Russia’s Escalating War of Attrition With Ukraine
The Donbas conflict moved into this most dangerous summer period with all attempts at meaningful dialogue hopelessly stalled. The two so-called Minsk agreements, reached several years ago, had stipulated a ceasefire, a withdrawal of heavy weapons from the frontline, and presented a roadmap for a hypothetical settlement of the conflict. The first Minsk agreement was signed in September 2014, after an unofficial Russian military intervention stopped the Ukrainian forces from fully defeating the Moscow-backed separatist rebellion in Donbas. The Minsk Two accords were signed in February 2015, with German and French mediation, after Ukrainian forces were defeated in Debaltseve. Minsk Two contained a detailed roadmap of a settlement, none of which has ever been implemented. All sides seem to agree the Minsk accords are essential and accuse each other of failing to implement them. The ceasefire continues to be constantly violated, and all announced attempts to withdraw heavy weapons from the frontline have failed as both sides tend to quickly bring them back as soon as any new round of fighting erupts. In 2017, Moscow, Kyiv and Western leaders seemed to all agree on a possible introduction of armed United Nations peacekeepers in Donbas that could possibly keep the conflict better “frozen” than the unarmed OSCE observers. But the idea quickly fell flat as opposing sides put forward incompatible proposals for the mandate and scope of any possible UN mission. Moscow wanted a limited mission of peacekeepers armed with sidearms, with a mandate to simply “guard” the OSCE observers; moreover, the Russian side declared that the separatist authorities had to officially consent to the mission—all absolutely unacceptable to Kyiv. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Glushko recently complained, “We received no positive response to the peacekeeper proposal we made in October 2017” (Militarynews.ru, May 9).
The main Russian negotiator on the Donbas conflict, presidential aide Vladislav Surkov (53), is reportedly preparing to retire from government service or at least end his longtime involvement as the Kremlin’s point man on Ukrainian issues. Since 1999, Surkov has been a deputy prime minister and has occupied top positions in the Kremlin administration. Surkov was reportedly instrumental in formulating both the Minsk One and Minsk Two agreements, which now seem hopelessly deadlocked; this may have been one of the reasons behind his possible resignation. Unnamed Kremlin insiders told journalists Surkov may have clashed with Russian special services and the military on how to proceed in the Ukrainian crisis. In any case, the pending Surkov resignation has already put on hold further possible consultations with the United States’ Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker, complicating an already dire situation (RBC, May 14).
The Kremlin-financed news site Vzglyad recently opined about the Russian strategy in Ukraine being in tatters: Hope that the deadlocked Minsk process will somehow lead to the disintegration of the regime in Kyiv and the emergence of a pro-Russian government is not working. Moscow apparently believed prolonged attrition in Donbas would undermine internal support for the Ukrainian government, while the West would grow weary and eventually abandon Kyiv. A special “ ‘tourist’ military strike force” has been deployed close to Rostov-on-Don, ready to invade and defeat the Ukrainian government forces if they move decisively to break the deadlock. But the Ukrainian regime is not “disintegrating”—its resolve is only growing stronger. So a major change in strategy must be made and perhaps some “peace enforcement” operation undertaken—like the Russian operation in Syria (Vzglyad, May 22).
The above-mentioned “tourist military force” is the 8th Army, which was formed in the Rostov oblast last year (Izvestia, March 17, 2017). The 8th Army headquarters are in Novocherkassk and are apparently in operational control of the two army corps of pro-Russia forces in Donetsk and Luhansk. This spring, the 150th motor-rifle division (also headquartered in Novocherkassk) was fully formed as the 8th Army’s frontline “strike” unit. The division is reinforced by modernized T-72B3 tanks and heavy artillery (Militarynews.ru, March 27, 2018). According to the Ukrainian chief of the General Staff and commander of the Armed Forces, Viktor Muzhenko, “Experts predict Russia will be ready for a massive war with Ukraine in three years, but we are ready anytime to meet any limited or large operation” (Kommersant, February 25).
