Chasing the numbers

IMF statement on Ukraine, yesterday –

Despite these positive developments, in view of the larger than expected economic decline in the first half of the year, the mission revised down growth projections for 2015 to -11 percent.

IMF previously published growth projection for 2015 — in August:

The 2015 baseline growth projection has been marked down to -9 percent (relative to -5½ percent at the EFF approval), driven by a delayed pick up in industrial production, construction, and retail trade, and expectations of a weaker agricultural season.

So in 2 months, from a projection already set over half way into the year, another 2 percentage points has been knocked off the growth rate, which itself is now nearly 6 percentage points off its original assumption. And that’s in a context where the eastern conflict situation has been stable compared to the earlier part of the year.

With the business news industry about to fixate on every number that is uttered in Lima at the IMF-World Bank meetings, it’s worth considering the shelf life of these projections.

Does Russia want Donetsk, or just to keep the conflict going?

The other day, someone on twitter said it felt like the news was working up to an end-of-season finale, a big finish for the longest running of TV shows. On Thursday, as Yanis Varoufakis and Wolfgang Schäuble were failing to agree on whether or not they agreed in Berlin, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande were heading in their respective Airbus A310s to Kiev and then Moscow. Diplomats must be delighted at times like this; suddenly the job is as important as they spend their time making out it is.

As it turned out, Merkel and Hollande‘s mission only resulted in agreement to look at a draft ceasefire implementing the Minsk agreement from last year, a document widely considered to be a dead letter. The new content in it seems to have been more concessions of territory to the pro-Russian side.

All this diplomacy was triggered by the Americans floating the idea of providing Ukraine with modern armaments. Back in Germany, Merkel was rather sceptical about the idea at the NATO security conference in Munich, saying variously that there seemed to be plenty of weapons around and that no amount of them would impress Putin. (There may be plenty of AKs, tanks, and artillery, but the US proposal focuses on communications and electronic warfare, and perhaps anti-tank guided weapons.)

In general, the level of anxiety about the situation seems to have spiked in the last few days. Hollande has been saying that he fears total war. You might well ask what on earth is happening in the Donbass if it’s not war, but the fear is that it might get worse, moving from a so-called hybrid conflict confined to the area around Donetsk to a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Carl Bildt thinks it is possible; Anders Fogh Rasmussen thinks it is possible; former NATO deputy supreme commander Sir Richard Sherriff thinks so, and wonders where the British prime minister has got to. (Good question.)

Here’s a question. Hollande and Merkel are working from the assumption that handing over a bigger area of territory to the separatists would end the conflict, and that their territorial control reflects the wishes of the population. On the other hand, though, they are also working from the assumption that it’s not the separatist leadership who decides. Hollande and Merkel didn’t address themselves to Alexander Zakharchenko in Donetsk, but rather to Vladimir Putin in Moscow. In a real sense, they clearly believe that it’s Putin who decides what happens there.

If the Ukrainians were to accept such a proposal, and offer to give up the whole Donbass, would Putin accept it? I am not sure he would.

A DNR entity of real size and contiguity, a Republic of Novorossiya, would be disturbingly big and independent, and likely to make trouble. It would, however, still be small enough that the Ukrainians might hope to take it back one day. It would also set a precedent Putin would hate – as well as orange-clad protestors occupying city squares in the hope of joining Europe, he would have to worry about sovok or natsbol types with AKs hoping to join the Soviet Union, as it were, by setting up their own novorossiyas. Insurgency would have become an option for his own constituency. Annexing it to Russia would be massively provocative and would pose the question of how to demobilise and disarm the DNR.

Further, if you want to join NATO or the European Union, the rules are clear – you have to leave your irredenta at the door. The precondition of membership is that you wind up any geopolitical conflicts you have open. Nobody wants to attach the trigger of the NATO air forces to a checkpoint dispute outside Luhansk – it’s too risky. So long as the conflict in Ukraine is not resolved, Ukrainian membership of NATO is ruled out. The little green men are the guarantee. On the other hand, a Ukraine reeling from the loss of the Donbass would be very likely to do anything at all to get under the NATO security guarantee for the rest of the country.

Just keeping the conflict going, however, suits Russian interests rather well. Anyone who has an interest in the matter has to go to Moscow first. Ukrainian NATO membership is ruled out. The DNR stays deniable, but also dependent, so the level of violence can be turned up or down as is expedient. As some people from Transdniestria turned up in Crimea, it could act as a pool of proxy fighters for use elsewhere, in the Caucasus, the Baltics, or against Russian dissidents. And the horse may sing; the option of a counter-Maidan movement based there is kept open, although the chances of that happening must be minimal now.

