Note: I'm back in the USA, none of the following is from personal observation.
REPORTED PROGRESS IN THE EAST
Andriy Parubiy, head of Ukraine's security and defense council, reports progress in regaining control from rebel forces. In the two oblasts (provinces) with rebel activity, Donetsk and Luhansk, 17 villages are claimed to have been cleared of rebels since the cease-fire ended on Monday. Parubiy says that 23 of the 36 districts in these two oblasts are now under control of the lawful government.
Apparently, Ukraine's offensive has been at a higher level of intensity since the cease-fire ended, with substantial artillery activity against Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, and Donetsk.
Reports about war situations and casualties have generally been unreliable; if Parubiy's claims are accurate, this looks to be good news for Ukraine. While I personally regret the death and suffering resulting from this combat, I believe that Ukraine is doing what it must do, and indeed what any state must do when subjected to assault and invasion.
RUSSIA NOW ATTACKING UKRAINE ACROSS THE FRONTIER
Ukraine claims that it is under attack from points within territory of the Russian Federation. Ukraine says that Russian combat helicopters violated Ukraine's airspace yesterday, and warned that it will shoot down helicopters making such incursions. Ukrainian aircraft are patrolling the frontier in an effort to gather intelligence on the size of Russia's forces. After a brief period of draw-down, Russia appears to be moving its military back to the border in recent days.
LIFE IN THE DONETSK PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC
Whatever the political stripe of people living in the Donbass, conditions seem to be miserable there. I have read several reports that to ordinary people in the region, life under the "People's Republic" looks like chaos, lawlessness, and organized crime. Robbery, looting of shops, and extortion seem to have become rampant, and great stresses on daily life. For example, people claiming to represent the separatist government are reportedly going about "collecting taxes" at gunpoint.
Combat has damaged the water supply for Donetsk, so people now have limited supply and conserving water for drinking.
Tens of thousands have fled Donbass for Russia, or for parts of Ukraine outside the war zone. I don't think meaningful numbers can be obtained at the moment, but certainly houses are being destroyed as the fighting continues: some of the refugees may not be able to return to their own homes.
RUSSIA COMPLAINS: UKRAINE GETTING ARMS FROM NATO COUNTRIES
According to Russia's deputy Prime Minister, new NATO members that were in the Communist Bloc are sending their ex-Soviet weaponry to Ukraine. Oh noes!!! Sending arms to a freely elected government, to help it to defend its own territory against Russian invasion!!! How horrible!!!!!
From the Moscow Times*, an English language newspaper in Russia:
"International ratings agency Moody's has slapped negative outlooks on six major Russian lenders, saying that Russia's own poor prospects have infected its key banking institutions.
Leading lender Sberbank, VTB, Gazprombank, Russian Agricultural Bank, The Agency for Housing Mortgage Lending and Vneshekonombank all saw their long-term debt, issuer and deposit ratings confirmed with negative outlooks, Moody's said in a statement Wednesday.
Moody's set Russia's sovereign bond rating at Baa1 with a negative outlook last Friday, citing
increased susceptibility to geopolitical risk due to escalation of the Ukraine crisis and weak mid-term economic growth prospects.
On Tuesday, Moody's gave Moscow and St. Petersburg negative outlooks, again in a reflection of Russia's wider outlook, while confirming their ratings of Baa1."
I don't claim to know Russia's economy, but as a frequent traveler to Russia, I see the names Sberbank and VTB (VneshTorgBank) all the hell over the place. The downgrading of these banks could be a Seriously Big Deal.
* Moscow Times looks very good: not (yet) controlled by the Kremlin.
This is very significant news. Ukraine has been working on deals to obtain gas from Europe, but an EU official had taken the position that this was prohibited, as a breach of Gazprom contracts. Most of this gas would be Russian gas, not gas produced in the EU.
But yesterday, the EU's Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger proclaimed that the EU can do whatever it wants with the gas it purchases, including selling it to Ukraine.
Just a few days ago, I read an article quoting Russian analysts to the effect that such a reverse flow regime would cut Gazprom's revenue by 6% within two years.
Of course, Russian is threatening punitive action.
TUBERCULOSIS LEVELS IN RUSSIA AND BELARUS 'DISASTER,' WHO SAYS
From the Moscow Times: "Dr. Mario Raviglione, director of the Global Tuberculosis Program at the World Health Organization, or WHO, on Thursday called the high incidence of the disease in Belarus and parts of Russia a 'disaster situation.'"
