Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Moscow Creating Military Units It Would Need to Invade Baltic Countries, Shtepa Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 31 – It is always risky to derive intentions from capacities, but Moscow’s moves to create new military units opposite the Baltic states suggests that the Kremlin now has the capacity to invade Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, something that seems absurd to the West but may not to those who live in Vladimir Putin’s “alternate reality.”

            In a commentary in today’s “Postimees,” Vadim Shtepa, a Karelian regionalist now living in exile in Estonia, says that 20 years ago it would have appeared ridiculous to talk about any Russian invasion of the Baltic countries. Russia accepted their independence and sought to develop good relations (rus.postimees.ee/3715273/ugrozhajut-li-rossijskie-tanki-stranam-baltii).

                But today, he says, it appears “history is repeating itself. Putin’s Russia ever more conceives of itself as the literal continuation of the USSR with that state’s attempts to dictate its will to other countries. And if these countries conduct an independent policy, they aren’t protected from suffering Russian military invasions,” be in Prague in 1968 or Ukraine now.

            And this Soviet restorationism is not just at the level of rhetoric but also at the level of institutional practice.  In 2015, Moscow recreated the First Guards Tank Army, which had existed in the USSR between 1943 and 1991 and in the Russian forces until 1999. That force is clearly available for use against the Baltic countries.

            On May 11, Shtepa notes, Moscow’s Zvezda television channel reported that “the new unit is capable of levelling the threat from the side of the Balti countries,” adding that “the new Russian divisions will become the hammer which will crush any defense” they might think to offer.

            This army includes, according to Russian officials, “no fewer than 500 to 600 tanks, 600 to 800 armored personal carriers, 300 to 400 pieces of field artillery, and 35,000 to 50,000 soldiers.” More, these officials say that it is being equipped with the most modern versions of all weapons Moscow now has.

            Russian writers like Viktor Murakhovsky have sought to reassure the Baltic people that they have nothing to fear from this division as it is primarily located near Moscow (rus.postimees.ee/3690987/voennyj-jekspert-rossijskaja-tankovaja-armija-ne-ugrozhaet-jestonii). But another Russian expert has pointed out that it could be moved forward to the Baltic borders very quickly if the Kremlin decided to act (expert.ru/2016/05/4/tri-novyih-divizii-protiv-nato/).

            And as Aleksandr Golts of “Yezhednevny zhurnal” has put it: Moscow has “really approached to a turning point in its relations with the surrounding world. Now, no one in the West discusses whether Russia has aggressive intentions; instead, all discuss how it will realize these plans.”

            And Golts adds: many Russian commanders say that as soon as it is organized, “the first guards tank army will take the Baltics.” Other experts based in the West concur and point to some the special units that have been created within that army which would be of use only in an aggressive campaign (svoboda.org/content/article/27585524.html, citing   mk.ru/politics/2016/02/23/v-rossiyskoy-armii-poyavilsya-novyy-specnaz-shturmovye-sapery.html).

            And the creation of that Russian army is not the only such institutional change in Russian military forces: Earlier this month, Russian commanders announced the formation of a new army corps in Kaliningrad. It is under the command of Maj.Gen.Yury Yarovitsky who earlier was deputy chief of staff of the first guards tank army (lenta.ru/news/2016/05/12/corps/).

            Those who dismiss the possibility of a Russian move against the Baltic countries often cite the fact that the three are members of NATO. For them, such an invasion is as impossible as was the Anschluss of Crimea three years ago. And they forget the conclusion of some that the West is not “prepared to die for Narva” (svoboda.org/content/article/26717745.html).

            “From a rational point of view,” Shtepa says, any Russian invasion would be ridiculous, especially now that there is a trip wire of NATO forces in the three Baltic countries. But rationality may not be in play here. As Angela Merkel has pointed out, Putin lives in “a different reality” and apparently a majority of Russians do as well.

            And thus tragedies are possible, he suggests. Years ago, Yevgeny Yevtushenko asked in a poem “Do the Russians want war?” Then, no one did, but today, Shtepa points out, “the Russian hurrah patriotic publicists answer this question in the affirmative: ‘Russia is ready for the coming cataclysms, for a Major War.’”

            Given such attitudes, one can only assume that the Kremlin is prepared to launch one, even if when and where remain unclear – and the only reasonable approach is to keep track of Russia’s development of its capacities as an indication of what it is thinking about now and may very well do, however “absurd” that may be.

Moscow Now Training Belarusians in Russian Camp Headed by Openly Fascist Leader

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 31 –Belarusians are now being trained in a camp in Russia that is headed by an openly fascist Russian nationalist, an arrangement that Moscow might exploit against Minsk by claiming there are “extreme Belarusian nationalists” that the Russians must intervene to put down and one that could be a model for Kremlin actions in other post-Soviet states.