Polling seems to suggest that a solution keeping the Donbass in Ukraine has strong public support, including in the rebel zone, although it’s not obvious to me how they surveyed it. If it’s a matter of a form of words that grants Donetsk what might be termed devo-max within Ukraine, though, I can’t help doubting anyone would fight for that so tenaciously, or with such means – main battle tanks, artillery in such quantity that the shells are delivered by the trainload. And such a deal has been on the table for months. Clearly, it’s the conflict that matters, not any particular political arrangement, and it seems there is only one man who can call a halt.

On the other hand, arming the side fighting against what looks more and more like the Russian regular army is a frightening prospect. No-one should doubt that for a moment, and I imagine the Russians will take care to remind us on a regular basis. Also, we need to think hard about getting the Ukrainians some money before they run out of foreign exchange completely.

488 Not Acceptable Here

We were talking about Ukraine and the proliferation of SIGINT capabilities.

Now, we’ve got some facts thanks to Adaptive Mobile and the Ukrainian telco regulator. It looks like the Russians exploited the fact that they have SS7 roaming links with the Ukrainian mobile operators, and re-routed their targets’ calls to numbers in St. Petersburg.

After this year’s CCC, expect nothing but more SS7 exploits. It’s not widely known enough that this network, the crucial one for mobile telephony, is a default-trusting system. I have a nice little handbook Tekelec gave away with a full set of commands both for SS7 and SIP – I always liked the fact the latter has an error code for Not Acceptable Here.

Their Eyes Were Watching Vlad

Occasionally, representatives of Germany’s Left party (Die Linke) will complain about being tagged as the successors to East Germany’s communist party. Well.

As part of the German parliament’s debate about the budget and foreign police, Gregor Gysi, parliamentary leader of Die Linke, spoke out forcefully against further sanctions against Russia. He called them “absolutely counterproductive.” He added that they provoked Russian countermeasures and hurt the economy. Rational policy, in his view, would be to lift the sanctions immediately.

Not to be outdone, Sara Wagenknecht, Gysi’s first deputy, said that economic warfare with Russia was damaging and “playing with fire.” She added that NATO maneuvers and EU sanctions were making the implementation of a ceasefire in Ukraine difficult.

Russia and the Russian government are, of course, utterly blameless in all of these events.

Not coincidentally, the party’s history as recounted on its English-language web site begins in 2007. If I had their background as the unreformed heirs to the Kremlin’s stooges, I’d keep it off the web site, too.

It’s not like this was a surprise

Or, why reading David Remnick is nearly always a good idea:

I spoke with Georgy Kasianov, the head of the Academy of Science’s department of contemporary Ukrainian history and politics, in Kiev. “It’s a war,” he said. “The Russian troops are quite openly out on the streets [in Crimea], capturing public buildings and military outposts. And it’s likely all a part of a larger plan for other places: Odessa, Nikolayev, Kherson. And they’ll use the same technique. Some Russian-speaking citizens will appear, put up a Russian flag, and make appeals that they want help and referendums, and so on.” This is already happening in Donetsk and Kharkov.

“They are doing this like it is a commonplace,” Kasianov went on. “I can’t speak for four million people, but clearly everyone in Kiev is against this. But the Ukrainian leadership is absolutely helpless. The Army is not ready for this. And, after the violence in Kiev, the special forces are disoriented.”

That’s from March 1.

Overtaken by events

The draft blog post said to watch out for funny business in Melitopol and Mariupol, Ukraine. Those are the largest settlements along the coast between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, and sit astride the road that runs from Rostov-on-the-Don and the Crimea. Mariupol is the second-largest city in the Donetsk region, with a population of nearly half a million. Melitopol is also a crossroads: east to Russia, south to the Crimea, north to Zaporizhia and west to Kherson.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s daily summary noted:

By early evening there were reports of skirmishes between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine groups in Kharkiv, a tense standoff in Zaporizhia, and the occupation by pro-Russian activists of local government buildings in Makiyivka and Mariupol. Pro-Russian activists were also reportedly moving on the Security Service building in Odessa.

So let’s go with a quick scoreboard from this weekend and last instead.

