Fleet movements

A short update on Ukraine and the forces in the Black Sea might be in order, as a number of rumors have been going around the web for the last week.

To begin with, the Ukrainian flagship Hetman Sahaydachniy (U130), a Project 1135.1 Nerei / Krivak III class frigate, was reported to have defected to the Russians. However, this was denied by the Ukrainian authorities, and while passing through the Bosphorus earlier this week the ship was spotted flying a large Ukrainian flag. While pictures can be manipulated, I have yet to see any pictures or reports based on non-Russian sources to support the idea of the flagship switching sides.

Also, there have been reports on the US aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) with its task force heading for, or already being in, the Black Sea. As of Tuesday, the ship was anchored outside Piraeus in Greece, apparently planning on staying there for a few days at least.

Also, while the US recieved permission from Turkish authorities to deploy ships to the Black Sea, the ship(s) in question was not the carrier itself, as it is forbidden to transit the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus due to the Montreux Convention of 1936.

This document might prove rather important if things really heat up in Ukraine (it might also prove to be just an ancient scrap of paper that no-one cares about), so lets restate the basic principles, according to how the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs interprets them:

·         Merchant ships may pass freely.

·         The rules on warships are different for Black Sea-states (incl. Russia, Ukraine and Turkey) and non-Black Sea states (incl. the USA).

·         Only submarines belonging to Black Sea states can pass through the straits, and only for the purpose of moving between their bases and dockyards after they were built or serviced.

·         The maximum aggregate tonnage which all non-Black Sea states may have in the Black Sea is 45 000 tons.

·         The maximum aggregate tonnage which any one non-Black Sea states may have in the Black Sea is 30 000 tons (note that a Nimitz-class carrier displaces well over 100 000 tons).

·         Vessels of war belonging to non-Black Sea states cannot stay more than 21 days in the Black Sea.

·         Passages through the Turkish Straits are notified to Turkey through diplomatic channels prior to intended passages.

It is often stated that the convention prohibits the passage of aircraft carriers through the Turkish Straits. This is a slight stretch, as the wording in the convention is “designed or adapted primarily for the purpose of carrying and operating aircraft at sea”, meaning that the ship can be equipped as an aircraft carrier, as long as this is not its primary purpose. Obviously, there are few if any vessel serving as carriers in a secondary role, but by christening their Project 1143 / Kiev class VTOL-carriers as “heavy aviation cruisers”, the Soviets managed to get around the convention and pass through the straits during the Cold War.

As far as I know, this has not been tried since the end of the Cold War, and the Turkish authorities simply state that “Aircraft carriers […] can in no way pass”.

In any case, as noted earlier, the tonnage limit alone prohibits the passage of supercarriers, and any move north by the USS George H.W. Bush would be met by a storm of protests. Exactly which ship(s) the USN plans to deploy to the Black Sea is still open for speculation. My personal guess is that at least one Oliver Hazard Perry class friagte or an Arleigh Burke class destroyer will soon be sent north to show the flag, perhaps through a friendly port visit to Odessa.

Edit (060314 @ 11:16 GMT +2): The news is now out that it is Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Truxtun (DDG 103) that will go to the Black Sea for “a port visit and routine, previously planned exercises with allies and partners in the region”, all of which were “scheduled well in advance of her departure from the United States.” The allies and partners in question are Romania and Bulgaria.

Belbek and what’s there

Most have probably already seen or at least heard of one of the more stunning videos to appear yesterday, namely that of Col Yuri Mamchur, commander of 204th TABr, leading his unarmed men towards the Russian soldiers firing over their heads. Col Mamchur achieved his goal, and managed to negotiate some kind of an agreement with the Russian forces occupying Belbek air force base (Sevastopol). The whole unit was earlier erroeneously reported to have defected to the ‘Crimean authorities’, but apparently it remains loyal to Kiev and defiant towards the Russians.

I was a bit too trigger happy, and gladly shouted out that there are Su-27’s at the base, having misidentified the tails appearing in the video of the march, and not checked the Ukrainian air force OOB. It is MiG-29’s that the 204th TABr operates. Sorry about that.

Ukraine inherited a sizeable fleet of MiG-29’s of different variants, but today most of the earlier versions are gone, with as far as I can tell, all remaining operational aircraft being of the MiG-29S 9.13 or MiG-29UB 9.51 (two-seat trainer) variants, with a tiny number of upgraded MiG-29MU1 slowly becoming operational. One of the later is apparently at Belbek, although not yet in operational use.

MiG-29’s at Belbek in 2011. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Antropomant.

From this page with pictures as well as video from Belbek, quite a number of MiG’s can be seen. How many of these are truly operational, and how many are in different states of long time storage/disrepair is hard to say, but I counted to 29 airframes (25 in the video, and a further 4 have been seen standing in the QRA-area in earlier photos), with at least 2 being two-seaters. Along with the MiG’s, three Aero L-39 can be seen in seemingly pristine condition with a digital three-tone grey/white scheme, meaning that they are probably of the upgraded L-39M1 version.

