Things are really heating up in Eastern Ukraine right now. After weeks of mounting chaos, and in some case violence, many government facilities in the region have been overrun by armed pro-Russian separatists. After days of looking for a way around military intervention, Kiev has launched a large military "anti-terrorist" operation, the full scope of which is still not fully known.
There have been widespread sightings of Ukrainian Su-27, MiG-29 and Su-25 aircraft over the eastern city of Kramatorsk. Some reports say that these aircraft, circling low overhead, had fired on the airport, which was also said to have come under separatist control in the last couple of weeks. Meanwhile, Ukrainian special forces massed outside of the city and then assaulted the airport via a helicopter (Mi-8) raid. Ukraine has now gained back control of this facility, but there are already demonstrations at its gate. Reports have also surfaced saying that a Ukrainian SU-27 Flanker was shot down during its low level patrols over the area.
It is very possible that a Flanker, or some other Ukrainian aircraft, could have come down during the operation. Man portable air defense systems (MANPADS), otherwise known as shoulder fired surface to air missiles, may have been captured or supplied to the separatists holding the airfield. Additionally, it is not clear exactly why this particular airfield was of such a high priority for Ukrainian forces, as it was struck first. It would not be beyond the realm of possibility that Russian Spetsnaz operators, or other clandestine paramilitary soldiers, are working around and among separatists forces and may have been setting up a rallying point or a command and control center at the airport. Needless to say a small airbase is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the amount of government facilities and public areas that are being held by pro-Russian forces. As Ukrainian armor continues to roll east, there have already been deadly confrontations between the Ukrainian military and opposition forces.
If an aircraft did indeed go down during yesterday's operations, an equally if not much more likely possibility is that small arms or rudimentary anti-aircraft cannon fire could have brought down a low and slow flying jet. Also, the Ukrainian Air Force is not known for its advanced state of readiness. Flying a complex fighter aircraft at low level over urban terrain, especially for prolonged periods of time, while also employing the aircraft's weapon systems has its hazards aside from enemy action. These include bird strikes, aircrew task saturation and mechanical failure, for which there is little time to recover from at low altitude. Also, the Su-27 or the MiG-29 is not really at home as a low altitude close air support aircraft. It can do the job but it would normally return back to medium altitudes after making its attack runs. Both of these aircraft's primary role is counter air operations, so they have little traditional use flying around slowly at a couple hundred feet off the ground. In other words, Ukraine's use of these assets in such a manner is puzzling and may lend itself toward more of a psychological warfare mission than an air combat one.
Even though this rumored downing of a Ukrainian fighter aircraft still remains to be verified, the chances of it occurring due to direct action from Russian fighter aircraft is unlikely as the Kramatorsk airfield is almost one hundred miles from the Russian border. If a Russian Su-27, or its advanced Su-30SM derivative that are known to be deployed in force to the region, were to have caused this incident, that attack would have had to come from Ukrainian airspace.
Russian surface to air missile (SAM) forces that have been deployed along the border could reach far into Ukrainian territory, although targeting and engaging a low flying aircraft at that range would be problematic. The existence of advanced Russian SAMs along the border also may be an answer as to why Ukrainian Flankers were flying so low as high altitudes could have theoretically put them at risk of Russian SAM batteries.
Additional aerial movements were recorded around Eastern Ukraine, to include a low flying MiG-29 said to be operating around Kramatorsk (seen above), as well as a Mi-24 Hind and an Mi-8 flying over Donetsk. In addition, a fleet of Mi-8s appear to be part of the Ukrainian force attempting to regain control of the area. Then there is the video below that supposedly shows a Ukrainian tank stopped by angry citizens. Many additional pictures and reports illustrate large columns of Ukrainian troops and armor making its way past checkpoints and into the area.
As Kiev's forces push deeper into the eastern portion of their country it remains unclear how Russia will react. Would the fragile government's heavy handed actions towards pro-Russian forces give Putin the context he needs to invade? He has said over and over again that he retains the right to intervene on the behalf of Russian speaking people. Or will the thought of an all out war directly between Ukraine and Russia be enough to keep Moscow's forces on their side of the border?
In other news, yesterday the USS Donald Cook, an American Arleigh Burke class Destroyer that had recently made its way into the Black Sea, was harassed by a low flying SU-24 Fencer of Russian origin. Although the aircraft appeared unarmed, these swing-wing attack aircraft do represent a substantial threat to American ships. They can carry capable anti-ship missiles, some of which have a range of nearly 100 miles, and can travel at over three times the speed of sound. This is just one of the numerous and layered threats posed by the Russia's Black Sea Fleet towards ships sailing inside the enclosed body of water.
The Su-24 that approached the Donald Cook was far from curious as it made a dozen passes very near the ship before it departed. A wing of Russian Navy Su-24s are based on the Crimea Peninsula and their primary duty is to sling cruise missiles at ships. With this in mind, you better believe that those were some tense minutes on the Donald Cook as this aircraft appeared on its radar scope and made a run directly for them without answering multitude of hails and warning calls.
Such a provocative act is not without incredible risk to the Su-24 either, as the Donald Cook packs an AEGIS combat system and dozens of anti-aircraft missiles, ranging from the long range Standard SM-2MR, to the medium range and ultra maneuverable Evolved Sea Sparrow, as well as R2D2's demonic big brother, the 20mm Phalanx Close In Weapon System (CIWS). The Donald Cook has also been upgraded very recently to provide anti-ballistic missile defense and thus packs SM-3 high-altitude ballistic missile interceptors as well.