Putin claims that he will defend "Russians" and "Russian speakers" everywhere ... excepting, of course, his own country. Obviously, he doesn't care an atom's weight about the Russian people. If he did, the rest of his life would be consumed with improving the many dreadful conditions tormenting Russia's population.
UKRAINE'S NEW DEFENSE MINISTER PLEDGES TO RETAKE CRIMEA, PROMISING A VICTORY PARADE IN SEVASTOPOL
Today, this is all bluster.
But if Ukraine stabilizes, and improves its military, I shouldn't like to be the officer responsible for holding the Crimean peninsula against Ukraine's possible reclamation by force. I don't think it would be an easy territory to defend.
Of course, if Ukraine some day were to take such action, Russia could claim that it is "defending its territory," but by international law Crimea remains UKRAINIAN territory.* Any attack or military movements from Russia into Crimea would clearly be one state waging aggressive war against another.
* Only five UN members have recognized Russia's annexation of Crimea, all of them extremely corrupt and all but one of them tin-pot dictatorships.
Overnight, separatist fighters reportedly abandoned their numerous checkpoints (Slovyansk is a critical road junction, and key to the defense of the Donbass region). By order of President Poroshenko, Ukrainian flags have been raised over the city's government buildings.
My favorite quote, from interior minister Avakov: "A significant number of militants have left Slovyansk ... along the way, our battle groups are greeting them. They are suffering losses and surrendering." I hope they find the greeting a warm one!
By way of background, there was no spontaneous pro-Russian uprising in Slovyansk. It was seized by militants -- both foreigners (Russian citizens) and Ukrainian traitors, because of its military value. It has been the stronghold of both fighters and weaponry in Russia's war against Ukraine.
I expect that it will now be difficult for the separatists to strongly oppose the procession of Ukraine's army south toward Donetsk.
See my post above: Ukraine's army now occupies Kramatorsk, Artemivsk, Druzhkivka and Konstyantynivka.
The Ukrainian army is finding civilians in Slovyansk in conditions of hunger, thirst, and fear -- fear partly caused by lying Russian propaganda, which told them Ukraine's army was there to harm them.
Valeriy Heletey, appointed as Defense Minister just last Thursday, is giving the impression of a guy who Kicks Ass and Takes Names (his background is in police work). Countering criticism that the rebels of Slovyansk were allowed to escape (obviously, some of them did), he said "The main column of militants which moved from the city of Sloviansk to the city of Kramatorsk was stopped. The armed forces destroyed heavy machinery, a great number of tanks, APCs and other machines. Over 30 terrorists were killed. You can go and see for yourself, and either confirm or refute my words."
Heletey also reports that the army is finding large quantities of weaponry left behind by the fleeing rebels.
REBELS DEMOLISH BRIDGES BETWEEN SLOVYANSK AND DONETSK
Two road bridges (just east of Slovyansk) and a railway bridge (not far north of Donetsk) were demolished today using explosives.
This is a textbook defensive military tactic.
I suspect that such demolitions will not long delay Ukraine's army. But they will add to the misery of ordinary people living in the region. I just read a quote from a woman living in Donetsk, saying that the rebels have brought them fear and war.
As I posted (above) on the 4th, I think it plausible that Ukraine can retake Crimea, that international law clearly supports their right to do so, and if Russia were to "defend" its "territory," it would be on the wrong side of the law and facing really devastating penalties.
Certainly, Russia will not leave on its own (anytime soon) -- and no other country will lift a finger to evict them.
So Ukraine has a stark choice: either push the occupiers out by force, or live permanently with the humiliation suffered every day by Moldova and Georgia. In Ukraine's case, the pain is greatly intensified by Russia having stolen almost all of Ukraine's petroleum reserves as well.
Personally, what I would love to see, is a statement by NATO to the Russian Federation: "If you withdraw all forces and claims on territory of Georgia and Ukraine, and refrain from all military/paramilitary action against other states, we will not admit any of your neighbors to NATO for the next 25 years, and NATO will guarantee the rights and security of all linguistic and ethnic groups in those countries; otherwise, we will admit Ukraine and Georgia to NATO on the most expeditious possible terms."
