Wesley K. Clark (Ret.)
Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander
March 30, 2015
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The Kremlin has been waging a covert, hybrid war against Ukraine since February of 2014. In this war, Moscow has used a combination of local separatist forces, irregular volunteers, and Russian special forces and regular (conventional) forces. Since the original Minsk I ceasefire in September and the Minsk II ceasefire in February, the Kremlin-directed forces have taken additional territory.
The team consisted of General Wesley K. Clark (Ret.), former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, Lieutenant General Patrick M. Hughes (Ret.), former Director, Defense Intelligence Agency, and Lieutenant General John S. Caldwell (Ret.), former Army Research, Development and Acquisition Chief. The team met with senior civilian and military officials, including Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Ukrainian Chief of the General Staff Viktor Muzhenko, US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, and Ukrainian ministers, parliamentarians, and leaders at all levels of the military, both in Kyiv and in the operational area.
The form of warfare currently undertaken by aggressor forces in Ukraine is a hybrid-heavy form of warfare -- a new model not seen before. Despite political and media commentary to the contrary, the fighting in Ukraine is not a civil war driven by Ukrainian separatists. It is a war directed, financed, and supplied by the Kremlin that also exploits the discontent of some of the population of the Donbas.
The idea that Ukraine is helpless against Russian aggression is wrong and should be refuted, but, on balance, Ukraine’s capabilities are woefully inadequate.
Ukraine Is Marshalling All Available Resources
The Ukrainian government has adequately marshalled the resources it has, but Ukrainian forces are arrayed against a much stronger aggressor. Ukrainians are mobilizing under conscription. Some forty-one thousand troops have been mobilized thus far. New forces are being rudimentarily trained and sent into the operational area for further training during this cease-fire.
Russian Forces Are More Numerous and Technologically Advanced
Ukrainians do well against the separatists and irregulars but cannot withstand direct engagement with Russian regular forces, who are heavily involved in the fighting in Ukraine’s east. According to estimates, some nine thousand Russian Federation personnel and thirty to thirty-five thousand separatist fighters are in eastern Ukraine. These forces include some four hundred tanks and seven hundred pieces of artillery, including rocket launchers. Another approximately fifty thousand Russian military personnel are located along or near Russia’s border with Ukraine. A further fifty thousand Russian personnel are located in Crimea.
Russian forces use very advanced weapons systems -- tanks, artillery and mortars, air defense systems, helicopters, secure communications, electronic countermeasures, communications intelligence, imagery systems, satellite-borne systems, and other tactical and operational capabilities.
Ukrainians Are Missing Key Capabilities
Ukraine is using old “Soviet-era” equipment combined with limited numbers of modern equipment and capabilities. Ukrainian forces are at a huge military equipment shortage:
Ukrainian forces expect attack within the next sixty days. This assessment is based on geographic imperatives, the ongoing pattern of Russian activity, and an analysis of Russian actions, statements, and Putin’s psychology to date.
By itself, Ukraine will not be able to stop the aggression. Ukraine needs immediate military assistance in seven critical areas:
In the old days of the post-Cold War world, the U.S. learned the hard way that when we could make a difference, we should. In Rwanda, we didn't, and 800,000 died. In Bosnia, we tarried, and more than 100,000 died and 2 million were displaced before we acted. It's time to take those lessons and now act in Ukraine.
In the Balkans in 1991, we let the Europeans lead with diplomacy to halt Serb aggression disguised as ethnic conflict. Diplomacy failed. We supported the Europeans when they asked for United Nations peacekeepers, from Britain, France, Sweden and even Bangladesh. That also failed. Only when the U.S. took the lead and applied military power to reinforce diplomacy did we halt the conflict. And we did succeed in ending it with minimal expense and without losing a single soldier.
In Ukraine today, Russian-backed forces continue to reinforce and attack Ukrainian positions. The Minsk II agreement that calls for a cease-fire, pullback of heavy weapons, and withdrawal of foreign forces hasn't been implemented. Losses on both sides are heavy, far heavier than publicly acknowledged. Russia is using its newest equipment -- tanks, long range rockets, cluster munitions, drones, electronic warfare -- to slowly grind away Ukrainian forces that lack modern equipment. Russia, of course, still denies its troops are present: This is "hybrid warfare," military aggression covered by the cloak of lies and propaganda. But, actually, except perhaps for a few stubborn European diplomats, there is surprisingly little dispute as to the facts.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel insists there is no military solution -- but, as in the Balkans, there will be no diplomatic solution until the military "door" is closed for Russian President Vladimir Putin. And closing the door is actually simpler than many would have you believe.
