Ukrainian security forces have been pushing back pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine for weeks now. Because this means a humiliating defeat for Russian efforts to annex the Donbas there is fear that the Russians will escalate. Ukraine and the rest of the world are waiting to see if Russia will admit defeat or escalate by sending heavily armed “peacekeepers” into Donbas “for humanitarian reasons” to “pacify” the area by expelling Ukrainian troops and annex Donbas. This would make Russia an international outcast, subject to more sanctions and be a major setback for the Russian economy. The two Ukrainian provinces (Donetsk and Luhansk) which comprise the Donbas contain about nine percent of Ukrainian territory, 13 percent of the population and 15 percent of the GDP. Donbas is about 38 percent ethnic Russian. For Ukraine, the Donbas is worth fighting for where Crimea was not. The two provinces comprising the Donets Basin (or “Donbas”) were for a long time an economic powerhouse for Soviet Russia. But that began to decline in the 1980s and accelerated when the Soviet Union fell and Ukraine became independent in 1991.
This looming defeat in Ukraine angers Russia, where senior politicians have portrayed the Ukraine situation as all the fault of the West which was seeking to turn Ukraine into an enemy of Russia (which Ukrainians prefer) rather than a part of a Russian empire (which Russians prefer). Bad relations between Russia and Ukraine go back over a thousand years but Russians still claim Ukraine is theirs and consider any disagreement over that attitude to be a hostile act towards the Russian people. The current Russian leadership is backing this myth but that support is becoming a lot more expensive than originally expected. The West sees the Russian efforts in Ukraine as a return to ancient forms of politics which began to die out in the 20th century. This ancient “create a crises and send in troops to fix and annex it” has been used for thousands of years to justify acquiring more territory. Most large nations used it to a greater or lesser extent to become large nations. This sort of thing had gone out of fashion by the late 20th century and Russia is being widely and loudly criticized for trying to drag the world back to a savage past most people want to move away from.
Despite continued Russian denials that they have anything to do with the Donbas rebels more proof keeps showing up, including recent incidents where Russian soldiers serving with the rebels posted pictures and comments on social media sites. The U.S. has released satellite photos of Russian artillery firing into Ukraine and Russian armored vehicles and trucks loaded with weapons and ammo entering Donbas. Russia denounces all this as falsifications but most Russians seem to believe it, even if many would rather not.
This war has been going on since April and has left at least 1,300 dead so far. About 44 percent of those dead were Ukrainian troops and most of the rest were rebels. Civilian deaths have been low because both rebels and troops have avoided attacking civilians. The fighting has caused nearly 300,000 civilians in the Donbas to flee their homes.
Meanwhile Russia is demonstrating its displeasure with the rest of the world in other ways. Since the Malaysian airliner (MH17) was shot down on July 17th by a Russian anti-aircraft missile Russia has moved aggressively against the Western nations is accuses of plotting against them. Thus Russian warplanes were ordered to be more aggressive against the United States. That resulted in a spike (at least 16 incidents) in Russian warplanes flying into the American air defense identification zone (where unidentified aircraft flying near American air space are called on to identify themselves). Russian warplanes also made threatening moves towards an American reconnaissance aircraft (an RC-135 Rivet Joint) in international air space over the Baltic on July 18th. Russia also claims to have chased an American nuclear sub out of arctic waters. That last one may have been made up.
August 11, 2014: Russia announced it will send in a humanitarian aid convoy to Ukraine. This resulted in protests from Ukraine and dozens of other countries who fear this is just a cover for a Russian invasion and annexation of Donbas. Russia has at least 20,000 combat troops just across the border from Donbas. Ukraine has gotten Russia to agree that there would be no “military escort” for such an aid convoy. Ukraine does not trust Russia because Russian leaders had lied time and again during this crisis which began in late 2013 when a Russian attempt to bribe Ukrainian politicians to block a popular effort to link the Ukrainian economy with the West rather than Russia fell apart because of massive popular protests. Meanwhile Russia organized a convoy of 280 trucks loaded with humanitarian aid to Donbas. This is being done in cooperation with the UN and Red Cross, in part to assure the world that this is not part of an invasion plan. The trucks are to enter Donbas today or tomorrow.
The growing list of economic sanctions on Russia are doing damage, even though the government plays down the impact. More Russians are feeling it and there is a general (and accurate) fear of an economic recession as a result of the Ukraine crisis. Many Russians fear the Ukrainian land-grab will cause major economic damage, to both Russia and the many foreign nations that have invested in Russia over the last two decades. Huge amounts of Russian and foreign cash has already fled the country and most foreign investment plans are dead or on hold. The IMF (International Monetary Fund) believes the Russian economy is now in recession. This is not so much because of the sanctions, but because investors (Russian and foreign) see the Ukrainian adventure ending badly for Russia and until it is clear that the outcome is otherwise, are getting their money to a safer place. The damage to foreign investors is even larger, with over a trillion dollars’ worth of foreign investments at risk because they consist of land, structures and equipment that cannot be moved as easily as cash. This is similar to the financial bath Western investors took a century ago as Russian entered World War I and eventually fell apart in a civil war and came back to life as the Soviet Union, which repudiated foreign debts and seized most foreign property. It’s déjà vu all over again. The more financial damage Western investors suffer the more reluctant they will be to return to Russia in the future. Since Russia has lots of development potential but insufficient cash to make the most of it, this lack of foreign investment
August 10, 2014: In eastern Ukraine (Donetsk) Ukrainian troops continued to take territory from pro-Russian rebels and are getting closer to taking the city of Donetsk. The rebels have asked for a ceasefire but the Ukrainians see that as a sign of weakness and an effort to give Russia time to decide on a plan to save the rebels from certain defeat.