Exactly what aircraft are at Belbek at the moment is hard to say. RT gives the numbers as 45 MiG-29 fighter jets and 4 L-39, with only four fighters and one training aircraft currently operational, but I wouldn’t give RT much credit as an objective source normally, and even less so in this conflict. CombatAir reports that it “Seems the squadron had 11 operational Fulcrum C [sic] and UBs […] in 2013″.

It is equally hard to judge what kind of a loss it would be for the Ukrainian air force if the Russians decides to either destroy or take home as a war prize the aircrafts currently being held at the base. If most of the MiG-29’s are indeed in such a sorry state that some reports indicate, the loss of the four (or three?) L-39’s from the already small fleet of refurbished trainers might prove to be an even bigger blow.

As an interesting note, according to this source, 204th TABr traces its roots back to the 62nd Fighter Aviation Regiment of the Soviet air force, and had no less than six Heroes of the Soviet Union during WWII (this source doesn’t give a stragiht connection, but confirms the 62nd IAP’s presence at Belbek up until 1992).

Edit: Apparently, the situation has changed during the writing of this post, and Belbek is now in Russian hands. Will be interesting to follow how this develops from here.

After the Invasion – The Road Forward for Ukraine

Apparently all key points on the Crimean peninsula have been taken over by Russian forces, which now effectively control the area. Any major counter-movement by the Ukrainian armed forces seems to have been curiously absent, which raises questions about the loyalty of the Ukrainian armed forces as a whole and the upper echelons in particular.

My personal opinion is that there seems to have been a window of opportunity to try to retake the major airfields yesterday (280214) morning, when they were function despite the presence of lightly armed soldiers on their grounds. By e.g. having a company or two board regular flights a counter-coup might have been stage by the Ukrainian army. A determined response at this early stage might (keyword) have unsettled the Russians enough to force a peaceful withdrawal. I believe that, as the “enemy” force apparently consisted of relatively few soldiers with only their personal weapons, such an operation could be launched simply by sending of a properly sized unit with their own personal equipment to establish a bridgehead and buy some time to start thinking about the next step. This also means that next to no logistical planning would have had to be done at beforehand, as the unit would operate in a functioning civilian society with (relatively) abundant food and water supplies, hopefully without even needing to fire their weapons. Naturally, if the Russian response would have been to start an all-out counter-attack, the bridgehead would most probably swiftly have been overrun. This does not seem to have been the probable Russian response judged on their operations so far, but fear of similar losses might have been what made the Ukrainian HQ opt against any swift and unsecure troop movements at this early stage. Now, this window is decidedly shut after only a few hours, and the major options for Kiev seems to be either to accept the fait accompli, or to go in with a major force, knowing that this might very well lead to war.

Lars Gyllenhaal amongst others have pointed out that the last time unrest on the Crimean peninsula sparked a major conflict, this conflict spread to both the Baltic Sea and the Arctic, with Finland suffering coastal raids and Sweden harboring fleet detachments from belligerents Britain and France at Gotland. This time around, as stated in my last post, I don’t believe France, Italy or Great Britain (or Turkey for that matter) are prepared to go to war for Crimea. Neither do I believe in Russia trying to seize the whole of Ukraine. Crimea is important strategically, and has a historical significance to Russia (as do Kiev). The rest of Ukraine is interesting, but the situation is not urgent. A similar path as the one taken with Georgia might prove very successful. By capturing part of their territory and proclaiming it an independent state (possibly with a referendum about whether to join the Russian federation or not), they will not only secure the territory in question (and thus safeguard Sevastopol), but also provide the Kiev-government (and other potential troublemakers, like the Baltic states) with a constant reminder about what happens if they get too far out of line.

A few disturbing facts are perfectly clear from this:

1)      Russia is perfectly capable of and has the political willpower to execute a strategic coup against a neighboring state

2)      As has been repeatedly stated by NATO officials before: NATO protects their member states, and their member states only

3)      The “outdated” Cold war-scenarios in which a sovereign country suddenly attacks another sovereign country aren’t outdated at all, but can happen in Europe this very day

Let us hope that the politicians in both Finland and Sweden admit these basic facts, and that we can have an open and serious discussion about what conclusions should be drawn from these points.

WESTERN RED LINE ON UKRAINE

I noticed calls on Twitter for a US-imposed ‘Red Line’ with regards to Ukraine, to try and stop Russia from excessively meddling in Ukrainian affairs, ‘or else…’

A similar outspoken policy proved rather successful (?) with regards to forcing Assad to dismantle his arsenal of chemical weapons, and it is tempting to believe that something similar could be useful to protect Ukraine from an armed incursion by Russian troops. However, after dwelling on the idea for a while, it is easy to see why it wouldn’t work in this case.

