It’s mid-winter, with temperatures plunging to five degrees Fahrenheit, but Russia’s creeping war of aggression in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region is heating up once again as Kremlin-supplied rebels attack Ukrainians defending the town of Avdiivka.
Despite the Minsk Protocol ceasefire of September 2014, the Kremlin’s Ukraine war has never ceased. It began in Spring 2014, an opportunistic follow-on to Russia’s February 2014 invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Then Russia annexed Crimea. The one-two punch of military aggression and territorial annexation by a major European power has a tragic historical record. The combination tends to produce Continent-wide mass slaughter.
Creeping war is designed to avoid major war by creating the perception that aggression is incidental. Thus the Kremlin fights in flickers, keeping it on media backburners until the time comes for it to briefly flare.
During a flare-phase, pro-Kremlin forces usually seize another neighborhood. This suggests that the rebels and their advisers were intended to conduct local offensive operations, taking little nibbles of terrain. The nibbles matter in Kiev and Warsaw and the Baltic nations, but elsewhere they don’t rate sustained attention. If eyebrows rise, the fighting wanes and conveniently subsides.
A propaganda campaign based on plausible deniability and vicious counter-accusation accompanies flare-phase offensives. Propagandists are information warfare agents tasked with creating psychological fog and smoke screens to mask the creeping war. One tried and true technique is accusing the other side of starting the firefight. Should cell phone video provided by a civilian caught in the crossfire later prove the rebels started the fracas, well, they now control their desired objective. It is a new fact on the battleground, soon to be fortified. Oh, yes — the aggressors now promise to respect the ceasefire they ignored. New negotiations are imminent!
The October 2016 surge in Donbas combat followed this script. After weeks of relative dormancy, international observers reported a surge rebel violations of the Minsk ceasefire agreement. The rebels employed heavy weapons. By mid-November, defense analysts concluded that the number of rebel attacks launched in October was roughly twice the number launched in September.
The October surge occurred during a major media distraction: the hotly contested U.S. presidential election.
Following this script, Russia’s Ukraine adventure has remained below the headlines and off major media radar — just the way Russian president Vladimir Putin wants it.
Armed opponents with guts and stamina can stop a creeping war, if they have courageous leaders who possess a clear understanding of the stakes. A creeping war wager bets, however, he won’t encounter such leaders, not in decadent western Europe and not in post-Iraq Washington.
So far, the Kremlin’s bet has paid off. After Crimea, the Obama Administration imposed economic sanctions, sanctions which hurt Russia, but the Kremlin knew President Barack Obama was a feckless character.
At the moment Avdiivka rates headlines. The rebels are shelling the town with Russian-type rockets. The latest surge in combat follows a highly touted phone conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the new president of the United States, Donald Trump. Trump has said he respects Putin as a leader.
The Avdiivka attack certainly looks like the Kremlin’s first probe of the Trump Administration. Putin wants to know if he can continue to wage slow war while reviving his economy. Low oil prices have forced budget cuts. The Ukraine adventure has been costly, but Putin still appears to believe he will benefit if he can make the Donbas Russian.
Trump has proved to be a master of perception. If he can smile at Putin — and avoid direct confrontation — while making certain Russian aggression exacts stiff economic and political penalties, he will demonstrate he can handle the art of diplomacy as well as art of the deal.