Finally, someone with a bigger voice than mine is echoing what I’m saying!
In the past few weeks, we’ve seen Russia called out in the UN, now we’re seeing President Trump acknowledge that they’re pro-Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. Now we’re seeing the Russian being contested in the information space.
What more can I ask for? Oh yeah, Russia, get out of Ukraine and give Crimea back to Ukraine.
Donald Trump’s interview with FoxNews’ Bill O’Reilly during the halftime at Sunday’s Super Bowl has been ridiculed as the ramblings of an uninformed President. In the interview, Trump appropriately refused to take O’Reilly’s bait to label Vladimir Putin a murderer (and basically rule out any negotiations) but followed, inappropriately, with strained moral equivalence on state murder. Then Trump honed in on his key question concerning Vladimir Putin, the Ukraine war, and upcoming negotiations:
Bill O’Reilly: But within 24 hours of you on the phone with the Russian leader, the pro-Russian forces step up the violence in Ukraine.
Donald Trump: Yes.
O’Reilly: Did you take that as an insult?
Trump: No I didn’t because we don’t really know exactly what that is. They’re pro-Russian forces. We don’t know if they’re uncontrollable? Are they uncontrollable? That happens also. We’re going to find out [my italics]. I will be surprised, but we will see.
In his response, President Trump raised the key question, which those seeking to counter Russia in the east Ukraine war have judiciously avoided. Although we know that the “pro-Russian” forces fight with Russian equipment, Russian mercenaries, and general propaganda support, we maintain a convenient pretense that the “rebels”, “insurgents,” “separatists,” or whatever the press calls them, make their own political, military, and economic decisions. If true, the “pro-Russian” forces are, in Trump’s words, “uncontrollable,” and Russia can only be asked to “put pressure” on its Ukrainian clients, which they can resist or cave. In this case, Russia is entitled to sit as a “peacemaker” and not as an aggressor in peace negotiations.
Contrariwise, if we know that Russia gives the “pro-Russian” forces, both civil and military, their marching orders and uses its own regular troops directed by their own commanders in combat, Russia is the aggressor, not a peace mediator, and should be treated as such when Trump and Putin meet. Trump is on mark to demand an answer from the intelligence and academic community to this question.
The West has, to my regret, subscribed to an “uncontrollable but influenceable” interpretation of Russia’s role in the Ukraine conflict. Angela Merkel (along with President Obama) has called repeatedly on Putin “to use his influence” on Ukrainian rebels to end the conflict, to which Putin replies in fake innocence that he wants a peaceful Ukraine on his borders. The West embraces the notion of “uncontrollable but influenceable” as a convenient excuse for not taking action against Russian aggression, other than economic sanctions and words.
Putin and his foreign policy gurus promote the “uncontrollable but influenceable” version for dear life, even when caught red-handed. As a prime example, they deny the decisive evidence of the Joint Investigations Team that MH17 was downed by a BUK Russian missile system fired by a Russian military crew that fled back into Russia. MH17 constitutes a mortal threat to the Russian narrative as it demonstrates high-level Russian command and control over vital operations that denied Ukraine control of its air space.
The Russian narrative of its “uncontrollable but influenceable” role in the Ukraine conflict consists of three points: First, there are no Russian troops fighting in east Ukraine. Second, the two “separatist” provinces (Donetsk and Luhansk People’s republics) are led by elected officials and by military officers who make their own political and military decisions. Third, the military equipment employed by the “pro-Russian” forces is not supplied by Russia.
I have published a series of articles that dispute Putin’s three-point narrative. I need not rehash them in detail. A comprehensive BBC report dismisses Russia’s third claim (not supplying rebels with equipment) with its description of advanced Russian military technology being tested on the Ukrainian field of battle.
Among the refutations of point 1 (No Russian troops) are lists of Russian combat deaths which now equal U.S. losses in Afghanistan, thousands of medals for bravery in combat in Ukraine, Facebook postings of Russian soldiers from their combat units in Ukraine, and international monitors now blame “combined Russian separatist forces” for starting battles in the ceasefire zone. The most striking refutation is the slaughter of Ukrainian troops by regular Russian forces in the Battle of Debaltseve which Russian propaganda credited to local militias.
The second claim—that pro-Russian forces make their own political and military decisions—is refuted by the fact that the two “separatist” provinces (the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) were initially led by “political technologists” and military intelligence officers unabashedly imported from Russia. The intercepted conversations of close Putin advisor, Sergei Glazyev, show him instructing his Ukrainian operatives to take control of municipal buildings and issue pleas to Russian troops to march in. The braggadocios Muscovite military commander declared, after his removal back to Russia, that without his bold leadership there would have been no armed conflict in east Ukraine.
Apparently intelligence continues to mount that Russia is exercising command and control over forces–mercenary, local, and its own–in eastern Ukraine. In his waning days in office, Secretary of State, John Kerry, was recorded as saying: “Intel is producing taped conversations of intelligence operatives taking their orders from Moscow…We know exactly who’s giving these orders, we know where they are coming from.”
In his O’Reilly interview, Trump declared “we’re going to find out” if the pro-Russian forces are “uncontrollable.” This is a natural question for a negotiator: To what extent does your negotiating partner (in this case Putin) have the ability and means to deliver a negotiated outcome, such as a workable solution to the Russian-Ukrainian War? Trump cannot put himself in a situation where his negotiating partner agrees but then claims he cannot control his unruly proxies on the ground.
Supporters of Ukraine are fearful that Trump will sell out Ukraine to his “bromance” partner Putin. I disagree. As an outsider, Trump is likely to do better for Ukraine than his predecessors, who feared calling out Putin as the true aggressor, did not fight back effectively against Putin’s mythologies, and refused to arm Ukraine with lethal weapons on the grounds that it might upset Putin. With a strong foreign policy cabinet, a Democratic opposition outraged by Russia, and strong support for Ukraine in his own party, an unencumbered Trump can ignore the “political correctness” of the mythology of separatists independent of Russia and the dictum of no lethal weapons for Ukraine. Trump has the cards, the most important of which is a Ukrainian army of 200,000 armed by the U.S. and hopefully a Ukraine making its way towards the prosperity increasingly out of reach of Putin’s Russia.