James Brooke | Foreign Affairs: Does General Putin fear the Russian winter?
The smart money has it that Vladimir Putin, an avid student of military history, learned from Napoleon and Hitler not to conduct land battles during Russia’s winter. The smart money has it that the elite Russian tank units rolling in the direction of Ukraine are merely pawns in an elaborate chess game designed to pressure Germany to turn on the Nord Stream 2, the Russia-Germany gas pipeline. Russia’s leaders still follow the cardinal rule of Soviet foreign policy: “We create the problem. Then, you thank us for creating the solution.”
But, it is useful to step back from the fine-grain debates over when the ground will freeze on Russia’s border with Ukraine. Let’s take a holistic approach.
On the ground in Europe’s only war, tension are higher than ever along the 280-mile trench line cutting the Donbas in half into Ukraine- and Russia-controlled sections.
Over Halloween weekend, international monitors recorded 1,500 ceasefire violations. Last week, Moscow started talking about the need to protect “Russian citizens” in the Donbas. This refers to the 600,000 Ukrainians in the occupied area who received Russian passports in the last 18 months. Russia’s statement came after a Turkish-supplied drone took out a Russian howitzer that had killed a Ukrainian Army sergeant.
At the line of control, the ebb and flow of people has plunged from 1.2 million in May 2019 to a trickle. Today, the line is “virtually closed,” reports the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Far from the nitty gritty of the Donbas, more alarming is the vitriol directed at Ukraine coming from the Kremlin.
First came a 7,000-word diatribe penned last summer by Putin. Denying Ukraine’s right to nationhood, he insisted that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.” Referring to Ukrainian independence 30 years ago, he says: “Russia was robbed.” In his view, Ukraine could be seen as an autonomous area on Russia’s southwest edge — perhaps a Slavic Texas where people talk funny, carry guns and have right-wing political views.
Last month, the second propaganda punch landed with an essay by Dmitry Medvedev published in Kommersant, Russia’s respected national business newspaper. To set the mood, the essay starts with a Ukrainian proverb: “When the goat tangles with the wolf, only the skin will remain of the goat.” Guess: Who is the goat? Who is the wolf?
Echoing late-Stalinist attacks on Soviet Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans,” Medvedev writes: “Ukrainian leaders, especially top officials, are people who do not have any stable self-identification. Unhappy people. Who are they, citizens of which country are they, where are their roots, what is their historical identity, ethnic component, what gods do they pray to? Who do they feel they are? Are they Ukrainians? ‘Europeans’? Russians? Jews? Tatars? Hungarians? Karaites?”
Medvedev writes of Volodomyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s elected President who is Jewish, as “a person with certain ethnic roots.” Medvedev writes that Zelenskyy fearfully serves “the most rabid nationalist forces in Ukraine.” Otherwise, “his brains will be smeared on the walls.” In a warning to Ukraine’s president, he writes: “One cannot be sure that at some moment, when the political situation changes, they will not come for you to sew a yellow star on your back.”
Medvedev is not some kook cranking out manifestos in a Siberian public housing project. Until last year, he was prime minister of Russia. In total, he served 12 years as Russia’s president or prime minister. A decade ago, when I lived in Moscow, he was a respected world leader, meeting with Vice President Joe Biden in the Kremlin.
Medvedev’s essay was widely rebroadcast by Russia’s state-controlled media. TASS reports Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying: “Dmitry Anatolievich’s [Medvedev] publication is very important as it names a lot of things by their names … all fully in line with what has already been aired at various levels.”
In Washington, the same intelligence experts who missed the collapse of Afghanistan are debating again. Do satellite photos show new Russian tank concentrations hunkering down for the winter? Do YouTube videos show railroad trains of tanks and armored personnel carriers moving to winter bases in the north, or to field positions in the south?
There are two points of agreement. Russia’s 41st Combined Arms Army is not returning to its Siberian home in Novosibirsk but is deploying to Yelnya, a Russian garrison town within striking distance of Belarus and northeastern Ukraine. Similarly, the 1st Guards Tank Army, an elite unit that rarely moves beyond defending Moscow, is “training,” also near Yelnya.
Ambiguity and surprise long have been hallmarks of Putin’s strategy in dealing with his neighbors.
Never fight a battle in the winter? Putin’s troops and surrogate forces won control of a Debaltseve, a key road and rail junction town in the Donbas, in February 2015. This decisive victory forced Ukraine to accept a stalemate that persists to this day.
Yes, Ukraine has held the line. Their trenches in the Donbas have lasted far longer than the trenches of World War I. But, what if the trenches — and the U.S.-supplied Javelin anti-tank missiles and the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 “killer” drones — all point the wrong way? Taking a page from Nazi Germany’s successful six-week Battle of France in spring 1941, Russia could simply go around Ukraine’s mini-Maginot line and enter Ukraine from its virtually unprotected northeast. Ukraine’s land border with Russia is 1,226 miles — equivalent of the distance from Boston to Orlando, Florida.
Or modern-day Germany could go for Putin’s “solution”: Avoid all this messiness by expediting approval of Gazprom’s gas pipeline. After all, Russia did not spend $11 billion to build an economically needless pipeline to have it held up by EU bureaucrats. But that is another story.
P.S. On Nov. 21, I will give a talk at the Lenox Library titled: “Ukraine: The Gates of Europe.”
James Brooke, of Lenox, has traveled to about 100 countries reporting for The New York Times, Bloomberg and Voice of America.