Nether Moscow nor Kyiv seem ready to make any serious concessions to help unlock the deadlocked peace process in Donbas. Many observers have expressed the opinion that this deadlock may become institutionalized as a “frozen” conflict, like in Abkhazia, Transnistria or Cyprus (RBC, May 14). While mediators remain unable to ensure the Donbas ceasefire holds, the current massive flare-up of fighting and carnage strongly suggest the war of attrition will continue. And left to spin out of control, the fighting in Donbas could easily escalate into a regional Russo-Ukrainian war.
The ostensible reason Russian experts give for this step is Moscow’s concern about the terrorist threat from Afghanistan. Conditions in the northern part of that country are deteriorating, with the Taliban occupying ever more villages and towns and raising the specter that the war there will spill over into Central Asia and possibly, in cascade-like fashion, affect parts of the Russian Federation (Azathabar.com, May 18). At present, Russia has only three bases in the region—a radar site in Kazakhstan, a regular army base in Tajikistan, and its other base in northern Kyrgyzstan. This is a far cry from Soviet times and it limits Moscow’s ability to counter any military threat from the south or to categorically assure Central Asian countries that it can do so.
Kyrgyzstan has been pressing for such a base for some time, not only because of this external threat but also because of its problems with the Uzbek ethnic minority and Islamist groups in the southern part of the country (see Commentaries, August 3, 2017). Such calls from Bishkek put it at odds with other Central Asian capitals but make it easier for Moscow to move forward with the establishment of a new base. And even if Russian calculations are focused beyond the borders of Kyrgyzstan—as they almost certainly are—Bishkek will be pleased to have such a base and will thus likely prove to be an even more reliable ally for Moscow than it has been in the past.
Moscow-based military analyst Igor Shestakov, in fact, sees the Kyrgyzstani dimension of this decision as far smaller than Russia’s broader geopolitical concerns—and not just about Afghanistan. Instead, he argues that a second Russian base in the Kyrgyz Republic is actually about Russia’s position in Central Asia as a whole and about Moscow’s need to please Beijing by fighting terrorism there lest it spread into China’s restive Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang, all while limiting Chinese influence in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia (StanRadar.com, May 18, 2018).
Russian influence in Central Asia has been declining since 1991, with the region’s five republics increasingly turning away from Moscow in search of economic and political ties with China and/or the West. With the exception of Kyrgyzstan, all have moved away from Russia in linguistic (see EDM, October 12, 2017) and cultural terms as well as political ones. The major nexus that still remains between Moscow and these states is their need to send hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to Russia to earn money. Establishing a Russian base in Kyrgyzstan now, Shestakov argued, is a way to send a message not just to Bishkek but to the other Central Asian capitals that Russia is back and far more important to them than China or the United States can or will ever be.
China poses a particular challenge for Russia in Central Asia, and a new base may help Moscow resolve it. On the one hand, China has dramatically expanded its economic and political positions in the region over the last decade, something Moscow and an increasing number of Central Asians would like to counter. Opening a new military base is a traditional way of laying down a marker that China’s influence will only be allowed to increase so far. But on the other hand, China may in fact be pleased by the opening of this Russian base if, as advertised, it is involved with counter-terrorism. Beijing faces a rising tide of Islamist activism in Xinjiang and will likely view such a base as providing it with assistance (Golosislama.com, May 23).
But it may be the last element in Moscow’s calculation—countering the United States and enhancing Russia’s position as the lead arbiter in Afghanistan—that could be the most important factor. Last weekend, as was widely reported in the Moscow media, Russian diplomats discussed with their counterparts in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) the possibility of resolving the Afghanistan conflict without the involvement of the US (Tsargrad.tv, May 22). Setting up a new base in the coming weeks will underscore Russia’s role and aspirations there, especially at a time when Washington appears to be looking in other directions and may welcome any development that allows it to withdraw its forces.
Indeed, a new Russian base will call attention to what Moscow views as Washington’s retreat from this part of the world. From 2001 to 2014, the US had a base in Kyrgyzstan, but it closed it down in response to demands from Bishkek, with the support of Moscow (RIA Novosti, February 3, 2009). Opening a new Russian base there will only underline what Moscow views as a genuine shift in the regional balance of power.
