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Joe Varner: The world watches as Russia prepares to invade Ukraine

Commentary

Europe may be about to witness its largest tank and mechanized infantry operations since the battle of Kursk in 1943. Russian forces are massing on the borders of Ukraine for what could be the final showdown between the two former Soviet states. Coincidentally, the battlefields of Kursk, where 6,000 tanks were used in the largest tank battle in history, are only a little northeast of the Ukraine-Russian frontier.

At the same time, Russia’s proxy Belarus continues to threaten the borders of NATO states Poland, Lithuanian, Latvia, and Estonia with masses of refugees. In a further ominous sign, Belarus has announced a surprise joint exercise with the Russian military on Belarus soil, and Russian units have started to arrive outside Minsk by train. Russia is also threatening to send military units to Cuba and Venezuela.

In recent days, two groups of three amphibious ships, each of the Russian Navy, have been sent to the waters off of Gotland, Sweden, forcing the Swedes, a NATO ally but not a member state, to rapidly reinforce the strategic Baltic island. The island is situated in the waters between Sweden and Latvia and has the potential to block Russian naval forces leaving from St. Petersburg and entering the Baltic Sea.

In a move to appear open to negotiation, Russia agreed to attend a meeting of the Russian-NATO Council after an 18-month pause. It took place on January 12 and ended with no resolution. Russia’s foreign ministry ruled out any concessions during the talks and said that NATO should return to its 1997 borders. The U.S. refused to withdraw troops from frontline NATO states and NATO refused to give Russia a veto over potential new members of the alliance.

Some observers believe, with reason, that this Russian military build-up opposite Ukraine is just an attempt by Putin to pressure NATO and Ukraine into making concessions to avoid war. They believe the economic situation, social unrest, and internal opposition to Putin at home could turn on him and bite him in war. Others believe Putin means business and that he has been locked into a course that means war because he does not think Biden and NATO will act to defend Kiev.

Right now Belarus is nothing more than a puppet of Moscow that could fall tomorrow, Russia has established control of Kazakhstan, and Ukraine is ripe for dismemberment—an opportunity, if seized upon, to finish what Putin started in 2014 in Crimea. He may never have a better chance of rebuilding the Russian empire.

The U.S. reportedly has intelligence that Russia plans to deploy upwards of 175,000 troops—or 100 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs), or self-contained combined arms units—against Ukraine for an invasion up to the Dnieper River that would include the seizure of Kiev and the entire Black Sea coast to Moldova. This would take place in early 2022—likely by February. That number of BTGs would represent two-thirds of Russia’s land power, and recent U.S. intelligence has suggested that as many as 60 Russian BTGs are already in place opposite Ukraine.

There is some suggestion that Russian offensive operations are being held by unseasonable warm winter weather that has seen the ground in and around Ukraine not freeze, limiting the utility off-road operations of tanks and heavy armour vehicles. As well, some 50 Su-25SM3 attack aircraft have been forward deployed, along with the 55th Independent helicopter brigade with attack helicopters, to near Ukraine’s borders. There has also been a dramatic increase in the forward deployment of logistic units from the Eastern Military District. The U.S. is reportedly monitoring the possible movement of Russian tactical nuclear weapons, although dual-use weapon systems like the Iskander SRBM have been deployed near Ukraine’s borders for several weeks.

Russian troop movements over the last several months have seen elements of the 41st Combined Arms Army (CAA), 1st Guards Tank Army (GTA), and 58th CAA on the move to the north of Ukraine. Russia is also said to be reinforcing permanently based units of the 20th and 8th CAA and 22nd Army Corps in Crimea to the south. All are units of the Western, Southern, and Central Military Districts. The Russian 4th Tank Division, the “spear of 1st GTA”, is reported now in Maslovka, 30 kilometres from the Ukrainian border. The 1st GTA’s equipment was also observed in Voronezh and is also receiving an additional Tank Division in the new 47th.

These troops are reportedly being reinforced by units of the Eastern Military District. BTGs are being drawn from the 5th, 29th, 35th, and 36th CAAs that have their headquarters along the Trans Siberia Railway, the main rail route from Siberia to Moscow. These forces represent a real concern as they are brought to bear on Ukraine.

Further, there is even evidence that Russian naval infantry are being pulled out of the Far East and being sent west. These units can be in place within seven days and are likely just arriving opposite Ukraine. Some units in the Eastern Military District are also being pulled off the North Korean border. This is far from normal. Very far. It is extraordinary.

