While this new war is undeclared and while the invasion of the eastern Ukraine by 20,000 or so Russian troops has been tentative, this is in fact a war between Russia and the Ukraine. Much could be said about the history behind this conflict, how the Russian nation had its start in the Ukraine, how the Russians do not trust, or fear, the West, and how the Ukrainian nation identity has itself been rather weak in the past. Indeed, a valid question has been- “what is the cultural difference between the Ukraine and Russia?”
But national identity is an evolving thing and we are witnessing the emergence of a new and more vital Ukrainian national identity, spurred on by the current conflict. The mixing of the Russian ethnic population and the Ukrainian ethnic population means that the separation process could be ugly, pitting husbands and wives against each other.
Putting all that aside, the current war is real and it is threatening to escalate dramatically. Wars do not follow logic, they are not based on what we, sitting at home in our living rooms, might think is reasonable and logical. They often happen quite unintentionally, escalating each step of the way insensibly, as if the conflict itself has a mind of its own. Indeed, conditions on the ground in the eastern Ukraine are being set as much by unofficial pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian militias acting without regard for any strategic big picture or even for parochial interests as they are by the primary actors, Kiev and Moscow.
On the ground Russian forces are moving to occupy lands currently held by their proxy army, the pro-Russian militias, and the Ukrainian army is withdrawing from what it deemed an “anti-terror operation” zone into a more defensive and conventional military stance. One major critique has been that the Ukrainian government has failed to get heavy weapons, such as tanks and artillery, into the front lines, but this was owing to the nature of the operation- it was an operation aimed at “rebel” militias, not a conventional military foe. The real criticism would be that the Ukrainian high command failed early on to grasp the true nature of their enemy.
The Russians could send in over 100.000 well armed troops, that they are only sending in 20,000 so far indicates that Moscow has not yet mad a total commitment to total war, or it indicated their lack of regard for Ukrainian military resistance. An emerging problem for the Russians is that the family of those Russian soldiers sent into combat while their leaders deny that a military operation is underway are beginning to react negatively.
Currently, Ukrainian forces are preparing a conventional defense of Mariupol, a port that sits on the way between the Russian border on the south eastern Ukraine coast and the Crimea. Ukrainian forces are making a strategic withdrawal to more defensible lines and efforts appear to be underway to move armored brigades and divisions to the east but, evidently, not right up to the forward areas.
A recent photograph taken by Reuters News revealed Ukrainian troops training with what appear to be either Swedish or German man-portable anti-tank missiles which we believe have been supplied secretly by the Poles who have a much tougher stance on how to deal with Russia and who are calling for NATO to arm the Ukrainians. Currently, NATO and the US refuse to provide combat arms and are focusing only on “non-lethal aid” including rations and medical supplies. Such missiles and other crew served weapons, like mortars and automatic grenade launchers, can be combat equalizers and are relatively simple to learn to operate as compared to tanks or self-propelled artillery.
The “wild card” in this war will remain the degree to which the Ukrainians have maintained their stockpile of ex-Soviet weapons, including tanks and aircraft, which, while outmoded by Western standards, could stand up to modern Russian weapons on the battlefield. Additionally, it is unknown whether true changes in Ukrainian training, which had been poor, have been implemented. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense has claimed that they have made substantial improvements to their training programs.
The next major battle which will set the tone for the next stage of this still undeclared war will be the battle of Mariupol. If the Russians roll through and create a land-bridge to the Crimea, Putin may indeed attempt to roll into Kiev within two weeks as he threatened European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso recently.