August 9, 2014: In eastern Ukraine (Donetsk) Ukrainian troops completed their encirclement of Donetsk when they drove rebels out of the town of Krasnyi Luch. All the main roads into the city are now controlled by the army and desertions among rebels in the city are on the rise.
August 7, 2014: In eastern Ukraine (Lugansk) 15 Ukrainian troops died in several clashes. Much of the fighting was along the Russian border, where Russia continues to send in ammo, heavy weapons and other supplies for the rebels. Elsewhere in Donbas the Russian leader of the pro-Russian Donetsk People's Republic quit and was replaced by a Ukrainian born man who said he only wanted “moral support” from Russia. Locals reported that many of the Russian “volunteers” among the Donetsk rebels were deserting and heading back to Russia. The more pro-Russian rebels openly denounced all this as Russia abandoning them to certain defeat at the hands of advancing Ukrainian troops.
In response to growing Western economic sanctions Russia has retaliated by banning all Western food imports. While this will hurt some Western firms, many Russians complain that it will hurt Russia more. Naturally these comments don’t get much coverage in the state-controlled mass media but the story, with lots of embarrassing (to the Russian government) details are all over the Internet.
Russia has agreed to provide Kyrgyzstan with half a billion dollars in economic aid in order to get Kyrgyzstan to join the Eurasian Economic Union. Back in May Belarus and Kazakhstan were persuaded to join this new economic union with Russia. The Eurasian Economic Union will become effective in 2015 and will allow goods to move freely in all member countries without customs levies. Armenia and several other nations are also considering joining. Kazakhstan has also agreed to become part of a unified multi-national air defense system sponsored by Russia. Belarus has also agreed to join and Armenia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are also expected to sign on as well. All this is more than helping out a neighbor with their defense needs. This is the less violent Russian approach to rebuilding their empire. For over a decade Russia has been proposing things like customs unions, military cooperation and rebuilding the old Soviet air defense system that used to defend everyone in the empire. Ukraine refused to consider joining the union or air defense system and made it clear it preferred closer ties with the West. Russia took violent exception to that attitude.
August 6, 2014: In eastern Ukraine (Donetsk) near the site of the MH17 crash rebels killed ten Ukrainian soldiers in an ambush.
Russia confirmed (after first denying it) that it will go through with a $20 billion barter deal with Iran. Under this agreement Iran will ship oil to Russia (itself a major oil exporter) in return for an equal value of manufactured items. This deal violates the sanctions on Iran and means Russia will risk lawsuits and more sanctions on itself. Previously Russia denied this Iranian deal was being negotiated, then Russia admitted the deal existed but complained that the United States was interfering by threatening to punish Russia for violating the international sanctions against Iran. Russia will get the Iranian oil (about 500,000 barrels a day) at a discount and then export it along with most Russian oil at the world price and make a profit. Russia will ship manufactured goods at undiscounted prices to Iran, so Russian manufacturers will also make money. But Iran will be able to boost its exports considerably despite the sanctions.
August 3, 2014: In eastern Ukraine (Donetsk) pro-Russian rebels went public with pleas for Russia to send more military aid. The rebels are falling back as Ukrainian troops continue advancing, despite losses. The rebels always believed that Ukrainian troops would not fight so hard to retake the Donbas. But the Ukrainian government was able to rally and motivate the country to carry out a successful military and diplomatic campaign to defeat the rebels.
August 2, 2014: In eastern Ukraine (Donetsk) things quieted down enough around the site of the MH17 crash that international crash investigators got get some work done and also recover more bodies.
August 1, 2014: In Russia a new law went into effect that gives the state control over blogs. From now on any blog with more than 3,000 visitors a day must register with the government, providing the true identity of the owner and operator of the blog. Russia already has a bunch of laws allowing the government to punish misbehaving journalists (who say anything the government does not like.) While there are many ways Russian bloggers can get around this new censorship that may not be necessary. Blogging is being replaced by other forms of social media. That, and the availability of so many Internet tools to get around censorship attempts make the latest government ploy more of an annoyance than a step towards effective censorship of the web. Russia is trying to crack down on the Internet but is having limited success.
July 31, 2014: In eastern Ukraine (Donetsk) rebels and Ukrainian troops continue fighting near the site of the MH17 crash. The Ukrainian troops are winning and the fighting is expected to soon move away from the crash site.
July 27, 2014: In eastern Ukraine (Donetsk) 18 died in several clashes. The fighting continued to block access to the site of the crash of flight MH17. So far the bodies of 227 of the 298 crash victims bodies have been found and sent back to Netherlands (where most of the victims are from) but the continued violence by pro-Russia rebels has blocked efforts to finish collecting bodies and evidence of what caused the crash.
July 25, 2014: Russia has delivered more helicopter gunships along with other military supplies to Iraq.