The unmentionable fear

Russia's strategic fix: Crimea's water flows from Ukraine

It’s over Ukraine that the sleepwalkers are in motion.

By Gary Scarrabelotti

It’s not something we want to hear.  Retired chief of the defence force, Admiral Chris Barrie, has claimed that “complacent” Australia was unprepared for war and that world political leaders were “sleepwalking” towards one.

Barrie’s reference to “sleepwalking” echoed the title and thesis of Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914”.

Barrie’s remarks came at the 2017 Australian Leadership Retreat which ran over 18-21 May on the Queensland Gold Coast, a place normally reserved for escapist escapades rather than for confronting life as it is.

As reported by The Australian, the count of Barrie’s fears included the South China Sea, North Korea, President Donald Trump’s (alleged) isolationism, the Philippines and its President Rodrigo Duterte and, in a revival of 19th Century fears about the fate of the “sick man”, Turkey and dread that it could fracture and become “another Syria”.

What is really fascinating about this news report is what it does not say. Could this really be the sum of all Barrie’s fears? What did he say – under the Retreat’s Chatham House rules – that does not appear in the news report: something too disturbing to talk about openly?  Or was there an unaccountable gap in his analysis? So, let’s add in the missing piece for ourselves.

Ukraine

How strange that this hot spot didn’t come to the surface. How odd that speculation about Turkey’s possible implosion sets the public worry beads in motion when there is a war already going on in Ukraine that could lead to a collision between Russia and the USA. It’s over Ukraine that the sleepwalkers are in motion.

Ukraine has been staring us in the face for some time. It ‘began’ – one has to use this term advisedly because there’s a whole lot of history packed in behind it – it ‘began’ with a street revolution in Kiev and the overthrow of the Yanukovych government on 18 February 2014.

In response, Russia seized control of Crimea beginning on 2 March 2014.  At the same time, there was a separatist uprising in the Donbas region of east Ukraine. And from 15 April 2014 there has been open warfare between Ukraine and those Russian-backed separatists.

Three months later, on 17 July 2014, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over the combat zone by separatist forces. All 298 passengers and crew, including 27 Australians, died.

It’s a long, complicated story how all this happened. But briefly it was because forces both within and without Ukraine wanted its government to sign an Association Agreement with the EU and, eventually, to join NATO. Russia might have been ready to accept Ukraine’s membership of the EU, but NATO membership was non-negotiable. So far, about 10,000 people have died in the conflict, more than two-thirds of them military casualties. And they are still dying. It’s a lot of death to ignore on such strategically tender territory.

Frozen conflict

Perhaps Ukraine could have fallen off the list of ‘fear points’ because Russian President Vladimir Putin has managed to achieve his goal of “freezing” this particular conflict. But will it stay that way?

As things stand, the Donbas secessionist freikorps, and its once self-starting political leadership, are now firmly under Moscow’s control. Many of its original political leaders and war lords have been “neutralised” in booby-trapped cars and lift wells, by anti-tank missiles and pistol fire, employed, in a ruthless convergence of interests, by agents of both Ukraine and Russia.  As a result, Moscow can now dial up, or dial down, the Donbas war as it suits its purposes. More importantly, Moscow has boxed the Ukrainian government and army into a perpetual stalemate, costly in lives and costly in what little treasure Ukraine’s broken economy can muster.

On one hand, Ukraine’s army (no longer the shambles of 2014) has contained the Russo-separatist forces, but it cannot dislodge them, let alone destroy them. On the other, a full-scale invasion of Ukraine seems off the Russian agenda for now, regular cries of “Wolf!” from Kiev notwithstanding.

Moscow’s present strategy is to keep Ukraine on the defensive, to bleed it dry and to hope that its government, parliament, judiciary and public administration – dominated, as they are, by fractious, parasitic oligarchs and their client networks – continue to  supply a combustible tinder to which aggrieved, aggro, ultra-nationalist fractions might one day put the match.

True, the Donbas separatists have dreamed of re-establishing Novorossiya (New Russia) by seizing former imperial Russian territory westward along the Black Sea coast and linking up with Transnistria, a Russian enclave along the eastern border of Moldova.

Putin, however, has scotched this idea. That really would be risky.  It would require mass employment of Russia armed forces, a large army of occupation, and open-ended combat against Ukrainian guerrilla forces. And there is the question of what the USA would do in such a case.

There are people in the Russian government, security services and armed forces who share the dream of Novorossiya.  But Putin – more a manager of factions than the absolute dictator imagined in the West – holds them in check for now. If Kiev and Washington were rational actors, they should hope that he would continue to do so.