The First Republic, as it is often referred to domestically, survived for only 23 months, before Moscow took control of Azerbaijan and subsequently incorporated it into the Soviet Union as one its constituent republics. Despite its short existence, the legacy of this concerted national attempt at sovereignty and democratic governance remained a cornerstone of contemporary Azerbaijan and a critical factor in the formation of Azerbaijani national identity. Namely, the concept of secularism enshrined in the First Republic continues to be an uncontested principle of every government since Azerbaijan regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
One of the most remarkable legislative acts passed by the ADR’s parliament was an election law based on universal suffrage—thus, giving women the right to vote in elections before many Western European countries and the United States did. The law allowed all political parties to compete in elections and gain proportional representation in parliament. The rich and diverse political culture at the time was reflected in the inclusive nature of parliament that comprised all major political groups as well as representatives of local minorities—Armenians and Russians.
However, the First Republic did not exist in a vacuum; both Turkey and Russia, fighting on opposite sides during World War One, contested the region while emerging from their own imperial past. Moreover, independence for Azerbaijan and its neighbors, Georgia and Armenia, was accompanied by ethnic tensions, contested territories, and a constant state of conflict—which they tried to resolve by gaining formal recognition from European powers. While the South Caucasus states failed to achieve this recognition at the Paris Peace Conference, the Allies extended de facto recognition to Azerbaijan in the last moment before Bolshevik forces overran the South Caucasus: specifically, in 1918, Azerbaijan was granted jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh by the British military governor of Baku.
This legacy of territorial conflict persisted largely under the surface for the next century, eventually—amidst the collapse and break-up of the Soviet Union—spilling out into the open in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent Azerbaijani territories in the early 1990s. As Azerbaijan celebrates the anniversary of its first independent state at home and around the world, the Karabakh conflict is entering a dangerous stage. The new government in Armenia, established through public protests against Yerevan’s political establishment, has heightened the level of uncertainty (see EDM, May 10,15). Azerbaijan has protested the visit of the new Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to Karabakh as an illegal act. The Azerbaijani delegation will raise its concerns during the July 7–11 Parliamentary Assembly (PA) session of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in Berlin, according to OSCE PA Vice President Azay Guliyev (News.az, May 23).
Pashinyan also discussed the settlement of the Karabakh conflict with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit to Sochi, on May 14, causing anxiety in Baku about the nature of any potential agreement between Armenia and Russia (News.az, May 14). Furthermore, the recent statement by the Armenian foreign ministry spokesperson, Tigran Balayan, that “Azerbaijan should realize that sustainable peace cannot be achieved without direct participation of Nagorno-Karabakh,” raised even more concerns in Baku. According to commentaries in the Azerbaijani press, if Armenia insists on the inclusion of the Karabakh Armenians in the negotiations, then the displaced Karabakh Azerbaijanis should also participate as they are both interested parties, according to the OSCE Minsk Group–adopted “Baker’s rules” (News.az, May 22).
Uneasiness over the Karabakh peace process is escalating just as internally displaced Azerbaijanis have started returning to areas that were held by Armenia until April 2016, when Azerbaijani troops dislodged Armenian forces in the so-called “four-day war.” About 20 square kilometers of territory returned to Azerbaijani government control, and the construction of new homes and other buildings started immediately (Al Jazeera.com, May 23). This new development is a stark contrast to the desolation evident in Karabakh and seven Azerbaijani districts occupied by Armenian forces since major fighting diminished in 1994.
The 100th anniversary of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic succeeded in attracting significant international attention, including a statement by United States President Donald Trump that underscored the beneficial cooperation between Baku and Washington in counter-terrorism and energy development. “The coming months bring opportunities to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which would create even more possibilities for US-Azerbaijani cooperation,” President Trump said in a letter to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, adding that the United States looks forward to working with Azerbaijan within the OSCE Minsk Group (Azertag.az, May 24).
These staff changes garnered little interest both inside and outside the country. Interestingly, even the minister of defense, Colonel General Saken Zhasuzakov initially expressed no comments or public support for the changes; though he had approved this decision during his meeting with President Nazarbayev a weak earlier. On April 23, however, during Defense Minister Zhasuzakov’s working trip to visit the military garrisons in the cities of Karagandy, Almaty and Guards, he officially introduced the new commanders of the Astana Regional Command and the Land Assault Troops to the local military personnel (Sarbaz.kz, April 23), noting their skills and professional leadership. No ceremony of this kind happened with the new commander-in-chief of the Navy.
