Russia and Ukraine – we all sit and wait

by Philip INGRAM MBE

One thing about some Western Press coverage of the potential escalation of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, is that everyone is searching for an immediate headline and therefore examining every little statement to report an opinion and try and suggest our analysis and therefore politicians must be wrong.

Two things must be recognised, in military operations there are long periods where little or nothing happens, you can have days of inactivity and there can be many causes. The weather isn’t right, politicians are still debating what to do, key capabilities have problems which must be fixed, final rest days prior to launch, consolidating in position before packing up and going home; any of these or other issues will deny todays or tomorrows sensational headline.

The second thing is that the military don’t decide when to go. If Russia further invades Ukraine, it is not a military decision, but a political one. Military forces are merely a political tool, used to reinforce diplomacy and then to clear up the mess when diplomacy fails. Military personnel are the same all over the world, the last thing they actually want to do is put their profession into action, as they know the horrors that come with it. The person who will decide if and when those horrors begin, is Vladimir Putin. He is highly unlikely to delegate the go / no go decision.

So, what is keeping him, what is he up to? The first thing that is occupying Putin is he is enjoying the ride. He is playing with the West; he is loving being centre stage with world leaders queuing up to visit him or speak to him on the phone. He is playing them, like a fisherman plays a prize salmon on the hook. The conference table games, where some meetings are from opposite ends of a huge table whilst others are side by side with just a coffee table between; the deliberately inflammatory or inaccurate remarks in joint press calls, trying to provoke, and more.

He is not just doing this for fun, every moment, nuance, statement during and after by world leaders will be examined by Putin’s team looking for sentiments he can use to create or enhance political cracks inside other countries or between countries. He has been playing Germany particularly well and the way he got Lavrov to deal with the British Foreign Secretary showed a real distain for the UK. He will also be judging what the international reaction is likely to be if he does further invade Ukraine.

One of the things he will have registered very quickly is the increased appetite for US and UK intelligence on Russian intent to be put into the public domain. As CNN reported earlier this month, “US officials alleged that Russia has been preparing to fabricate a pretext for an invasion” of Ukraine by creating “a very graphic propaganda video” that would depict a fake attack by Ukraine against Russia. The US’ disclosure of the alleged plot is the latest in a series of revelations designed to blunt the impact of any pretext Russia may use to invade Ukraine, and comes after US officials warned that Moscow could use a false flag operation to justify such an invasion.”

The Russian response, was to play the US intelligence machine by setting 16th February as the day the attack would be launched and when that was published in the press, ridicule it, which is exactly what happened with Russia’s ambassador to the European Union Vladimir Chizhov, denied suggestions that his country had plans to attack Ukraine and said that “wars in Europe rarely start on a Wednesday,” in a snipe at the intelligence relations. Why that snipe? Simply to sow distrust in reports being attributed to US and UK intelligence and it is probable that in the coming days we will hear references to the reliability of US and UK Intelligence in the run up to the Iraq war! He fed the headline machine.

However, whilst all of this is going on their standard Russian playbook is trundling on. More capability is being deployed into higher readiness formations and positions on the border with Ukraine, whilst Russian messaging is that their manoeuvres have finished, and units are returning to barracks. This is standard маскировка (maskirovka) which is all about ‘masking’ or deception and is central to all they do.

We have seen the first cyber-attacks into Ukraine, but relatively unsophisticated and at inconsequential targets. More worrying are the political moves started by Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of the Russian State Duma, when he called for a discussion in the parliamentary body on recognising the independence of the Donbas region and its separation from Ukraine.

Any formal recognition of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic in Donbas could be used as an excuse by Putin to invade to protect the people from a humanitarian perspective. This is what I refer to as the Kosovo scenario, where Putin tries to mimic NATOs reasoning for going into Kosovo.  He has referenced Kosovo more than once in the recent past.

An indicator of this coming to play are the claims we have heard over the past day or so regarding claims of genocide and the increase of shelling in the Donbas region, with suggestions of Ukrainian shelling contrary to the Minsk Protocol of 2015, designed to maintain the ceasefire.  The genocide claims and what is being said around shelling is again маскировка (maskirovka), standard playbook stuff.

So, what does this mean? Well, the original analysis on potential attack dates were not before 20th February when the Winter Olympics finish, thereby not detracting from Chinas place on the world stage. Putin does not want to have President Xi lose face. The continued deployment of Russian military capability keeps that date as the earliest go date distinctly possible.  There still needs to be a ramping up of маскировка (maskirovka), possible false flag incidents or one major incident and more cyber activity before Putin pushes the GO button.

He could of course, if he feels he can maintain the military readiness, de-escalate completely but he has backed himself into a corner. Can he trust the German Chancellor to keep his word if he did actually promise to stop Ukraine joining NATO, because he knows that if Ukraine does get into NATO then he had no hope of ever capturing and holding it, so now may be his only window to continue the process he started in 2014? Remember, Putin can think and act in very long timelines, salami slicing parts of Ukraine away.

I still believe Putin is looking for an excuse he can sell to the international community using another old ‘soviet’ tactic, враньё (vranyo), which means to tell a lie without expecting to be believed. He will be gauging if he can consolidate the Donbas region under Russian military control with possibly a bigger buffer and get away with that in the international community’s eyes. Threaten all, take a piece and hope the world goes “phew” is that all?

The lie is told purely to save face knowing they won’t be challenged, and we saw this when RT interviewed Colonels Chepiga and Mishkin after the Salisbury Novichok poisoning and they came out with their infamous spire height quote. Remember, he likes the Kosovo scenario.

President Putin is still sitting behind his grand desk in Moscow, with a very large glass of the best vodka on ice, stroking a white cat on his knee, knowing he has the world dancing to his tune, and he is loving it.


This blog is written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former British Army Intelligence Officer and Colonel. If you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE