Ukraine Calls Putin’s Bluff

As Vladimir Putin was taking over Crimea, I noted in this column that his strategy – using Russian special forces masquerading as and mixed with local sympathizers to take over key institutions, threatening full-scale war by asserting the Ukrainian government’s illegitimacy while massing troops on the border – depended for its success on his opponents fearing to confront him. Only after both the Ukrainians and the West put up no resistance did regular troops march in. I pointed out that sending in men in ski masks and no insignia showed that Putin never intended either war or forcible occupation. He had sent them to frighten rather than to fight. But, I pointed out, since Putin’s men fit the international law definition of unlawful combatants, NATO would have done well to encourage and to help the Ukrainian government to shoot them on sight. Putin would have withdrawn them. But the Obama administration and its European allies pressed the Ukrainians to refrain from confrontation, while making some deal with Putin to avert war.

Putin won Crimea, and started running the same exercise in eastern Ukraine. His men took over city and provincial government offices, airports and road junctions. His objective was to convince the Ukrainian government to grant special autonomy to the Eastern regions and to recognize Putin’s men as the effective sovereigns thereof, or to suffer a Russian invasion.

Recent headlines however show that things did not work out that way: The Ukrainian government, realizing that it could expect no substantial aid from the West (NATO’s military aid consisted of the US Army’s Meals Ready To Eat – not even the French Army’s rations-with-wine), and that deals with Putin under the circumstances would be tantamount to losing a war, decided to fight the forces actually arrayed against it with the forces it actually has in hand meager though they be. So now, Ukrainian troops are killing the “separatists” by the score (no prisoners being taken). Putin is taking the coffins back to Russia. With every passing day, as his semi-official infrastructure in Eastern Ukraine is being dismantled, he makes polite requests for the cessation of hostilities from and asks for normal relations with a regime that he had denounced as Nazi just weeks before. Meanwhile he has withdrawn all Russian regular forces from Ukraine’s borders. How come?

Putin is not the first to have run into paramilitary Covert Action’s inherent limits.

In a nutshell: paramilitary covert action can be effective as part of a larger strategy that employs all of a government’s assets, reasonably calculated to achieve success against whatever resistance the enemy might put up. But, when paramilitary covert action is used as a substitute for such a strategy, it amounts to bluff. A few men, exceptionally armed and able and inserted into key places unexpectedly, may be able to frighten the enemy into believing that it is about to be overrun. But the first truth of unconventional forces is that they cannot defend themselves against conventional ones. They work well amidst surprise and confusion. These do not last. The moment that the enemy calls the bluff, the game is over.

The US government experienced these painful lessons a half century ago. In 1954, it ousted Guatemala’s communist-leaning regime of colonel Jacobo Arbenz by training a small group of its enemies to set up radio transmitters around the country, which they pretended were the headquarters of rebel army units gathering force for an assault on Guatemala City. Meanwhile, US government spokesmen were declaring support for the nonexistent rebel army and Washington’s determination to see the regime’s end. After an old B-26 bomber flown by the CIA had dropped a thousand or so empty coke bottles onto the city’s tile roofs in the middle of the night (they sounded like strafing machine gun fire), Arbenz concluded that the US had stacked too many cards against him and fled. The CIA, however, made the fatal mistake of disclosing the deception in a gloating article in The Saturday Evening Post.

Fidel Castro read the article. When a small force of Cuban exiles armed by the CIA landed at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 covered by a barrage of US government statements to the effect that it had America’s full support and that the end of Castro’s regime was at hand, he did not panic. He figured, correctly, that the US government had sent paramilitary forces against him because it did not have it in itself to mount an invasion. And so he calmly sent his army to take them prisoner.

In short, bluff works only against rulers who are unworthy of their offices.

During the Ukraine crisis of 2014, the US government performed at the level of the hapless banana republic colonel it had overthrown in 1954. Putin performed at the level of John F, Kennedy, while the Ukrainians are giving a good imitation of Fidel Castro.

Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University. He served as a U.S. Senate Staff member dealing with oversight of the intelligence services. His new book Peace Among Ourselves and With All Nations was published by Hoover Institution Press.

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