Most of these recent appointments fit a standard pattern of service promotions. The conspicuous exceptions were the Navy’s former commander-in-chief, Vice Admiral Zhanzakov, as well as the previous commander of the Missile Troops and Artillery, Major General Lut Alchekenov. These two officers were removed from leadership positions, with no further rotations announced for them.
Additionally, Kazakhstan’s Armed Forces follow a standard procedure for rotating commanders of the country’s four regional commands—Astana, South, West and East. The Current Astana Regional Command head, Major General Adyrbekov, was previously commissioned to the South and West commands. Meanwhile, the commander of the Land Forces was last replaced in 2016, while the position of the commander of the Navy had not been changed since 2009.
The fact that these personnel reshuffles primarily affected the command of the Land Forces and the Navy implies that they were made with an eye toward fulfilling the provisions of the recently adopted Military Doctrine of Kazakhstan. The Doctrine specifically called for building resilient and capable Land Forces and Navy in order to protect national security and the country’s borders in a shifting security environment (see EDM, October 23, 2017). Indeed, Defense Minister Zhasuzakov has introduced changes to the military command in line with the national security strategy—that is, to strengthen border management and territorial integrity. He has also been pushing new initiatives that will better support the social and economic welfare of members of the Kazakhstani military. Tellingly, Kazakhstan has had to contend with attrition among its air force pilots who left to earn more money in the commercial aviation sector (Zakon.kz, April 9).
The logic behind all these command rotations and reforms goes beyond routine personnel replacement or reactionary fixes. President Nazarbayev has long emphasized that Kazakhstan wants to avoid revolution or the kind of crisis situation and war that Ukraine has been experiencing since 2013/2014. In addition, Kazakhstan’s Military Doctrine specifically raises the possibility of a threat to the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty coming from Russia, which necessitates the strengthening of regional commands in the north-central oblasts of Akmola, Karagandy, Kostanay, Northern Kazakhstan as well as Pavlodar.
In December 2017, the Kazakhstani defense ministry changed the commander of the West Regional Command to better protect the country’s maritime boundary. Among the Kazakhstani Navy’s core tasks are providing maritime security for domestic purposes, protecting offshore energy projects, and fighting against piracy and terrorism on the Caspian Sea. The timing of the dismissal of the recent Navy commander-in-chief, Zhanzakov, is quite telling. He was relieved of command soon after giving an interview regarding security challenges and vulnerabilities of Kazakhstan’s portion of the Caspian Sea. Speaking with the news outlet Caravan, Zhanzakov declared that the military potential of Turkmenistan’s Navy had already surpassed its Kazakhstani and Azerbaijani counterparts—to say nothing of the overwhelming relative might of the Russian Caspian Flotilla in the region (Caravan.kz, April 9).
At the strategic level, President Nazarbayev usually replaces his ministers of defense every two to three years. And the sitting defense minister, Colonel General Zhasuzakov, will have served for two years at the head of the ministry as of September 2018. The exceptions to this rule were General of the Army Mukhtar Altynbayev (held the office of defense minister for a cumulative total of nine years, 1996–1999 and 2001–2007), Adilbek Dzhaksybekov (five years, 2009–2014) and Serik Akhmetov (only six months, April–October 2014). One of the likely candidates to be the next minister of defense of Kazakhstan is Colonel General Murat Maikeev, a former commander of the Land Forces and the current first deputy minister of defense.
The Kazakhstani Ministry of Defense under Colonel General Saken Zhasuzakov has been working hard on establishing resilient and capable Armed Forces, creating favorable and attractive conditions for service (including military education and social and economic benefits, like better wages, housing and medical insurance), as well as enhancing the prestige of the military. But despite these positive steps, concerns remain among the political leadership that too little progress had been achieved to date on strategic planning and implementing the newly adopted military doctrine. The leadership reshuffles in the Armed Forces should thus be seen as part of the efforts to complement the defense ministry plans to improve the country’s ability to withstand unstable geopolitical changes within its neighborhood.