Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

25 August 2014

Eastern Ukraine: No News is not Good News, Especially for Frogs


If you want to know the immediate consequences of the Internet crushing print journalism, consider Eastern Ukraine. What do we know about what’s actually going on there? Next to nothing.

We know only six things. First, a low-level civil war is going on. Second, the Russian-leaning separatist rebels are mostly holed up in enclaves; the rest of the region is loyal to Kiev, however begrudgingly. Donyetsk City (or most of it), as distinguished from the whole province, is one of the rebel enclaves.

Third, Russians are continuing to supply the rebels and rebel enclaves, how and with precisely what we don’t know. Fourth, although both sides regularly claim tactical victories, the general situation appears to be a stalemate.

Fifth, we know that Russia recently sent a large number of big white trucks into the region ostensibly carrying “humanitarian aid” for the rebels and their besieged areas. Finally, we know that the rebels control at least one Russian border crossing, in Luhansk Province, which is where the white trucks entered Ukraine without Kiev’s permission.

Almost everything else is uncertain, disputed or unknown. Even who shot down MH17 is disputed, by reports that bear at least superficial indicia of credibility and internal consistency. With all the focus naturally on the more heavily disputed and populated Donyetsk Province, Luhansk Province might as well be on the Moon.

We know much more, in much greater detail, about what is happening in Iraq, despite the higher language barrier there. Maybe that’s because we have people on the ground in Iraq. Good, professional reporting in Eastern Ukraine seems to be limited to fly-ins by freelancing Brits and high-profile reporters like Margaret Warner, who spend a couple of days running around taking video and interviewing easily available people, and then leave. Reportorial follow-through is non-existent.

One can only hope that our CIA and Europe’s spooks have more assets on the ground and more information. But the likelihood is they don’t. Ukraine has never been high on our Yankee list of priorities, and it takes a decade or so to shift our intelligence focus. (It took us almost two decades to begin to understand that Saudi oil money is behind almost every jihadist/terrorist network and cell in the world.)

So, for example, we don’t know some pretty basic things about the big white trucks. What was really in them? Were they searched and X-rayed before leaving Russia and entering Ukraine? They were supposed to have been, but were they?

And what about the second tranche of big white trucks that Ukraine claims went in today, accompanied by Russian tanks and armored vehicles? What was in them?

For all we in the global public know, some or all of those trucks could have contained ammunition and advanced weaponry, including parts or all of anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles. Russia might be arming the rebels right under our noses. Alternatively (or in addition), as I reasoned recently, the drivers and minders of those trucks might be gathering accurate intelligence for Putin, because he knows as little as we.

One thing is clear. There is a different standard of public “truth” in the Slavic world than in the West. Both Kiev and Moscow—and especially the rebels—have repeatedly promulgated “facts” that turned out not to be true. The have done so often enough to impair, if not destroy, their credibility. Statements released publicly often turn out to be little more than rumors, hopes or unconfirmed raw data.

So it seems that Kiev and Moscow are both just guessing. Is Washington, too?

Who gains from this information vacuum? Moscow does, for three reasons. First, it’s closer in both geography and culture, so it knows better what to expect and what information to trust. Second, unless Putin missed a grand opportunity (which he seldom does), the drivers and minders of those big white trucks have brought him good, current intelligence. (Most, if not all, of the drivers probably are trained intelligence agents.)

But the third reason is the clincher. Remember Al Gore’s frogs in boiling water? If the temperature goes up gradually enough, they don’t leap out until they’re fully cooked. That now appears to be Putin’s strategy in Eastern Ukraine.

Of course it’s impossible to know his mind. Even his best international friend, Chancellor Merkel, sees him as an enigma. But if Kiev’s recent claim of a new column of trucks and tanks is correct, then Putin appears to be cooking the frogs slowly. Infiltrate Eastern Ukraine gradually and subtly enough, and no one will notice. At least no one will notice enough to do anything about it.

In this way, Putin can enhance the rebels’ position and his own position in the bargaining that begins tomorrow, without causing all the hubbub and opprobrium of a massive invasion. At the same time, the 45,000 troops massed just across the border, constantly threatening such an invasion, make these small moves seem benign in comparison.

So maybe no big invasion is imminent. Maybe Putin is content to turn the heat up gradually. He is, after all, a smart man.

But what’s his goal, his end game? I wish I had a clue. Many of our Yankee analysts accuse him of purposefully destabilizing the region, on a semi-permanent basis. I have trouble believing that.

Why would he want to do that? It wouldn’t be good for peace, for Russia or for business. The Donbass, after all, is a powerhouse of mining, steelmaking and manufacturing. Why cripple its economic potential deliberately, or keep its people in a constant state of turmoil? Whom does that aid?

Besides deliberate destabilization (unlikely, in my view), only two goals appear realistic and likely: (1) partition and annexation of all or part of Eastern Ukraine, or (2) a “peace” on terms more favorable to Russia and the Russian minority in Eastern Ukraine than Kiev might like. We’ll have a better idea what Putin really wants after the talks with Poroshenko tomorrow, which presumably will have competent reporters present.

One of Poroshenko’s first questions should be just that. He should look Putin straight in the eye and ask, “What the hell do you want?” Whether he’ll get a straight answer is anyone’s guess, but the nuances of speech and body language might give him some clues.

Footnote 1: This claim is reviewed by English-language reporting in “Press TV,” an Iranian media website, and, more exhaustively, in Global Research, an apparently independent website based in Canada.

Footnote 2: For exhaustive evidence of this point, see this report, published in 2003.

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