Streetwise Professor

July 28, 2014

Deciding Not to Decide on Providing Intel to Ukraine: The Negation of Presidential Leadership

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:57 am

The NYT ran a long article yesterday describing the administration’s Hamlet-like agonizing over whether to provide Ukraine with real time intelligence useful for targeting rebel forces. (For the record, I called for this in the immediate aftermath of the flight of Yanukovych. It should be an easy decision.)

One part jumped out at me:

“We’ve been cautious to date about things that could directly hit Russia — principally its territory,” but also its equipment, the official said. A proposal to give the Ukrainians real-time information “hasn’t gotten to the president yet,” the official said, in part because the White House has been focused on rallying support among European allies for more stringent economic sanctions against Moscow, and on gaining access for investigators to the Malaysia Airlines crash site.

There in a nutshell is the passivity of this president, and his negation of executive leadership.

An active and engaged leader would not be waiting for things to reach him. He would be demanding that a full range of options be presented to him immediately, if not sooner. This situation has been metastasizing for months. What’s more, in the aftermath of the MH17 atrocity, and the rebels’ ongoing use of artillery and MLRS systems against civilian targets, the suppression of their weapons systems is both a military and humanitarian imperative. The time for action passed long ago, but it is incomprehensible that 10 days after MH17 that Obama has personally avoided considering, let alone ordering, a reasonable, measured US action that would materially assist Ukraine to defend itself, and which would not put one US serviceman or woman at risk.

Also look at the excuse: he’s focused on the diplomatic channel. This is particularly rich a week after Obama flacks in the administration and media responded to criticisms about his fundraiser-dominated schedule by saying that he can multi-task. So, he can’t simultaneously push the Europeans and evaluate steps to aid the Ukrainian government? What happened to that vaunted multi-tasking capability?

Further, military and diplomatic measures are complementary, and need to be processed in parallel rather than serially.

Another thing that stands out in the article is the hand-wringing about “provoking Russia”:

“The debate is over how much to help Ukraine without provoking Russia,” said a senior official participating in the American discussions.

Look. To Putin, anything short of outright capitulation by Ukraine, and the complete abandonment of Ukraine by the US and the EU is a provocation. Let’s not forget what “provoked” this crisis in the first place: Ukraine’s temerity in moving to sign a trade deal with the EU. Continued Ukrainian resistance is all the provocation Putin needs. Anything the US or EU does will have the merest of effects on Putin’s insatiable desire to subjugate Ukraine.

That’s not quite true, actually. Continued passivity, and waiting for the USPS to deliver military options to POTUS, encourages Putin’s aggressiveness. Weakness and passivity are extremely provocative to Putin.

As to another objection-that disloyal individuals in the Ukrainian leadership will provide the information to Russia: this is a non-issue. Yes, such leaks could undermine the effectiveness of the intelligence, by permitting the rebels to move to avoid a strike. But if they are moving, they aren’t shooting. What’s more, given the realities of communication, it is highly unlikely that  truly real-time information useful for targeting could make it to the rebels before it reached the Ukrainian air or artillery units tasked to strike them. Further, attempts by disloyal elements to communicate with the rebels could actually facilitate their discovery, especially if the information is tightly compartmentalized.

As for the Ukrainians getting to rambunctious if they have better information, the US has the option to cut off the information at any time, and to place conditions on its use. If anything, provision of this intelligence will focus Ukrainian military efforts leading to less risk of misguided strikes on civilians or Russia.

In sum, this should be about as easy a decision as a commander in chief should have to make. But because he has clearly signaled that he wants to distance himself from serious involvement with the Ukrainian military efforts against insurrectionists, subordinates and bureaucrats are consciously choosing not to present him with the options that a real leader would be demanding from them.

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  1. “We’ve been cautious to date about things that could directly hit Russia — principally its territory,” but also its equipment, the official said.”

    But also its equipment? Does that mean they don’t want to damage Russian weapons in Ukraine? What does that mean?

    Comment by Gordon — July 28, 2014 @ 11:38 am

  2. Well, there is a potential drawback to this to consider: what if our intelligence is wrong? It had happened before: the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, a civilian object in Iraq and so on.

    Yes, it is war and no one is guaranteed not to make mistakes. But if Ukranian MLRS hits a hospital instead of the rebel position based our intelligence that happened to be faulty… it becomes our fault.

    Not that I am against the idea – this is the least we can do to help. But need to keep this aspect in mind.

    Comment by LL — July 28, 2014 @ 12:08 pm

  3. I usually agree with the SWP, but this makes me very nervous. At a time like this, we need things to slow down, not speed up. We need a drag on events. We don’t need to empower the Kiev Government more than we have, and we don’t need to give Putin any excuses.