Kharkiv: occupation attempt repulsed
Zaporizhia: tense standoff
Kramotorsk: buildings occupied
Druzhkivka: buildings occupied
Yenakijeve: buildings occupied
Makiyivka: buildings occupied
Mariupol: buildings occupied
Luhansk: buildings occupied
Donetsk: buildings occupied
Slovyansk: buildings occupied
Mykolaiv: occupation attempt repulsed
Odessa: occupation attempt repulsed
Krasny Lyman: disturbances

The buildings that are being occupied are local city halls, police stations and administrative buildings. That most definitely includes any local arsenals.

This weekend has also seen the return of the “little green men,” so called during the occupation of the Crimea because their origins are so mysterious that they must be from Mars. Never mind that they wear Russian uniforms sans insignia, have equipment issued to Russian armed services, and use Russian words that are not generally used by Russian-speaking persons who live in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s acting president has not minced words. In a live televised address, Oleksandr Turchynov spoke of

war that is being waged against Ukraine by the Russian Federation. The aggressor has not stopped and continues to organize disorders in eastern Ukraine.

This is not a war between Ukrainians. This is an artificially created situation of confrontation aimed at weakening and destroying Ukraine itself.

He also said that a large-scale counter-operation would begin Monday morning. Stay tuned.

Looking back at last month’s guide to revisiting the 1930s, further east:

Kharkiv, Donetsk: Sudetenland. Some real tension, mostly trumped up and stage-managed confrontations. ((Check.)) Pleas for “protection” from some parts of a particular nationality to the outside power. ((Check.)) Not fooling anyone. ((Check.)) In contrast to then, Kiev would try to defend the frontier region militarily. ((Check, as of April 14.)) (The great powers will not intervene, should it come to that.) ((Check.)) Whether that defense would succeed is rather an important question. There’s not a major defensible barrier until the Dniepr. Speaking of which…

Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporizhia: Poland. The great powers would not be able to overlook the dismemberment of a major European state. They wouldn’t be able to stop it, either.

Zaporizhia hasn’t seen much in the way of disturbances. Yet.

Also: Toomas Hendrik Ilves noted on Twitter, “After these several weeks, Europe’s M-F, 9-5 foreign policy establishment might perhaps recognise what’s happening next door weekends too.” Maybe all of the little green men and their associated crowds have day jobs, or maybe the powers-that-be on Mars have noticed that Saturday is not a big day for news, and are timing their operations accordingly. It’s not likely that they read John Scalzi’s blog, but he makes a point concerning publicity and next weekend:

But of all the Saturdays in all of the calendar year, the very worst possible Saturday to announce anything is the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. Because it’s the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, that’s why — the Saturday sandwiched between two major religious holidays, which means the “weekend” that week starts on Thursday and Sunday’s news cycle is swamped by the most important Christian holiday of the year — Christmas is noisier for longer, but Easter is concentrated. If you’re the Pope, Easter Sunday is great for you, news wise. If you’re not the Pope, not. …
If I were a crooked politician who had been caught murdering kittens while masturbating to a picture of Joseph Stalin, then the day I would choose to have that news go out into the world would be the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter.

That Western and Orthodox Easter align this year makes the news gap even larger. People in the wider world will not be paying attention next weekend. Don’t be surprised if the little green men are very active indeed.

Old habits die hard

Occasionally, representatives of Germany’s Left party (Die Linke) will complain about being tagged as the successors to East Germany’s communist party. Well.

Yesterday, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe voted to strip the Russian delegation to that body of its voting privileges for the rest of 2014, as a reaction to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. The overall vote was 145 in favor of revoking the Russians parliamentarians’ votes and 21 against, with 22 abstentions.

The German delegation voted 5-1 to revoke, with Yes votes coming from a Green, two Christian Democrats and two Social Democrats. The sole No vote? From a Left parliamentarian. Because Moscow, I suppose.

Continue reading

Right on schedule

Last night, I noted that staged takeovers of local government buildings in eastern Ukraine are

one of the shoes that everyone keeping track of the crisis has been expecting to drop (Odessa and the region that was known in the 19th century as “New Russia” is another).

This morning, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe reports:

RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service quotes local media as saying around 100 pro-Russians attempting to surround a government administration building in the southern city of Mykolaiv were thwarted after police moved in late last night. There were several injuries in the ensuing clashes, which also pitted the pro-Moscow ranks against members of a pro-Ukrainian group. (From their liveblog 0923, 8 April 2014. Here’s the original report in Ukrainian.)

Mykolaiv is a city of about a half million people, a major shipbuilding center about halfway between the Crimea and Odessa, along the main road between the two.

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Let’s hope the police and local authorities in Kherson are equally loyal to Ukraine, and equally alert.