This would be absolutely reasonable: if Russia is no threat, there is no need for NATO expansion. While Russia remains a ravening wolf, NATO membership is exactly what its neighboring countries need. It would allow Russia to withdraw while saving face; Putin could "declare victory," saying, "see, we have protected our Russian brothers in the near abroad, and ended the threat of NATO expansion for a generation."
Unfortunately, I think NATO is probably too cowardly to do what I propose.
Whether Ukraine will make a campaign of force to retake Crimea, I don't know. But I make these observations:
1. Unlike the illegally occupied enclaves in Georgia, Crimea has no land connection to Russia, and despite Putin's fantasies about "New Russia," it isn't going to have one either.
2. Even if Russia builds its super-long $8,000,000,000 bridge to Crimea, sappers could destroy it in hours.
3. In reality, Russia's vaunted Black Sea Fleet, whose imaginary necessity to Russia is supposed to justify its theft of Crimea, consists of a handful of rusting ships -- one of the largest of which was scheduled for the scrapyard years ago. For Russia, supplying, reinforcing, or evacuating its forces by sea would be a very sketchy proposition. It is much, much cheaper and easier to destroy naval vessels using modern missiles, than it is to build them or to get them to the point where they are needed.
Air access is also an option, but I don't believe that Russia has ever demonstrated a strong military airlift capacity in combat conditions (correct me if I'm wrong), and all airlift would have to face Ukraine's SAMs and fighter-jet missiles. And remember, if Russia sent one fighter plane into Ukrainian airspace to fend off Ukraine's air force, they would clearly be making war against a UN member state and risking sanctions severe enough to put Putin in jail (or even the executioner's chamber) when the Russian people suffer the collapse of their economy.
4. For now, Crimea is dependent on water and power from Ukraine. Russia is working to change this, but it will take time, and the alternate supplies will remain vulnerable.
5. Though Russia has built units of elite special forces, who have up-to-date equipment and are presumably well trained, the regular Russian army (according to many military analysts) has been crap for years, and this probably has not changed. Although Putin's "green men" looked good in the invasion of Crimea, there was no actual combat, so nobody knows whether they fight as good as they show.
For these five reasons (I could probably think of others), if I were the Russian commander responsible for defending Russia's occupying forces in Crimea, I would be very nervous. Seeing the decisiveness of Ukraine's new Defense Minister, and the growing professionalism of Ukraine's military, my nervousness would grow day by day.
As I say, I don't know whether Ukraine will ever make such a military campaign.
I DO know, however, that if I were on the board of a Russian or foreign company, that is considering making substantial investments in Crimea and Sevastopol as RUSSIAN territory, I would have to consider that there is a substantial risk that these investments could be greatly reduced in value, or utterly destroyed, in the event Ukraine were to attempt such a military campaign.
This risk will be one of many factors standing in the way of Russia's wet dream of making Crimea a shining example of Russian superiority. If Russia really were superior, its own population and territory would would not suffer such poverty, illness, hideous social problems, rampant criminality, deadly pollution, limitation and violation of political rights, and disrespect for human rights as compared to any country in NATO or the EU.
On one of the local PBS stations here at midnight, they show a 1/2 hour news show from the National TV company of Ukraine with a program show called "country united" which reports on the fighting occurring in the eastern regions. It is in English and spoken by a young lady announcer who I guess is Ukrainian.
"has Russia ever demonstrated a strong military airlift capacity in combat"
was it not a Russian firm that was contracted by america for the beginning of the gulf conflict?
i remember it was said they were the only lot with this type of capability.
i believe the person who runs this vast aircraft empire was arrested in Thailand for gunrunning by the US in some sting not long after the gulf lift.
was chatting to a friend a few days ago whose parents live on the russian side not to far from all this,, she was saying parents are speaking of many many refugees, sales in land and apartments are in a bad place, and theres a very real feeling of war is possible.
I didn't find anything about Soviet airlift in the Gulf War (if that's the war you meant).
But I did find that I was quite wrong, the great majority of transport between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan during the disastrous Soviet war there was by air, mainly using their workhorse IL-76MD-90. These flights were subject to frequent ground fire, so Russia does have experience with this.
Even so, I suspect that such flights would be highly vulnerable to the types of weapons Ukraine could deploy in a campaign to liberate Crimea.
The Ukrainian military plane recently shot down by rebel fighters, with 49 dead, was an IL-76MD-90.
A practical question for Russia would be, "how many planes full of Russian boys can be shot down, before the Russian people turn against the government?"