Analysis |

NATO’s Media Offensive Makes Russia Stop and Think

There are no signs that Moscow has dropped its plans, but a prolongation of the military buildup on the Ukrainian border will worsen the damage to Russia’s economy.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Pro-Russian protestors wave Russian flag in front of the police headquarters in Slaviansk, April 12, 2014
Pro-Russian protestors wave Russian flag in front of the police headquarters in Slaviansk, April 12, 2014Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

As of this weekend, the Ukrainian government seems to have finally lost control of wide areas in the east of the country. On Friday, its ultimatum to separatists who had taken over government buildings in eastern cities expired, but it launched no operation to dislodge the gunmen.

On Saturday, buildings in more towns were taken by force. The organization and coordination leave little doubt that these people are inspired and directed by Moscow, similar to the situation in late February in Crimea before the Russian invasion and annexation of the peninsula. But Russian troops have yet to be seen in eastern Ukraine, and recent reports of an imminent invasion, based partly on Western intelligence, have yet to come true.

NATO is convinced that the Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders, now under way for at least six weeks, is no exercise but comprehensive preparation for an invasion. Since Ukraine isn’t a NATO member and most of the alliance’s members, led by the United States, have no intention of intervening militarily on Kiev’s behalf, the hands of the world’s most powerful military alliance are tied in the event of an invasion. Instead, NATO is trying to keep Russia in check with a media campaign.

On Thursday, the NATO press office published satellite images showing the Russian buildup, which includes hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers, not to mention attack helicopters and fighter jets, deployed at airstrips near the border. NATO’s top commander, Gen. Philip Breedlove, tweeted: “Russian forces around Ukraine fully equipped/capable to invade. Public denial undermines progress. Images tell story.”

The footage was bought from a satellite company instead of culled from military spy satellites, which allowed NATO to prove that they were up to date. When the Kremlin said the images showed a large exercise that had taken place last year, NATO published more pictures proving that the bases set up for Russian troops did not even exist before the beginning of last month.

Breedlove and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen embarked on a series of media interviews warning of Russia’s intentions. As Rasmussen put it, the Russian troops are not training but are “ready for combat …. We have seen the satellite images day after day. Russia is stirring up ethnic tensions in eastern Ukraine and provoking unrest. And Russia is using its military might to dictate that Ukraine should become a federal, neutral state.”

Russia’s threats are working. Kiev is hesitating to send its army to deal with the separatist rebellion in the east. But it also seems that NATO’s media offensive has made Russia rethink and delay any invasion.

The satellite images have helped Ukraine to better deploy its forces. And by proving that an invasion was long in the making, the images weaken the Kremlin narrative for use immediately after an invasion — that it’s soldiers were simply responding to threats against ethnic Russians by the Ukrainian government. There are no signs that Moscow has dropped its plans, but a prolongation of the military buildup on the Ukrainian border will worsen the damage to Russia’s economy.

The Daily Beast news site reported Friday that Breedlove, who also heads the U.S. military’s European Command, deeply disagrees with Washington, including President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, on the best way for the United States to support Ukraine.

So far, the administration has authorized only the supply of 300,000 army food rations, while Breedlove unsuccessfully tried to convince his superiors to give the Ukrainians advanced communication systems and intelligence collected by U.S. agencies. For now, NATO’s media campaign is the alternative to direct support for Kiev.

Pro-Russian supporters cheer during a rally in front of the seized office of the SBU state security service in Luhansk, 12 April, 2014Credit: Reuters
Barricades outside the offices of a state security agency seized by pro-Russian activists, Luhansk, April 7, 2014.Credit: Reuters

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