Odessa, of course, is the real prize of the southwest, and not just for the nightlife or the film nostalgia. Odessa is also just a good day’s bicycle ride from breakaway Transnistria. These lands were conquered by the Russian Empire in the late 18th century, somewhat after the American Revolution broke but before the French. The Crimean Khanate had left them sparsely settled, and homesteading in “New Russia,” as the region was known, was a major development of the 19th century. Before World War II, it was a significant area of Jewish settlement. In short, the pretexts are there, if Russian forces want to meddle.

The second act of Ukraine’s test has only just begun.

Stress test

Reports from eastern Ukraine that pro-Russia (perhaps one should write pro-Putin or pro-annexation) protesters have seized local government buildings in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk. The protesters in Kharkiv seem to have been driven back. In Luhansk, they seized weapons from a local arsenal and set up barriers in the main streets; Ukrainian police have sealed off access to the town. (As well they might. Parts of Luhansk are less than 10km from the Russian border.)

In Donetsk, they have seized an administration building, proclaimed a “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” called for a referendum on sovereignty on May 11, and asked for Russian troops to come as “temporary peacekeepers.” Temporary until another annexation treaty could be printed out, one presumes.

Here is how the Russian Foreign Ministry reacted to these developments:

“If the irresponsible attitude toward the fate of the country, the fate of their own people, on behalf of the political forces that call themselves the Ukrainian government were to continue, Ukraine would inevitably face ever new difficulties and crises,” ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich said today. “Enough finger-pointing at Russia — blaming it for all the troubles of today’s Ukraine. The Ukrainian people need to hear from Kyiv clear answers to all questions. It is time to listen to these legitimate demands.” (As reported by the Radio Free Europe live blog at 1911 today, Kyiv time.)

Key phrases to note: “the political forces that call themselves the Ukrainian government” and “legitimate demands.” With these words, Moscow is again signalling that it does not recognize the interim Ukrainian government as legitimate. The Kremlin still regards Viktor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine, never mind that he now has about as much chance of holding that office as I do. As for “legitimate demands,” if you — as a government — consider someone who last won 4% of the vote the legitimate spokesperson of a region (as Russia did with Crimea), that is a very elastic reading of the word “legitimate.”

(As I write, the channel “Kharkov antimaidan” on is broadcasting live from the square in front of the administrative building in Kharkiv. It’s about 30 minutes past midnight, local time, and a great many people are milling about on the square. My Russian is not good enough to follow the narration of the POV broadcaster. Sometimes living in the future, as we do now, seems surreal.)

This is one of the shoes that everyone keeping track of the crisis has been expecting to drop (Odessa and the region that was known in the 19th century as “New Russia” is another). Not quite a month ago, I wrote that if Crimea was the Anschluss, the Kharkiv, Donetsk and eastern Ukraine are the Sudetenland.

Here’s my checklist from last month:

Some real tension, ((check)) mostly trumped up and stage-managed confrontations ((check)). Pleas for “protection” from some parts of a particular nationality to the outside power ((check)). Not fooling anyone ((check)). In contrast to then, Kiev would try to defend the frontier region militarily.

So that’s where we are now.

Ukraine’s acting president canceled a visit to Lithuania and described the eastern Ukraine occupations and unrests as “the second wave in Russia’s special operation against Ukraine.” US Secretary of State John Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the actions did not appear “spontaneous.” The White House has suggested there is “strong evidence” that some of the pro-Moscow protesters “were paid and not local residents.” The Moscow Times reminds readers that ethnic Ukrainians account for 56.9% of the population in the Donetsk region, 70.7% in the Kharkiv region and 58% in the Luhansk region. (Caveats about ethnic identification in that part of the world duly noted.)

This is a very serious stress test both for Ukraine’s interim government — and don’t forget, they are preparing for a presidential election in less than two months — and for the European state system as it is presently constituted.

How much of a revisionist power has Putin’s Russia become? That’s the most important question hanging over Europe right now, and precious few people know the answer. If indeed anyone at all knows.

The pretexts are all there. Will the Russian government and armed forces take them up and further dismantle a European state?

Territorial integrity

The UN General Assembly declares the Crimean referendum invalid, 100-11.

Russia absorbing Crimea will be the first time since 1945 that a country other than Israel has taken over a part of a neighbouring state and formally annexed it, other than colonial outposts. Some people are maybe not appreciating what a break with international norms that is.

A few of those annexations of colonies were a lot more brutal affairs than Crimea: Ogaden, East Timor, Western Sahara. It’s still a very short list. Iraq and Kuwait was very briefly an exception and was supposed to once and for all end that sort of thing (and end history).