    Comment by jon livesey — July 28, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

  4. jon livesey,

    you mean like the Munich pact slowed things down, so instead of a rash regional conflict we got a well-thought-out world war?

    Comment by Ivan — July 28, 2014 @ 2:46 pm

  5. Girkov held a bizarre press conference today where he boasted of killing six mercenaries of the “negroid race” (his words). Fascinatingly, between 6-9 Nigerian students were kidnapped in Lugansk last week.
    Most of us can go ahead and connect the dots-Girkov’s men murdered a bunch of Nigerian students because…well, they’re black.

    Also, rebel leadership is abandoning the ship in droves.

    And the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has released a statement damning both sides for indisciminant shelling, but the rebels for running “a reign of fear and terror”

    Comment by Blackshoe — July 28, 2014 @ 3:12 pm

  6. I share some of the concerns with Jon Livesey. While I support direct support to the Kiev government, there are concerns about battleground information. If there is inaccurate or out of date information, and as a result of that information, something bad happens – it can quickly backfire against not just the US, but Ukraine as well, if that information gets out. If this is simply general information – like satellite pictures – given to Kiev, and they decide what to do with it, if anything, I would be OK. I would not want some US intelligence officer making recommendations on what to target. I think support for Ukraine must be real, but at arm’s length.

    At this moment, things are going well for Ukraine. They are making strong strides against the rebels. They might even surround Donetsk and secure the MH17 crash site. That would only leave surrounding Luhask and securing the one part of the border that is still open in terms of major strategic objectives. Both the US and EU are lurching towards ever increasing sanctions; slowly, but progress is being made. Furthermore, Putin’s defenders in the West have been silenced by the MH17 tragedy, and the public outrage against him has decisively turned European opinion.

    The main thing that could hurt the Ukrainian war effort is not lack of US intelligence, but running out of money. Presumably some of the Ukraine troops would be willing to work without payment provided they were promised back pay in the near future. The oligarchs and volunteers funding the militia battalions would also probably continue to be in the field. But in general, you want to be sure the troops are paid on time.

    Comment by Chris — July 28, 2014 @ 4:57 pm

  7. @jon. We are not the ones with our hands on the throttle, controlling the speed. Putin is. We can’t put “a drag on events.” If we back away, Putin will speed up.

    Or I could put it another way. We have to be the drag on events, by making it more difficult for him to prevail in Ukraine.

    And as if Putin needs excuses. He has an infinite supply of them. I state with near metaphysical certainty that his actions are in no way dependent on what excuses our actions might provide.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 28, 2014 @ 4:58 pm

  8. Ivan: I’m not quite sure I understand the point you are trying to make here. It seems a little like trolling. If you can re-phrase it in a way that makes it relevant, I would be interested to see it. I don’t see the mere word “Munich” as some magic argument winner.

    For other people who genuinely want to understand, I am saying that it can be a bad idea for a major power to share too much of its assets with a smaller power, because then its foreign policy can be at the mercy of mis-steps by the smaller power.

    The US obviously has intelligence assets that are more the adequate for its own use. We know that from the way the US was able to identify the launch site and trajectory of the MH17 missile. If it wishes to share such specific results with Ukraine, and it sees that as being in the best interests of the US, go ahead. But it seems to me to be a bit risky for the US to supply real time intelligence capabilities to Kiev that could be used operationally in ways the US may not approve of, or in ways that carry risks for the US. For example, real-time intelligence that allowed Kiev to target in Eastern Ukraine or Russia without explicit US involvement.

    Comment by jon livesey — July 28, 2014 @ 5:02 pm

  9. SWP: There are certainly things we can or cannot do. I am just suggesting that supplying Kiev with real-time intelligence may not be the best thing for us to do. In a fairly explosive situation, you want a finger on the trigger, but two fingers may be too many.

    Comment by jon livesey — July 28, 2014 @ 5:05 pm

  10. At the rate of Ukrainian’s advance, if they have really opened up ground supply lines to their three brigades on the border and are about to cut of Donestk then the war is going more or less alright for the Ukrainians (Especially if they dont do something dumb like the Russians did in the first Chechnya war and rush tanks into big cities). The real issues are : Putin is clearly not going to let Ukraine embarrass him this badly, much rather have the US prepare for maximum action once the Russian Army enters the field AND quite frankly Ukraine is still poorly managed. In 2005 the US dropped the ball by letting an incompetent — Yushenko — and a Eva Peron wannabe – Timoshenko – destroy any positive development in civil society re standing up to dictators by ruling like populist corrupt morons. The US needs to have an actual plan on the ground to maintain the pace of Ukrainian reforms, and that includes preparing intelligence for a post-open warfare occupation in the Eat that is increasingly looking like Afghanistan in terms of number of armed, useless men with too much too prove.