To begin with, Russia is not Syria and Putin is not Assad. Assad knows that he controls a country that is best described as a (minor) regional power. Sure, he can meddle in Lebanese affairs, but when the big players put their foot down, it is best to at least listen to what they have to say.

Russia is one of these big players, and few things apparently annoy the Kremlin more than being reminded that they play second violin on the world stage. Having the US trying to tell them what they can or can’t do in their own backyard is not something they will accept easily.

Which brings us up to the main point: Drawing up the red line would in itself be easy enough, but in order for a threat to work, there has to be the aforementioned ‘or else…’

And that is something the West is lacking in this case.

Economic actions, going after the money of Russian leaders or imposing trade restrictions, might seem to be a possibility. However, the long-term impact on Russia would be rather small, while the possible impact on Europe could be far larger if Russia decides to cut energy sales and/or impose trade restrictions the other way, something Lithuania got to experience this summer. While the loss in energy exports might be a sting in the short term, there are probably other takers for the Russian oil, and it is hard to believe that the ‘common people’ of Europe are prepared to freeze for Ukraine due to Russian natural gas deliveries being cut. Bottom line: Europe needs Russia (at least) as much as Russia needs Europe.

With regards to diplomatic efforts, there are precious few things that Russia wants from the West. WTO membership used to be such a thing, but since 2012 Russia already is a full member. Forcing (or, most probably, trying to force) high-ranking officials before international or Ukrainian courts would be somewhat irritating, but little less. Ask Omar al-Bashir if you disagree.

Engaging Russian forces inside Ukrainian with air strikes and/or ground forces would incur losses far higher than anything seen in the NATO-led peace enforcing operations of the last decades. Also, there is scant hope for this idea to get popular support in Western Europe or the US. Most people would probably say that Ukraine is not worth even a limited conflict between the old Cold War adversaries (although diehard pessimists will probably point out that was what they said about the Sudetenland in 1938 as well).

A potential ‘middle way’ would be a Western ‘peace keeping force’ entering Ukraine to secure parts of the country if Russian troops entered Crimea in force. This would work on the assumption that Russia would not risk an all-out war, and so would settle for the areas not controlled by western units. Although this sounds good in theory, in practice, it might prove excessively difficult.

Due to legitimacy, Russia would have to make a first move, and as have been proven time after time, occupying strategic points in a country can be a very swift affair, especially if the armed forces are having an exercise going. The window of opportunity for a counter will thus be very short. Few countries, if any, have troops in a high enough state of alert and the logistics needed to get them to Ukraine in time. Poland could be one, with e.g. the 21st Podhale Rifle Brigade (mountaineers) being based in Rzeszów close to the Ukrainian border. The 21st Podhale has also taken part in the joint Polish-Ukrainian peacekeeping unit POLUKRBAT, meaning they could be suited for the ‘hearts and minds’-part of the mission as well. Chances are that even if a similar operation were to take place successfully, this would lead to a split of the country along the by now well-known Northwest-Southeast split.

This last case is the only one I could even remotely imagine to be both effective and within the realms of reality. Still, I find it hard to believe that NATO could come up with the political backing needed for a broad alliance. A bilateral Ukrainian-Polish pact might just be possible, I am not well-versed enough in Polish politics to determine if this is the case or not, but it is anyone’s guess whether the leaders of the former Warpac states will try and appease Russia or try to fight fire with fire.

To sum it up: A US or Western red line on Ukraine would, most probably, be little more than an easily seen through bluff. Putin would know this, and in the worst case it could even be seen as a provocative move by the Kremlin and become a catalyst for Russia deliberately crossing the line.

Ukraine

To begin with I must say that I am positively surprised by the amount of interest this blog has stirred during these few days. I hope you will keep finding my post interesting. No small part in the number of views is thanks to James Mashiri over at Random thoughts, a warm “Thank you” to James. And do go check out his blog if you haven’t already, it is one of the best out there  dealing with Finnish defense questions.

The big thing happening in Europe right now is obviously the development in Ukraine, which every day is looking more like an attempted revolution and less like a demonstration. The situation is a prime example of the problematic situation when a, more or less, democratically elected government acts in undemocratic ways. To make matters worse, the easy solution, early elections, would apparently only result in more or less the same result as the last one (and even if the opposition would win, a western-style, non-corrupt government is far from guaranteed), meaning that a kind of a stalemate is born. The situation is not unlike what e.g. Thailand and Egypt are experiencing, but also Turkey seems to be heading in the same direction. Ukraine, settled on the frontier between EU and Russia, is however very important for the future of Europe and the EU, meaning that we as Europeans cannot afford to ignore the developments there. The situation is receiving surprisingly little coverage in mainstream media. A more thorough analysis of the situation would be needed, however, I am willingly admitting that my knowledge of the country and its internal politics is way to meager to be the one to write this analysis.

If someone knows of a good round-up of the current situation, and the likely outcomes, please let me know, I would very much like to dig deeper into this.