According to Ukrainian sources, Putin ordered Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian general staff, to seize territory out to the provincial boundaries of Luhansk and Donetsk by Jan. 31. Russia failed to secure these provinces in the face of stubborn and heroic Ukrainian resistance.
But as a result, Ukraine's forces are much weaker, while Russia continues to pour in tanks and artillery.
For diplomacy to work, the front must be stabilized. Ukraine needs the means to defend itself: anti-armor, counterfire radar, drones, night vision capabilities and secure communications. All this is readily available from the stocks of the United States, Poland and other allies. It requires no U.S. soldiers in the fight and no U.S. air power. It is not a proxy war against Russia; it is simple assistance to a fledgling democracy seeking the right to choose its own course.
The U.S. should take the lead now, as we did in the Balkans: Tell Putin he'll get some eventual phased sanctions relief if he halts aggression, pulls back and obeys international norms of behavior. The Minsk II agreement is a starting point, but Russia needs to recognize all Ukraine's borders, including Crimea. If not, the Ukrainians will receive all the arms they need to stop his aggression. This can all be couched in the normal diplomatic terms, and we can invite Germany to come along to deliver the message. In the meantime, we need to accelerate the delivery of the minimal assistance we have already promised and encourage our allies to immediately deliver anti-armor and artillery ammunition.
Some will say this won't work because Putin will simply reinforce, but there are limits to Russian power, even on its borders. After six trips to Ukraine, including meetings with the Ukrainian president and defense minister, I have come away impressed with Ukrainians' determination. They will fight hard. Meanwhile, Putin is still trying to disguise Russian aggression from his own populace. Russian losses are increasingly difficult to conceal.
Others say Putin might retaliate elsewhere, with a wider war, or break off cooperation on the Iranian nuclear weapons talks. But if Putin seeks a wider war, far better to find out now than when he has digested Ukraine and is on NATO's borders. So far as his participation in the Iran talks are concerned, he knows that this is his most powerful leverage. He's unlikely to throw it away.
As a senior officer who worked with Richard Holbrooke on the Dayton peace accords, and later as NATO commander for the peace implementation, I find all the arguments about Ukraine depressingly familiar. What is new is America's reluctance to understand and fulfill its leading role as the guarantor of peace and security in Europe.
Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has remained deeply engaged in European security. We recognized that our security depended on a free, democratic and peaceful Europe. During the Cold War, we maintained 400,000 servicemembers there to deter the Soviet Union. In the post-Cold War, we acted to bring peace to Bosnia and halt ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Today, our challenge is Russian aggression in Ukraine, contravening international law, threatening stability in Europe. We cannot recreate American prosperity, ameliorate income inequality, "pivot" to Asia, or deal with international terrorism without stability and support from Europe. Strategic patience will fail if we accept Russian aggression in Ukraine. It is time for America to lead.
Retired General Wesley K. Clark, a former supreme commander of NATO, led alliance military forces in the Kosovo War. He is a senior fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA and author of Don't Wait for the Next War: A Strategy for American Growth and Global Leadership. Clark's Ukraine trips were paid for by the Potomac Foundation and the Open Society Institute.
A report produced in February by the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs urged the United States to give Ukraine defensive weapons and $3 billion in military aid over three years in a bid to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.
- Strategic imagery and other electronic/communications intelligence that is detailed and timely enough to be able to provide warning of an impending attack;
- Long-range, mobile anti-armor systems, as well as the shorter-range Javelin system, both equipped with thermal imagery;
- Secure tactical communications down to vehicle level;
- Long-range, modern counter-battery radars able to detect firing positions for long-range rockets;
- Sniper rifles with thermal or night vision sights for counter-sniper teams;
- Modern intelligence collection and electronic warfare systems effective against Russian digital communications; and
- Any counter-unmanned aerial vehicle systems that can be made available on a near-term basis. The urgency here is driven by the pending Russian spring offensive. At the minimum, a palletized, emergency assistance package consisting of as many lethal components as possible should be assembled and pre-deployed for strategic airlift upon commencement of the Russian offensive.