    Comment by d — July 28, 2014 @ 8:42 pm

  11. >>Ivan: I’m not quite sure I understand the point you are trying to make here.

    The same point every sane person has been making since invasion of Crimea: Putin can either be stopped now, at a small cost to the West, or later, at incomparably higher cost. Those are the only options. He will not go away just because you don’t move and play dead.

    Comment by Ivan — July 29, 2014 @ 12:18 am

  12. @d-Yes. The most important operational objective of the Ukrainian army should be to secure the border, isolate the rebels in Donetsk, and let them wither on the vine. Of course, Putin and the Russian military recognize that too, and are likely to react in a violent way if the Ukrainians appear in reach of achieving that objective. You are also correct that the best long-term strategy for the US is to support the development of civil society, the reduction of corruption, and the strangulation of Sovokism. The challenge will be to do that if Putin succeeds in creating a frozen conflict, or worse, in the east.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 29, 2014 @ 8:53 am

  13. One thing to consider is that many of the rebels who signed up for this did so with the thinking that they’d quickly chase out the Ukrainian forces and get to puff out their chests and strut. They didn’t sign up to get blown away and be defeated. At some point, the morale of many of the ordinary rebels will collapse, leaving only a hard core remnant that will be steadily attrited. Do they have enough of them to hold any significant territory?

    If the Ukrainian forces can surround both Donetsk and Luhansk, and secure the remaining part of the border, I think a lot of the rebels will abandon their guns and run for safe ground. They’ll either go to Russia or if they are Ukrainian, go home and hope for an amnesty.

    In a lot of wars, fighting tends to be hardest right before the collapse, because the troops know the situation is desperate, but not yet hopeless. However, after the Siege of Richmond, Kerensky Offensive, Kaiserschlacht, Unternehmen: Wacht Am Rhein, or whatever fails, there is not much left.

    I can’t say I am completely confidant of Ukrainian victory because Putin might still directly intervene. An outright invasion of Ukraine though would completely change European and world politics in ways Putin can’t predict, but is not likely to benefit him. I’ve been consistently wrong on predicting his behavior throught the crisis, but I think he is looking to see if he can salvage the situation in the next two weeks, and if not, he may finally enter face saving mode to salvage something.

    Comment by Chris — July 29, 2014 @ 3:39 pm

  14. There is no face saving situation though, you cant go from “Ukrainian fascists are fructifying children” to “These guys are alright, look, most of them hate faggots like we do too!” And the one nice thing about European pace of decision is that undoing things is as hard as doing them, these sanctions are going to stick even if the East is re-conquered because Crimea is still occupied. The entire engagement was as stupid — starting from Crimea onward — as his response to the 2005 was ingenious. Why not bet that the same cast of inept characters will fail, even in the EU he has managed to subvert outright whole countries — Hungary’s PM announced the other day he wants to imitate Putin and rejects liberal democracy while countries like the Czech Republic or Bulgaria or Italy are easily and cheapo bought off. Unfortunately as he ages, the response his system generates becomes more sclerotic and inept, just like the Soviet Union, except the entire process is going to run through in 20 years of Putin’s rule rather than 70+ years.

    Comment by d — July 29, 2014 @ 9:06 pm

  15. >> you cant go from “Ukrainian fascists are fructifying children” to “These guys are alright, look, most of them hate faggots like we do too!”

    I’m pretty sure with the brainwashing and repressive apparatus currently deployed in Russia, it would be an easy feat. After all, Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.

    Comment by Ivan — July 30, 2014 @ 2:09 pm

  16. D – the face saving would be less that the Banderites and Fascists are OK than finding scapegoats for the rebels failure, limiting the damage to Putin’s prestige within Russia, and coming up with a diplomatic formula Putin can claim protects the Russians in Ukraine given the failure of the scapegoats. In short, someone needs to be thrown under the bus, and Putin claims victory anyway.

    It won’t make him look good, but it will limit the damage. The only other option will be outright invasion which I think is a real chance that contingencies need to be planned for, but dramatically transforms the war. The question is whether Putin is that much of a gambler, especially in the 100th year anniversary of WWI.

    Everything I’ve seen indicates Putin does not want to risk an actual war and seems exasperated the West just won’t hand over Ukraine like it “should” do. The question is whether he accepts the deal the West is willing to offer (guarantee Kiev will create some kind of protections for Russian speakers, and de facto, but nod de jure, accept the annexation of Crimea), or risks for more. Putin would no doubt prefer the situation as it was a month ago, but that no longer looks sustainable. He has to make a decision soon – which will likely be in 1-2 weeks as he sees the military situation plays out in the Donbas.

    Comment by Chris — July 30, 2014 @ 2:12 pm

  17. @Ivan-the 1984 analogy is spot on.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 30, 2014 @ 5:58 pm

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