How Chilly is This New Cold War?

Ukraine militants

Pro-Russian militants at a firing position on the outskirts of Luhansk;
photo courtesy AP

How Chilly is This New Cold War?
| published August 9, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Rarely has the world seen so many violent crises—each at the boiling point—happening at the same time. U.S. President Barack Obama has his eye on the newly-broken truce between Israel and Hamas, inside the Gaza Strip, a continuing meltdown of stability in the fragmenting Iraq, and tensions rising along the borders of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Thrown into this chaotic and destabilizing mix is ISIS, the radical militant Islamic army which has now turned its attention with ruthless lethality toward ethnic and religious minorities across its newly accumulated territories stretching from northern Syria across Iraq and deep into Kurdish lands.

It’s hard to keep track of the players without a program which lists the entire cast, but looming there, stone-faced and chilled, is Russian President Vladimir Putin, more popular than ever back in Moscow despite his interdictions across a wide stretch of Eastern Europe.

Despite Putin’s threadbare claims that Russian is not taking any direct part in the growing civil war inside the Ukraine, where forces loyal to Kiev in the west are battling the heavily armed pro-Russian separatists in the east, satellite imagery and U.S. intelligence material continue to show Russian intervention in the form of heavy artillery and medium-range rocket launchers, some parked just miles from the border with Ukraine and aimed into Ukrainian territories. Ukrainian authorities say that those Russian guns and launchers have already been used to fire upon troops loyal to Kiev.

There has also been an unprecedented military build-up, with tens of thousands of troops in close maneuvers near the frontier, along with hundreds of tanks, personnel carriers, heavy equipment and small vehicles, scores of attack helicopters, and Russian MiG’s parked wingtip-to-wingtip along airfields near the border. Satellite imagery shows a build-up of support in those same areas: field medical centers, supply depots, convoy vehicles, Jeeps, engineering units, even road-grading equipment designed to quickly convert a dirt road into a gravel road within hours. Most ominously is the presence of BuK-11 rocket launcher systems—the very weapons system used to down a Malaysian airliner over the skies of rural Ukraine, and an incident which took the lives of 298 civilians in mid-July.

The Ukrainian army has raised its game in the last months, battling back against the pro-Russian militants who took over dozens of cities and towns in the spring. Since the downing of MH-17 in July, the fighting has grown more intense in the areas around Donetsk, one of the last of the rebel strongholds. This week the Ukrainians say they stopped a Russian convoy which was headed directly into Donetsk. The Russian unit was allegedly meant for humanitarian purposes, at least according to Moscow. But later, official statements from the Kremlin denied that any such convoy existed at all—for military or humanitarian purposes. Kiev said that the convoy was meant to reinforce the militants, who have already hinted that they are open to a dialog regarding a possible ceasefire.

The crisis in the Ukraine has escalated continuously since last winter, when mostly peaceful, pro-European demonstrations in Kiev turned nasty, then violent, eventually forcing the ouster of then-President Viktor Yanukovich, a pro-Moscow apparatchik who won office in a rigged election. In February Yanukovich fled the country—taking with him millions of dollars in cash, gold and silver—and leaving his posh mansion and sprawling estate for the wandering tourists and the nosy reporters. But Putin was peeved by Kiev’s presumption, and—displeased that a country he regarded as well within his sphere of political and economic influence—ordered troops and tanks to the ready. Putin’s worst fear has been a Ukraine not only inclined toward the European Union, but one that may request to join the NATO alliance. When the Ukraine declared itself rid of its bonds to Russia, Putin felt that the pro-European movements had gone too far. He declared the actions of Kiev’s progressives to be illegal, and sent Russian ships and troops to seize the Crimea. (For a more complete explanation of the roots of the current crisis, see Good Putin, Bad Putin; Thursday Review; March 11, 2014.)

Then, under the guise of military exercises, Putin oversaw the biggest and most complex military mobilization in decades—amassing so much firepower along the 800 mile border between Russia and the Ukraine that many in the media quickly made the analogy that a New Cold War had begun—along with the grim certainty of Russian military intervention in the form of tanks and armored vehicles. The images of columns of tanks and long processions of heavily armed troops harkened to Hungary in 1956. And the chilling satellite images of scores of MiGs lined up along airfields reminded many of a certain generation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the threat of a much larger, more horrific kind of war.

President Obama has insisted that U.S. intervention is not an option. Obama has also said that what is happening in the Ukraine is not the start of another Cold War, but symptomatic of a specific problem—a Russia seeking to reassert itself after decades of post-Cold War downsizing and political shrinkage. And Putin, the former KGB station chief and political insider, has wasted little energy concerning himself with the intentions of the United States—especially as the U.S. faces multiple foreign policy flashpoints on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

Russian spokesmen have denied that Russian troops tried to enter the Ukraine this week, but Putin has said repeatedly that the fighting in Luhansk and Donetsk has created what he calls “a humanitarian crisis,” and Putin has hinted that he might send in troops to create humanitarian stability and to provide direct aid. Russia has also insisted that the Red Cross was among those international agencies who sought Russia’s assistance with the humanitarian effort, but the Red Cross says it has not asked for Russia to intercede.

In the area of the Malaysian jetliner crash site, international crash investigators are just now able to get on with their badly-needed work, even as fighting rages only a few miles away in nearby towns and cities. There are still bodies unaccounted for in the debris fields, which stretch across roughly five miles of rural Ukraine about 19 miles from the border with Russia.

The Malaysian airliner was shot down deliberately, apparently by a Gadfly missile fired from a Russian-made BuK-11 rocket-launcher system. Radio chatter that same day seems to show that Pro-Russian militants claimed responsibility for the shoot-down—possibly because they thought they had shot down a military transport plane. But later that same day the militants claimed they had not fired any rockets at any aircraft. U.S. spy satellite equipment showed the heat signature of a BuK-11 rocket launch just seconds before MH-17 disappeared from civilian and military radar.

Meanwhile, the EU and the U.S. continue to tweak sanctions against Russia, especially those aimed at Russian businesses, Russian banks and mortgage companies, and at least 170 individuals whose fortunes are connected to oil and gas, media, banking and finance. In retaliation, Putin has mandated scores of bans on products and materials coming in from the United States, EU nations, and even the Ukraine. In June, Russia cut off all gas and oil flowing into the Ukraine. Though Ukrainian reserves are expected to last through mid-winter, the continuation of the crisis could trigger serious shortages and price spikes later this year.

The Kremlin has said it will retaliate for any sanctions imposed by the U.S., the European Union, or any country which sides with the U.S. or E.U. in the escalating economic struggle. For many European countries, especially those whose economies are struggling to overcome recession or austerity measures, the growing war of sanctions could have disastrous effects.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Sanctions Talk, but Money Walks; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 31, 2014.

No Conflict is Local, No War is Regional; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 19, 2014.

One Crisis at a Time; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 17, 2014.