabling it to reach its strategic aim and objectives.

The West needs to take a firm stand alongside Ukraine as Russia is becoming increasingly more brazen and self-confident. Former Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine for European and Euroatlantic Integration (2016-2019), Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, argues that “there can be no successful Europe without a strong and independent Ukraine.” She is correct and I will tell why in my next article: “What if? Hybrid War and consequences for Europe (part 2)”

But equally important, do not lose track of the true meaning of sovereignty and independence. There is no point in fighting COVID-19 and economic recession if you lose the former in the process.

And please, please stop talking about the “war in Donbas” and start discussing the Hybrid War in Ukraine.

As the threat is increasing, Ukraine needs national unity more than ever. The recent turmoil in the Ukrainian parliament might help to clarify who has Ukraine’s interest at heart, and who has not. It might lay the foundation for new coalitions.

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