It is important to note that Russia has sent Airborne and Spetsnaz special forces to put down the revolt in Kazakhstan, leaving its order of battle arrayed against Ukraine intact and allowing the buildup of forces to continue. Elements of the 76th and 98th Air Assault Division and 45th Spetsnaz Brigade as well as GRU Spetsnaz units have been sent to Kazakhstan and are the very same units that seized Crimea in 2014. In fact, General Andrey Serdyukov, commander of the Russian forces in the spring 2014 Annexation of Crimea, has been sent to Kazakhstan as the commander of the invading forces.

Meanwhile, the bulk of Belarus’ high readiness land forces are also arrayed to support Russian forces in an invasion of Ukraine should the Kremlin decide to do so. Interestingly, those Russian Army forces have started a fast withdrawal from Kazakhstan now that the situation is controlled. They are returning to their garrisons almost as if they are needed for a new mission elsewhere.

Russia has deployed a massive array of weapons systems geared to offensive operations, including dual-capable short-range Iskander ballistic missiles that may carry either conventional or nuclear warheads for a theatre-level war. Moscow has deployed logistic hubs near the Ukrainian frontier and on the route of the march of Russian armies. Specialized air defense, engineer, electronic warfare, and jamming units have been put in place to further erode Ukraine’s defensive posture.

Pictures have shown bridging equipment moving by rail, as well as road and tanks equipped with mounted snorkels for river crossings. Russian military field hospitals have been set up close to Ukrainian territory and on the route of march. Russia has published new regulations allowing mass burials of bodies and animals in times of conflict. Specialized vehicles for handling explosives and highly toxic materials have been spotted that might support chemical warfare.

Likely scenarios for an invasion of Ukraine include a mix of hybrid warfare and conventional warfare. Hybrid warfare combines conventional and unconventional means of conflict, such as disinformation, cyberattacks, economic coercion, and even assassination with both irregular and regular forces. Hybrid methods are used to blur the lines between war and peace and have become a favourite method of warfare in Moscow, mirroring the old Soviet-era concept of active measures used to subvert your enemy.

Not surprisingly, Ukraine’s government institutions were struck by a massive cyberattack on January 14th, 2022, alongside a warning from Russia that the worst was yet to come. Russia will likely move to find a pretext for war by stoking incidents within Ukraine and occupying Ukraine territory with their ethnic Russian population. It will then move to “protect” those ethnic Russian populations from “Ukrainian aggression”, moving from hybrid warfare to conventional warfare and invasion. There are reports that Russian military intelligence is going to stage incidents on the Moldovan-Ukrainian border with their so-called peacekeeping troops in Transnistria in a move to justify invasion and war.

Russia may also conduct a readiness test of its strategic nuclear forces to demonstrate the power of its strategic deterrent to avoid or negate potential U.S., UK, and French nuclear coercion. Russian ground units will likely move to secure Ukraine’s Black Sea Coast as far as Moldova to landlock the struggling state, ruin its economy, and secure a water supply for occupied Crimea now facing massive water shortages. Russia has shut down the Sea of Azov, ostensibly for live-fire exercises but likely as cover and a prelude to a naval blockade of Ukraine’s coast.

Russian forces will also move forward from the north and centre to seize the Donbas, Kharkov (home of Ukraine’s defense industry), and all territory up to the Dnieper River. This would dismember Ukraine and threaten Kiev.

The weather is now growing colder, favouring both road and off-road armour movements. The Ukrainian Armed Forces, while smaller than Russia’s, are not as weak as they were in the last showdown with Moscow. They are much better trained, battle-hardened, and moderately better equipped with anti-tank and anti-aircraft defenses and unmanned aerial drones that recently showed their value in the Armenia-Azerbaijani War.

But without direct outside military assistance and intervention from NATO and the EU, Ukraine will likely fall to Russian in days or weeks. Germany is reportedly expecting to treat 90,000 wounded Ukrainian military personnel, 160,000 wounded Ukrainian civilians, and to host some two million refugees. Canada has 200 soldiers in Ukraine as part of the training mission but has no plans to reinforce them, and only just recently suggested it was prepared to send weapons to aid in Ukraine’s defense without defining what those weapons are or where they would come from in our own cash and equipment-strapped military.

All told, Russia is poised to achieve its longstanding strategic objectives of bringing back the borders of the Russian and Soviet Empire while seriously eroding confidence in the utility of NATO and the EU.

Howard Anglin: The great epics endure in our small, local lives

Commentary

Taking an early train from Oxford to London last month, I settled into my seat and gratefully rested my eyes. If I slept, it wasn’t for long and I opened my eyes again just in time to see a small village slip by, a cluster of houses and the square tower of a Norman church. I consulted my phone and saw the name Cholsey receding from the blue dot that tracked my train’s progress across the map.

What had happened in Cholsey, I wondered, entering the name into the search engine.