            The commandant of the camp, Aleksey Milchakov, has confirmed to RFE/RL’s Belarusian Service that young Belarusians are there now (svaboda.org/a/27742409.html).  And as Kseniya Kirillova, a US-based Russian journalist points out, Milchakov has never concealed his neo-Nazi sympathies (ru.krymr.com/content/article/27765937.html).

            She notes that he has frequently been photographed with flags displaying the swastika and as a commander of the pro-Moscow “Rusich” brigade in the Donbass proudly showed himself to be a killer of Ukrainians (eotperm.ru/?p=2760). At the same time, he has demonstrated that he is ever more closely tied with the Russian government.

            According to Kirillova, this rapprochement rose to “a qualitatively new level” when Michalkov took part in a meeting with Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s troubleshooter, and received a reward from Sergey Aksyonov, the head of the Russian occupation administration in Crimea (eotperm.ru/?p=4961).

            Officials in the Belarusian capital are thus increasingly concerned about “the attempt to involve [Belarusian] young people in the latest neo-Nazi project of ‘the Russian world.’”  Indeed, Yury Tsarik of Minsk’s Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Research says the expert community is taking this latest Russian action “quite seriously.”

            For many years, Tsarik says, there have been Belarusian young people involved in patriotic camps inside Belarus. But “before the war in Ukraine, the situation didn’t generate particular worries.” Now, however, these camps are suspect and even more suspect are camps in Russia where Belarusians are being trained.

            Not only are such trainees being told that Belarus and other post-Soviet states are simply accidents of history that must be corrected, the Minsk researcher says; but there are real fears that they could be used directly or indirectly to undermine Belarusian sovereignty, either as shock troops for Russia or as supposed radicals Moscow might use to justify intervention.

            Concerns are especially great now, Tsarik says, because Belarus is exploring closer ties with the West and Moscow will do whatever it can to block them.  As a result, the use of “hard” power now cannot be excluded, and many errors could be committed that could trigger a disaster.


Another Soviet Genocide – Kazakhstan, 1932-1933 -- Coming Back to Haunt Moscow

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 31 – Today, the government and people of Kazakhstan commemorate the terror famine Stalin unleashed against the Kazakhs in 1932-33, an action that killed more than 1.5 million members of that nation and qualifies as a genocide because it transformed the ethnic mix of that republic, allowing ethnic Russians to be the dominant group until the 1980s.

            Many across the former Soviet space and elsewhere are familiar with Stalin’s terror famine in Ukraine, a famine that also rose to the level of genocide and helped to power the recovery of Ukrainian independence and the integration of the Ukrainian nation; but far fewer know about its analogue in Kazakhstan and about the role of that tragedy for Kazakhs now.

            But given the increasing protests in Kazakhstan and the appearance of ever more anti-Russian groups within the Kazakh population (total.kz/society/2016/05/30/kogo_zaschischaet_komitet_arasha), the long-ago and half-forgotten genocide of the Kazakh people is attracting ever more attention among their modern counterparts; and it is incumbent on those beyond its borders to understand the continuing impact of this genocide too.

                Saken Baikenov, a Kazakh blogger, begins his commentary on this event by quoting Russian analyst Dmitry Verkhoturov who has written that the terror famine “had an enormous influence on Kazakhs.” Indeed, “after this terrible year, the Kazakhs became another people, a MINORITY in Kazakhstan.”  And that change continues to cast a shadow on the country today.

            Indeed, Verkhoturov continues, “its remnant are a monument to all who died in the years of the Great Destruction. Too much was lost, too many people died who were not able to make their contribution.”  All succeeding generations of Kazakhs have thus suffered as a result (facebook.com/saken.baikenov).

            “The hunger in Kazakhstan in 1932-1933 was part of the all-union hunger arising as a result of the official policy of ‘the destruction of the kulaks as a class,’ collectivization, the incrase by the central powers of collections of good, and also the confiscation of livestock from the Kazakhs” – more than 90 percent of flocks were taken away or destroyed.

            Population losses were almost as bad: 49 percent of the Kazakhs died or were killed and more than a quarter million more fled abroad to China or Afghanistan. (These are the so-called “oralmany,” many of whose descendants have returned to Kazakhstan in the last decade with their stories about this.)

The Kazakhs resisted both the drive to destroy their nomadic way of life and the plan to confine them to collective or state farms.  More than 80,000 Kazakhs were involved in 372 risings during the anti-nomadic efforts and others fought the collectivization effort as best they could.

All this is the focus of exhibits, conferences and meetings in Kazakhstan this day and this week.  But there is one new note that may matter even more in terms of the future of Kazakh national identity.  As Baikenov points out, Moscow’s policies in the early 1930s were directed against all the Turkic peoples of the USSR/