Another NATO maritime asset has arrived in the region as well, in this case it's the French spy vessel F.S. Dupuy de Lôme. This ship is a signals and communications intelligence vessel, used to intercept voice communications as well as other forms of radio emissions, such as radar signals and data streams. Basically, it is a very good listener and will go a long way to understanding exactly what is going on inside and nearby Eastern Ukraine, especially when it comes to command and control. In many ways this ship has a more strategic role to play than the Donald Cook, and it will be interesting to see how Russia reacts to it, especially considering that it is totally unarmed. I would not be surprised if the Depuy de Lome has made its way toward the Donald Cook so that it can operate under its air defense umbrella.
Around the same time that the USS Donald Cook was getting its own private Russian air show, CIA Director John Brennan was attempting to make a secretive stop in Kiev. What exactly was discussed during Mr. Brennan's visit has not been made public, but I would imagine it has something to do with who the separatists are and how they are being organized. In other words, how Russia is actively working to destabilize the eastern part of Ukraine. It is clear that there is indeed widespread separatist sentiment in the area, but the fact that many of these paramilitary groups are so well armed and trained makes it clear that Moscow's influence runs beyond politics and into material and possibly direct action.
Brennan's meeting also came while the western world was looking at putting harder sanctions on Russia for its hammer and anvil approach toward Ukraine, although it appears that Europe is at odds with itself when it comes to this sensitive topic. Russia does hold a strong card beyond its slowly modernizing military, that of natural gas, which many European nations rely on for heat and power.
All this belligerence leads to some very serious geopolitical questions, many of which are downright depressing to ask. For starters, does Putin want Eastern Ukraine as his own? If so than what does that mean for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all of which also have sizable Russian minorities? Will Russia use potential unrest in these nations as a pretext to invade as well? What about all the other former Soviet satellites? In other words, will Moscow simply stop at Eastern Ukraine, or is there a much larger power-play underway? Could it be that Putin's end goal is to ultimatum former soviet states, especially those that are economically and socially vulnerable, to either become puppet like trading partners with Russia or otherwise face at least partial annexation?
If Moscow's tune does not change, or at the very least if it does not become more transparent, a nuclear arms race within the former soviet republics may become a reality. This possibility is especially valid considering the west's conventional disarmament that has occurred over the last decade, long after the fall of the USSR. There simply may not be enough conventional weaponry to go around in order to believably deter Russian engagement across Eastern Europe.
For instance, a single squadron of American F-15C fighters, of which the majority of one is deployed to Lithuania, equates to roughly 10% of the entire US inventory, of which the majority is used to guard our own skies here at home. The days of throngs of US combat aircraft, and ground troops for that matter, sitting garrison around the globe are long gone. Will the current and historically unprecedentedly sparse amount of military assets at NATO's disposal be enough to adequately alleviate the fears of free nations that could find themselves under threat of Russian invasion?
Then there is the Budapest Memorandum, which came to pass in 1994 and assured Ukraine that the US, Russia and the UK would abide by and ensure Ukraine's sovereignty and border integrity in return for them giving up their inherited nuclear arsenal. Although not a treaty, this accord has done nothing to help Ukraine during the seizure of Crimea, and has set a very negative precedent for other worried independent republics that sit on Russia's backdoor. If we gave Ukraine our assurance that their borders would stay intact and we did nothing really as Russia annexed Crimea, why should other nations believe all of our strategic assurances and promises?
With so much changing when it comes to Russian and NATO relations, the elephant, or should I say bear in the room is the following: are we entering into a new Cold War, one where the lines are less clearly drawn, and one where the Western World may be far less capable of providing the conventional military might needed to contain a resurgent Russian Bear that is high on petro dollars?
After more than a decade of wars, especially the one in Afghanistan which has parallels to Russia's adventure there, one that historically left the USSR in much weaker state than it was before it invaded, and a near depression here at home, has Putin picked the perfect time to begin rebuilding a lost empire, one that he sees as unjustly and tragically dissolved? The timing of the Olympics spectacle, viewed internationally as an overall success even with its smaller failures, and the rapid increase in Vladimir Putin's foreign policy aggressiveness seems oddly convenient for someone who clearly seeks greater international prestige and economical control. Considering he calls Steven Seagal one of his best friends, maybe hosting the Olympics, with all its melodramatic fanfare an revisionist history, was his sentimental calm before an elaborately planned geopolitical storm. Just remember that Mr. Putin's profession before his rise to near totalitarian power was as a KGB operative and eventually a commander, a position not known for its honesty or connection with reality. But for what KGB agents lacked in world view and the meaning of the word "truth," they made up for in the ability to stay steps ahead of their adversaries and to use guile as a means of distraction and subversion. So to think that all these events have just played out as a series of action and reaction is itself irrational.
I hate to leave you with so many questions that do not have apparent answers at this time, but I think the media has lacked vision during this crisis, as it seems that people are totally afraid of what could be unraveling in front of their very eyes. Then again who could really blame them? Let's just hope for the sake of the modern world that these questions are answered with diplomatic correspondence and mutual compromise, not high explosives and barbed wire.
The one thing we do know is that the last thing America or the Western World needs right now is another Cold War. Sadly, I think Mr. Putin is also all too aware of this fact...
Pictures via the AP aside from the SU-24 (Navy Photo), Soviet European map via Mosedschurte (wikicommons), Putin in uniform via public domain.