The INF Is On It’s Deathbed

Since Donald Trump took office nuclear hawks have been on a quest to redevelop America’s nuclear arsenal and dismantle non-proliferation efforts. Senators like Tom Cotton have called for scrapping roughly 30 years of nuclear treaties dating back to the Reagan administration in response the Russia’s violation, with possibly the most important treaty on the chopping block being the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).

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American Armored Vehicles Enter Manbij

Several convoys containing a number of American Stryker APCs has been spotted driving from the eastern side of the Euphrates river in northern Syria and entering the Kurdish held city of Manbij. The vehicles were armed with a a 12.7 and 7.62mm machine guns, and bear clear unit markings. The Strykers were clearly identifiable as American due to the large American flags shown flying high over the several of the vehicles. Also shown are HMMWVs  bracketing the convoys from the front and rear.

us-soldiers-manbij
U.S Soldiers disembark from their HMMWVs near Manbij (source)

This is a big leap for American involvement in the Syrian conflict. While there have been Special Operations Forces (SOF) in Syria prior to this deployment, they kept a low profile and moved around in non-standard vehicles. The forces now in Manbij are not only using standard American equipment, but the equipment itself is also clearly marked with American flags and unit markings that overtly signal an American presence .

The reason for this deployment was made apparent shortly after first pictures emerged, with the U.S has announcing that it is increasing it’s presence in  Manbij to “deter hostile acts, enhance governance & ensure there’s no persistent YPG presence.” In other words, the troops are meant to assure the Turks that there are no YPG units operating with the Syrian Democratic Forces west of the Euphrates. Implicitly (and more importantly) ,the troops are also meant to deter Turkey from taking further action against the America’s partners in Syria.

As Turkey has expanded it’s zones of control it has attacked both ISIS and the Syrian Kurds, viewing them both as a threat to Turkish security. Recently, Erdogen vowed to take Manbij after the capture of Al-Bab was completed. With clashes ongoing around the edge of the salient it’s clear the Turkish president was serious about his threat.

Because the United States is relying on Kurdish forces to take the Islamic State capital of Raqqa, Turkish aggression against the SDF is clearly damaging to American objectives in Syria. It appears that rather than try to talk Erdogan out of an offensive, the Trump Administration has decided to simply present him with a fait accompli, by placing American forces in the way of an Turkish/FSA advance.

With American troops now in Manbij, Turkish aggression against SDF forces has been all but ruled out, similar to how the introduction of Russian forces in regime areas ruled out western military action against Assad. The political risks are too high and diplomatic repercussions are simply too severe. This is especially given the fact the SDF has also invited Russian convoys and regime troops into the city and has agreed to hand over some areas west of the city to government control.

What this situation creates is a multi-national tripwire that will prevent Turkish-backed forces from attacking SDF controlled territory. With the regime controlling the western approaches to the city the introduction of Russian advisers to those areas is inevitable. If Turkey wants Manbij, they will have to go through Russian, Syrian and American troops to get to it.

The U.S has denied coordination with Russia and the regime and their presence seems to be of solely the work of the SDF. Turkey, for it’s part is now threatening to stop it’s military operations against ISIS unless the United States and Russia “cooperate” with Turkey on the issue. What will happen next is up in air, but for now, the SDF are safe from Turkish aggression and this will hopefully allow them to concentrate more of their forces against ISIS rather than having to leave them in the north to fight to FSA, who are nowhere near the ISIS capital in Raqqa.

A Hot Winter in Ukraine

Violence in Ukraine’s Donbas region has spiked following a call between President Trump and Vladimir Putin on the 28th of January. The attacks by Russian-backed separatists have already killed over a dozen Ukrainian soldiers and left over 100 more wounded.

Videos have emerged showing heavy artillery being fired from inside the separatist controlled region including barrages of GRAD rockets and howitzers. The projectiles have hit civilian areas in Ukraine very hard.

In the video below you can see a MLRS firing around 20 rockets from rebel territory into Ukraine.

The city of Avdiivka near Donetsk appears to be the primary target of the attacks. As shells rain down the city has been made virtually unlivable. Water and electricity have been cut and in -18 C temperatures  (-0.4 Fahrenheit) 12,000 people now need to be evacuated to stop them from freezing to to death.

As the civilians leave the Ukrainian Army is holding it’s ground. Having repelled a separatist ground assault the army has been filmed with tanks inside Avdiivka preparing to counter further attacks on the ground. The Ukrainians claim that their “tanks are ready” to fight and continue to move more heavy equipment into the area.

Fighting has also expanded to the north as far as Horlivka and to the south as far as Mariupol. During the first week of the assault the artillery fire was nearly continuous from dawn until nightfall.

The size of these forces and the depth and breath of the assault initially suggested a probing attack both in the military and political sense. As the week went on however, dozens of tanks, self propelled artillery and other mechanized forces and supplies have been reported moving towards the front in Donetsk. While the fire subsided somewhat, there is no indication that these forces are being pulled back.

