Whilst the war in Ukraine grinds on, the western world waits with much anticipation for the Ukrainian spring offensive, to see if western weapons and the superior training and motivation of Ukraine’s army can really overcome the Russian volume advantage in both manpower and equipment.
At this point, nobody is going to underestimate the determination and courage of the Ukrainians, and by the time this article goes to print, they may well have forced their way to the Sea of Azov and already be pushing North towards the Donbas, precipitating a collapse of the whole Russian line, followed by the overthrow of the Putin regime in a Kremlin coup.
But, as good as those outcomes sound, they are unlikely!
The more probable outcome is that following some significant local Ukrainian successes, the Russians will throw large numbers of men and material into the fight, causing the offensive to stall and then peter out, with both sides establishing new defensive lines.
The reason for this rather gloomy prediction is that the days of surprise attacks by massed armoured columns is over. In these days of drones, earth observation and signals satellites, not to mention Russia’s complete air superiority, strategic surprise should be almost impossible.
After all, we knew exactly where and when the Russians were going to attack back in February 2022, so it stands to reason that, even without the more sophisticated western satellite observation, Russia’s total air superiority means that they have the capability to surveil the battlefield in detail and ‘should’ know exactly where Ukraine’s main effort will come from.
So, whilst most observers are agreed that Russia is incapable of inflicting a decisive defeat on the Ukrainians any time soon, what happens if the Ukrainians offensive is only partially successful and does not drive Russians from all the territory they have taken?
There’s an awful lot of wishful thinking around, that sees Putin being ousted as a result of failures on the battlefield. But as far as we know public opinion in Russia seems to support the war, especially now that Putin has successfully reframed the war as a conflict between Russia and the west, with Russia as the victim.
Putin, who is essentially an unreconstructed KGB man at heart, is a past master at misinformation, misdirection and outright lies. He is as comfortable with sending thousands of his own citizens to their deaths to further his Russian nationalist agenda, as he is sending hit men into other sovereign nations to kill dissidents such as Alexander Litvinenko with radionuclide Polonium-210 (210Po) or Sergei Skripal and innocent bystanders with Novichok nerve agent. And above all, he is a master of playing the long game.
If he can avoid defeat on the battlefield this year, he will know that the longer he waits the more the odds are stacked in his favour. He will calculate that western politicians will start making calculations about their own self interest that will see them move away from the “we pledge unwavering support” stance, to a “we must be pragmatic and get all parties around the negotiating table” rhetoric.
Ukraine’s ability to defend itself is predicated on the basis of western governments support, in terms of military hardware, so without it, Ukraine will be forced to negotiate land for peace. Putin wins!
But what has all this got to do with borders?
There are two areas for concern. The first is predictable.
Wars, and the chaos caused by wars creates the environment in which criminal organisations can thrive. Weapons, explosives and the technology and materials to make weapons are in plentiful supply and can easily end up in the hands of insurgents, criminals and even terrorists.
At the moment thousands of tons of weapons and ammunition are offloaded from trains, aircraft, and trucks in Poland and reloaded on to Ukrainian trucks for onward shipment. It is reasonable to assume that some of these weapons will end up in the wrong hands.
Donor states have been discussing the issue with Kyiv and attempting to put controls in place, but no system is perfect, even in peace time conditions.
And the real problem hasn’t started yet. It is when wars end that the real problems start, because you are then left with a country awash with weapons. Soldiers will be required to hand in the weapons they were assigned, but some weapons will be lost, some will have weapons they had taken from comrades, some from captured enemy soldiers and some just found among the detritus of war.
Thousands of these weapons will find their way into criminal hands, just like they did after the Balkan wars of the early nineties.
So, whether the Ukrainian war ends in the Ukrainian victory we all hope for, or a messy negotiated peace we cannot predict. But what we can predict is large numbers of weapons will be coming onto the black market looking for buyers in the EU and elsewhere. As this is a predictable outcome, we must be preparing for it now!
The second concern brings us back to Putin himself.
Putin won’t just rely on time to do his work for him. He will continue to do what he has always done, which is to continue with his special brand of hybrid warfare.
What do we mean by Hybrid war?
A hybrid war actor may resort to kinetic operations in conjunction with the use of non-state actors, launch cyber-attacks targeting critical infrastructure or kick off disinformation campaigns on social networks and in the media, at the same time.
In 2007, the US Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Frank G. Hoffman who was arguably the first person to introduced the term, gave the first definition of hybrid warfare in his academic work titled “Conflict in the 21st Century: the Rise of Hybrid Wars”: “Hybrid wars incorporate a range of different modes of warfare, including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder.”
Now what’s interesting about the two previous paragraphs is that they are direct quotes from an article in this month’s Sputnik and given that this media channel is an official mouthpiece for the Kremlin, it acts as a window into the thinking going on within those walls.
It goes on to say: Judging by Hoffman and NATO’s definitions, the Syria war appears to be a classic example of Western-led hybrid warfare in various domains, including civil disturbances, arming jihadi proxies, media psy-ops, conventional strikes, false flags, economic sanctions, etc.
One of the main principals of hybrid warfare against a superior enemy is to blur the lines between what is and what isn’t a hostile act, making it difficult to detect and attribute them, and therefore, how to respond.
Now, obviously, the Sputnik article is part of Russia’s own disinformation campaign to cast itself, to its citizens and those abroad that are willing to listen, as the victim of a hybrid war campaign by NATO and the west.
But given what it tells us about Kremlin thinking, some of the most worrying lines in the piece are “terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence” and “arming jihadi proxies.”
We all know that Putin has the full range of nuclear, biological, chemical materials and weapons at his disposal. And we have all seen his willingness to use some of them, in the most blatant way, to kill dissidents living in the west.
So, why should we believe that he would not be willing to arm terrorists or jihadi’s with some of the less attributable weapons that he has at his disposal. It won’t be on moral grounds that he refrains from using them. His calculation will be what it has always been, “is it in his interest and can he get away with it!”
I admit that this scenario might seem a little implausible and is hopefully unlikely. But war is a messy and chaotic business. So, whatever way the war finally ends, whether it is by accident or design, by criminals or state actors, millions of weapons and ammunitions will be released out into the world.
So, once again the border community will be in the front-line in stopping the proliferation of these weapons, so unlike the 1990’s, this needs to be properly prepared for, with border forces equipped and trained to meet the challenge to come!
by Tony Kingham, Editor, Border Security Report