The Domesday book records 22 villagers, 100 cottagers, and 15 slaves in the year 1086. Before that, it was an Anglo-Saxon settlement owned by the royal House of Wessex, a Viking raiding camp, and a Roman town with a substantial villa, barns, and a burial ground. There is evidence of an earlier Bronze Age settlement. Three millennia in three paragraphs.

Secondary sources filled in some rough details.

We don’t know much about Saint Wilgyth, but she was venerated locally from the 6th century, around the time the settlement, then an island in the Thames marshes, was called “Ceol’s Isle” after the usurper King Ceol. In the 10th century, a royal nunnery was founded as expiation for the murder of another King, Edward the Martyr. The church I saw from the train mostly dates to the 12th century but bears traces of Saxon masonry. In the 13th century the village tithe barn was the largest aisled building in the world, more than 50 feet high and 300 feet long. In 2011, the Victorian County Lunatic Asylum, once grim home to 1,000 souls, was converted to apartments.

The village has an outsize literary presence. Agatha Christie, still the best-selling fiction writer in history, is buried in the church graveyard, and future Poet Laureate John Masefield lived on a local farm during the first world war. The century before that is captured in an entertaining book titled Crime and Calamity in Cholsey: Life in a Berkshire Village 1819-1919, which chronicles four generations of theft, murder, infanticide, sudden death, riots, slander, debt, exile, marriage, adultery, bastardy, suicide, insanity, war, and heroism within the parish. I read it in an evening.

There was the Victorian curate, a godson of the King of Prussia, who fought at Tel-El-Kebir, seduced a local school mistress, and ran up extravagant gambling debts before abandoning his family and fleeing to South America; the four Ilsey brothers, all criminals, three of whom ended their lives more or less respectably in Australia; violent clashes between labourers and landowners after the Enclosure Acts put up literal walls between the classes; and the conscientious objector who went to prison for his principles, relented, and died of dysentery in Dar-es-Salaam. The reformed “conchie” is one of 41 Cholsey men whose death is commemorated on the village Roll of Honour for the Great War, out of 376 military-aged men in the village. His posthumous medals were delivered by post to his mother’s house along with a bronze plaque solemnly recording that he had died shitting himself in a distant port “for Freedom and Honour.”

What had happened in Cholsey? Everything. The cycle of life, death, and rebirth, revolving through seasons, years, and generations since before written history.

In the poem Epic, Patrick Kavanagh writes, with self-conscious irony:

I have lived in important places, times

When great events were decided, who owned

That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land

Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.

Raised in rural County Monaghan, the young Kavanagh wore his rusticity uncomfortably in the literary circles of London and Dublin, and the speaker of Epic is reluctant to compare a row between the Duffys and the Macabes to Neville Chamberlain’s capitulation to Hitler (“the Munich bother”) until Homer’s ghost reminds him that the human tragicomedy is enacted by farmers as well as statesmen. “I made the Iliad from such / A local row,” says the ghost.

“I made the Iliad from such / A local row.”

It is one of those lines that knocked me sideways the first time I read it. To see the universal in the local and the local in the universal requires just a subtle shift in perspective. To see them simultaneously is the gift of art.

Epic stories are timeless because they never end. A feud over the boundary of a field can be freighted with the gravity of mythology. There is a Helen at every county fair, and always a hapless Paris at her heels. The models for Achilles, Ajax, Hector, and Priam were local men: proud, petty, brash, and noble, no different than the men at the same time on the future site of Cholsey. According to the excavations at Hisarlik, the “topless towers of Ilium” were 30 feet high. They would have been overshadowed by Cholsey’s medieval tithe barn.

All human settlements are hero-haunted. Flying back from London to Vancouver for Christmas, the flightpath entered Canada over Baffin Island, site of sagas told in Viking halls, and ended beside an ocean where, long before the arrival of Europeans, local nations told their own legends around longhouse fires.

An hour or so before landing, I looked out the window at the Canadian prairies. The snow below was smooth, like white glue spilled over the fields on which a skin had begun to set. Straight roads cut thin lines across the white, and where two roads crossed, there was a town. I was not able to look it up this time, but if I had, I have no doubt I would have found the same people I found in Cholsey, both long and recently departed, already transmuting into legend in local memory.

We recently passed through the dead of winter, solsitio brumali, and in the turning of the year, as we move from darkness back into light, we know that this has all happened before. Our lives are stories that were told around campfires in Ur. Plague, fire, floods, and tyranny: they are the setting of our oldest tales. Tales of destruction and of renewal, of despair in this world and hope beyond it. The epic quarrel is re-engaged over suburban fences, and the epic hero is reborn in every child, here as in Cholsey or Troy.