If nothing is done to stop Russia’s aggression in Ukraine the separatists could begin pushing further west. As of February 3rd they appear to lack the mobile forces to break out of the Donbas. However, with amount of equipment now at the front they are certainly capable of launching limited offensives into Avdiivka and the Svitlodarsk bulge.

Russia’s hybrid forces on the front line are not designed for major long distance operations. However, with thousands of Russian troops are massed along the border with Ukraine it would be relatively easy to reinforce the separatists with the necessary equipment and personnel. Such action could be taken  under the cover of regular maneuvers like he ones the Russians are beginning in mid- February.

This aggression, along with a recent strafing of an American warship and the violation of the INF treaty, are clearly meant as tests for the Trump administration to see how far Putin can take his aggression.

Without a forceful response from both the United States and Europe the violence will continue. Even if Russia mysteriously pulls back it’s forces like they are prone to to doing, it will send a clear message that Russia free to attack Ukraine as it sees fit and do further damage to the world order and the stability of Eastern Europe.

Unfortunately, this is this message that the administration has already sent. Despite Ambassador Haley’s condemnation at the U.N, no coherent response has yet emerged. All Trump has managed to do so far is display his profound ignorance of the situation.

First, Trump described the fighting as part of a border dispute, rather than an invasion. Then, he implied that he didn’t know if the separatists were really backed and controlled by the Kremlin. Finally, in a ham-fisted gesture, the administration demanded that Russia return Crimea to Ukraine and end it’s aggression in exchange for improved relations; basically, a return to the standard U.S position under the Obama administration.

Trump has now wasted weeks learning what he should have know when he began shooting his mouth off about Russia in the first place. Despite his boasts about improving U.S-Russia relations, it’s now painfully obvious that he never took the time to understand why relations were deteriorating in the first place.

Now, having shown his weakness and incoherence,  Putin is likely to exploit it. Already another challenge is brewing with the Russian deployment of intermediate range cruise missiles for the first time since the Cold War; A challenge Trump is clearly unprepared to meet.

 

 

 

 

 

Russia is Massing Forces on the Ukrainian Border.

Over the past week the situation along the Ukrainian border has been worsening. Following the capture of alleged Ukrainian saboteurs in Crimea, Moscow has escalated both rhetorically and militarily against Ukraine. Reports have surfaced off new Russian troops near Donetsk. Meanwhile Conveys made up of troop transports and BTRs have been filmed moving into Crimea along with S-400 Air defense systems, warplanes and frigates in the Black Sea.

Russia build up
An info-graphic from the Institute for the Study of War showing the Russian build up.

In the preceding months, two Motorized Rifle Brigades and a Motor Rifle Division have been deployed to the border, along with the creation of three new divisions, each totaling around 10,000 troops. Along with recon, EW and a tank unit in Moldova’s Transnistria region, Russia has all of the components necessary for an invasion of Ukraine.

In Ukraine, troops have been placed on high alert as fears mount of an imminent invasion of southern and eastern portions of the war torn nation. Such fears have a basis not just in the reality of Russia’s military build up but the timing as well. Russian attacks and invasions have become know as August surprises because they tend to fall in the mouth of August while the world is distracted with presidential elections and the Olympics. Such was the case when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008.

Putin has also laid the rhetorical and political groundwork for such an invasion. The capture of “Ukrainian spies” makes a good pretext for action. Following the incident he accused Ukraine of terrorism and proclaimed that he will not let the offense “slide by”. He has also changed his position on the Minsk talks, and now calls them “pointless.”

The political motives behind the build up and possible invasion have been the subject of vast speculation. However, there are several rational reasons that Putin would invade or feint and invasion of Ukraine.

Inside Russia, his control over Russian media allows him to spin the West (or the “fascists” in Ukraine) as the aggressor. This gains him popularity  and primes his party’s victory in the upcoming 2016 legislative elections in December.

Externally, aggression puts pressure on the United States and the NATO alliance. It will bring the pro-western government in Kiev under pressure, and  further stain the already overstretched Ukrainian army even if the conflict stays at the level of armed observation and a full scale invasion is not launched.

Remember that Putin primary objective in Ukraine is to regain influence salvage the country as a Russian client state. Beyond that, he wants to destabilize NATO and the EU in Europe while bolstering his regime inside Russia. The more chaotic the situation the greater the advantage for Putin.

 

 

 

The Kremlin Candidate

During a New York Times interview. presidential nominee (ugh) Donald Trump suggested that he would consider holding back military aid to the Baltic states in the event of a Russian invasion. Stating that he would only help “if they fulfill their obligations to us”. The remark  drew in intense criticism from all sides, including NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, John Kerry, Mitch McConnell, John Kasich and Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Trump doubled down this remarks during his acceptance speech at the GOP convention, implying that all allies, not just the Baltics, would be subject to the same reservations.
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