A less ambitious military option might be a two-pronged thrust south from Donetsk to Mariupol (on the Sea of Azov) and south-west to Kherson (near the mouth of the Dnieper River) to create a land bridge with the presently isolated Crimean peninsula and to secure Crimea’s water supply.

Water has become a strategic issue in Ukraine-Russia conflict and that’s because the chief source of Crimea’s water lies within Ukraine.

When on 28 June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, no-one believed that Europe would be at war 37 days later.

The water used to be drawn, via the North Crimea Canal, from the Dnieper upstream from Nova Kakhovka and the Kakhovka hydro-electric power plant that straddles the river at that point. Ukraine cut the water supply at the Dnieper in 2014 and has recently completed a blocking dam below Kalanchak on the border with Crimea (see map above). By turning off the tap on more than 80 percent of Crimea’s water supply Ukraine has demonstrated that, while it might not be able to invade Crimea, it can deliver a great deal of pain to Russia and a great deal of ruin to the Crimean economy. Water, or the lack of it, is a powerful weapon.

So Russia has a serious, pressing reason to assert control over the lower Dnieper. And yet, it has not acted.

Why not?

Well, even Plan B would require a large Russian invasion army; it would be furiously contested by Ukraine, which has prepared itself in depth to counter just such an operation; and it would create a long, exposed Russian right flank that would require a considerable force to hold and defend. The latter consideration is probably an important reason why we have not seen a Russian drive to the lower Dnieper before now. There remains, moreover, the possibility that the North Crimea Canal could be re-opened as part of a political settlement. That would be the preferred path.

Misplaced hope

Obviously Moscow feared a Clinton victory in last year’s US presidential elections. A peaceful settlement would have been all the harder with Hillary Clinton in the White House. More than that, from Russia’s perspective, a Clinton administration, would have increased the possibility of some kind of US military commitment to Ukraine and that, in turn, could raise the risk of a direct conflict with American forces.

A Trump victory, in contrast, offered the prospect of a political deal. But that seems to be evaporating. Chaos within the Trump administration itself; the fact that – since the fall of Lt. General Michael Flynn, Trump’s former National Security adviser – Defense and State have continued running long-established US policies; and that, as his first diplomatic foray into the Middle East and Europe suggests, the President himself has climbed aboard the perennial bandwagon.

Deep down Trump probably still harbours a desire to cut a Kissingerian grand bargain with Russia: to forge an alliance against militant Islamic radicalism on the basis of a settlement over Ukraine whose fate, in strategic realist terms, is not of vital interest to the United States of America.

California dreaming

The obstacles in the way of any agreement that could satisfy Russia are great, however.  Given the liberal interventionist and – let’s be honest – cultural imperialist influences that dominate the US foreign policy establishment, which is easily proving itself more powerful than Trump, it is difficult to foresee how the USA could agree to Ukraine being excluded forever from NATO or to Crimea’s reincorporation into Russia.  In fact, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has declared Russia’s claim on Crimea as “illegitimate” and that sanctions must remain in place until Russia reverses course. That doesn’t sound like a Trumpian deal in the making.

Add to these doubts about Trump’s character: can he keep his head, lead a united team and steer a determined course? Weighty conservative critics of independent judgement like Ross Douthat and Peggy Noonan, for example, are convinced he can’t. If a  President is undisciplined, erratic and prone to lashing out under stress, then that introduces into world affairs elements of distrust, discord and unpredictability which could lead to major risk-taking and disastrous miscalculations by either (or both) the USA and Russia. So it is possible that a Trump administration, far from being isolationist, could prove dangerously activist.

It is not just Trump, however, that’s the problem.  The US intelligence establishment is clearly freewheeling beyond the reach of executive discipline.  The way it leaked “live” intelligence on the Manchester bombing to its favourite media – in this case The New York Times and NBC News – beside devaluing the trust which underpins the Anglosphere’s “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing arrangements, has provided graphic confirmation of Trump’s own claim that, in leaking against him and his team, the agencies are disloyal and out of control.

If in Donald Trump we have a potentially “rogue” US President, we also have the problem of “rogue” US intelligence agencies. The combination of the two is as dangerous to World peace as Trump’s fabled inclinations toward isolationism.

With such discordancy at the highest decision-making levels in Washington, America’s longstanding preoccupation with conjuring “colour revolutions” out of the unhappily wedded materials of Ukrainian society could push sleepwalking Uncle Sam tottering over the brink. This is what makes Ukraine, where the guns are already blazing, so much more dangerous than its present apparently “frozen” condition might lead us to suspect.

So, you don’t think that the USA and Russia could ever stumble into war over Ukraine? Maybe you’re right. But then, as Christopher Clark superbly points out, at day’s end on 28 June 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated along with his wife in Sarajevo, Bosnia, no-one believed that Europe would be at war 37 days later.

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