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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

NOTEBOOK (SEPTEMBER – PART II)

This is part two of my roundup of things I might have written more about. I'm leaving out the calls for Russia to be stripped of its permanent seat on the UN Security Council because I really do want to write on that topic more extensively (it keeps cropping up, so there will be more opportunities).


Likewise, I'm following what's happening with the Wagner Group since Yevgeny Prigozhin's death. The Russian defence ministry has reportedly taken over responsibility for operations in the Central African Republic, whose president said the contract was always with the Russian government. That's another issue I may yet return to. For now, I shall confine myself to two military conflicts dominating the east European news this week.


Droning on some more about Ukraine


Friday brought a couple of pieces of good news for Ukraine. First of all, they made a successful attack on the headquarters of Russia's Black Sea Fleet using British and French cruise missiles. The British supplied Ukraine with Storm Shadow missiles earlier this year, making it the first state to provide the country with long-range missiles that could strike far beyond the front line. Secondly, the US has promised a new aid package and, reportedly, agreed to supply longer-range missiles. These are presumed to be ATACMS which have a longer ranger than the British missiles, and they travel far faster (2,300mph according to the graphic in this article). The report says they will be be armed with 'cluster bomblets', which might alarm some since these are controversial (and most NATO member states have signed the treaty prohibiting their use).


Moreover, Ukraine's troops are advancing in the south in their counteroffensive -- even if, perhaps, not as much as some spoke of a few weeks ago. The gloom-sayers were wrong though: Ukrainian forces broke through the first defensive line in the south and has deployed its armoured vehicles beyond the line of Russian 'dragon's teeth' fortifications. Ukraine's drone attacks have continued to be successful over recent months, with attacks inside Russia and Crimea (not that Russia isn't also finding drones a key instrument of war). Missile strikes against targets in Crimea had also intensified before Friday's strike on the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol.


There is more good news. Despite Russia's decision to end the grain deal, five grain ships have successfully left port and not been attacked. The latest ship, the Aroyat, is the largest yet and carrying 18,000 metric tons of wheat to Egypt. Mind, the grain situation has caused difficulties too and points to the less favourable news regarding Ukraine.


The less favourable news for Ukraine


Several central and eastern European states, irritated by the competition to their own farmers, had managed to petition the EU to introduce a temporarily ban on grain imports to five states back in May. The EU did not renew this protectionist measure when it expired on 15 September. Poland responded by announcing on Thursday that it would stop sending weapons to Ukraine. Poland has staunchly supported Ukraine and it is fair to note that it was the one of the quickest to send military aid; no one doubts that Poland has done a great deal more than many others in support of the war effort. It also hosts around a million Ukrainian refugees.


Still, the Polish announcement disappointed many. It sets an awkward precedent among Ukraine's supporters for Poland to stop sending weapons. What's to stop other states following suit? I know that many educated people don't like thin-end-of-the-wedge arguments, insisting that they are based on a logical fallacy. We shall see.... Furthermore, Ukraine's personnel requirements will only become more apparent. This article from July crunches some numbers on available manpower, and this reporting from the excellent Anthony Lloyd delves into the issue of draft dodging. The Guardian also reported on this issue recently. And talk of war fatigue among Ukraine's supporters will grow as the US election campaigns get under way next year.


So we can see a mixed picture, some good news here, some bad news there. I'm inclined to say the news favourable to Ukraine outweighs the unfavourable but, as I repeatedly write, fortunes in war can change dramatically, quickly.


Incidents like this one are a reminder of how easily things could get a lot worse than they already are. In the incident, which happened last September although it has only now been described fully in public, a crew of thirty was aboard a UK military surveillance plane which was in international airspace above the Black Sea. A Russian aircraft had tried to fire two missiles at it: the first one missed, the second one 'malfunctioned'.


What would the British public have expected the UK government to do in response had the plane been brought down? There were also Russian drone parts falling on Romanian territory recently: what if they had caused loss of life? Are we really relying on good luck to avoid NATO being dragged in to combat and a wider war?


The one-day war


Many thought another war was beginning elsewhere in Europe this week. The situation round Nagorno-Karabakh (also known by its Armenian name, Artsakh) had been very tense for a while, with the Azeris blockading the separatist enclave since the beginning of the year. Observers had started to talk about the possibility of a new war over recent weeks. I'm certainly not the most authoritative commentator on the South Caucasus, though I do keep an eye on developments in the region and so I followed as closely as I could.


For readers unfamiliar with the region, the territory is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan and its population is largely ethnic Armenians. On Tuesday it looked like the disputing sides were descending into the predicted renewal of fighting (the previous war in the territory was in 2020) as Azerbaijan launched an 'anti-terror operation'.


Azerbaijan's war aims were clearly articulated: to disarm ethnic Armenians and take control of Nagorno Karabakh. Given this dispute has existed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the swiftness with which Azerbaijan seems to have achieved its goals is quite remarkable. The Russian-brokered ceasefire announced the following day, on 20 September, more or less held -- there are always caveats -- but not before tens of thousands of Karabakh Armenian residents were displaced from their homes, sparking fears of a refugee crisis. At least 200 Karabakh Armenians were killed and little humanitarian aid has so far reached those displaced.


The crucial detail in explaining the brevity of the latest flare-up seems to be Russia's position. The fact that seized my attention was that Russian officials and media personalities were squarely blaming Armenia, who is traditionally one of Russia's closest allies. Although Russia has sold arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan over the years, fuelling tensions seemingly at will, it has always been Armenia's ally.


It has raised the odd eyebrow over the past year how much the Russo-Ukraine war has dented Armenia's relations with Russia. (It was even hosting 85 American soldiers for bilateral training exercises when Azerbaijan announced its military operation.) Here is a good comment article about the break between Armenia and Russia; as the article notes, Armenians have been protesting in the capital Yerevan about their government's inaction in response to Azerbaijan's attacks, which means the matter may yet have further reverberations than in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh itself.


Assuming Azerbaijan now has effective control over Nagorno-Karabakh, then we will hear less about the Lachin Corridor mountain pass -- the important little piece of land connecting the enclave to Armenia. It's one of those strategically significant yet tiny strips of land, like the Suwalki Gap or the Dzungarian Gate. Don't know about the Dzungarian Gate? Look it up now to be prepared for future instalments of twenty-first century geopolitics!

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