The Cable

With Russian Convoy in Ukraine, Defiant Putin Stays One Step Ahead

When Barack Obama's administration sanctioned a prominent Russian bank after Moscow's annexation of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin pointedly opened a new account at the bank punished by the sanctions. When the United States issued travel bans against prominent Russians in Putin's inner circle because of Moscow's continued meddling in Ukraine, Putin placed a travel ban on longtime critic Sen. John McCain. When Western allies levied penalties against Russia's energy sector after Putin-backed anti-government rebels inside Ukraine shot down a Malaysia Airlines flight, killing 298, the Russian strongman responded by banning American and European agricultural imports. He then shut down the biggest symbol of American cultural might in Russia: McDonald's.

Now, with the new Western-backed Ukrainian government steadily reconquering territory that had been taken by pro-Russian separatists, Putin has ignored Western calls to stay out of the conflict and has instead sent a convoy of trucks carrying what Russian officials describe as "humanitarian" aid into Ukraine. According to a report in the New York Times, artillery units manned by Russians have been moved across the border into Ukraine and were shelling Ukrainian troops inside their own country. Russia has also been steadily massing its troops along its frontier with Ukraine, and Western officials estimate that Moscow has roughly 20,000 soldiers -- including large numbers of elite special operations commandos -- there. Late Friday, Aug. 22, U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden alleged that the trucks were actually Russian military vehicles painted as civilian trucks.

Putin's new push into Ukraine immediately raised fears that Moscow would mount a broader military intervention there that it would try to justify on similar humanitarian grounds. The Ukrainian military has been pressing its offensive against the separatist-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, leading to large numbers of casualties on both sides. Russian state-run media have reported that nearly a hundred civilians were killed in the two cities this week alone. Putin has previously warned that he would take steps to protect Russian-speakers across Ukraine.

Putin's move brought swift condemnation from across the international community. It also brought a familiar promise from the White House: Deputy National Security advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters that if Russia doesn't reverse course, it would "face additional costs and consequences," likely in the form of -- you guessed it -- new sanctions. Rhodes didn't elaborate on what these sanctions would entail.

Putin's bold actions in Ukraine and the response from the White House are the latest in the tit for tat that has come to define the crisis. With each new sanction, Putin has been increasingly defiant; he's downright contemptuous of the West. If the past few months are any indication, a new threat from the White House will not prompt a change of heart.

And while Moscow's incursion increases the likelihood that the West will slap more sanctions on Russia, it's unclear when the United States or Europe would move or how far they would be willing to go. For instance, Washington would prefer that Europe punish existing energy deals with Russian companies. However, Europe has steadfastly refused to jeopardize its energy supplies.

"In response to the entry of the convoy, the U.S. will likely expand sanctions over the next several weeks," Mujtaba Rahman, Eurasia Group's head of European risk analysis, said in an emailed analyst's note. But he said new restrictions would likely fall short of cutting off important sectors of the Russian economy, like energy and finance.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to meet Ukrainian leaders in Kiev on Saturday. Rahman said he expects she will signal the European Union's willingness to support stiffer penalties for Moscow's disregard of earlier warnings not to send the convoy across border into Ukraine. But a swift, unified response could be complicated by the fact that most European policymakers are still on their August holiday.

Tim Ash, head of emerging-markets research at Standard Bank Group, said the United States would be loath to act alone and therefore may have to wait.

"We may now see some harsh words, warnings, from the U.S., plus some 'filling in' of existing sanctions, aiming to tighten up on existing iterations," Ash said. "But a more decisive sanctions move may be some weeks off, perhaps through to September."

Even if new sanctions could deter Putin, it's unclear whether there is the public will in Europe -- especially in Germany -- to pass them. Public support for the penalties there has always been shaky. Now, the German government is blaming them for Germany's economic slowdown.

"The decline in gross domestic product (GDP) goes beyond the expected counter-effect to the very strong weather-related performance in the previous quarter," the German Finance Ministry said in a statement Thursday. "This is likely to have been related to the effect of sanctions and negative effects on confidence due to the Ukraine crisis."

As Foreign Policy noted last week, Germany's economic slowdown, along with that in the rest of the struggling eurozone, has little to do with Ukraine and more to do with a hangover from the European debt crisis. But the crisis provides a convenient straw man for politicians and finance ministries to blame.

Even if new sanctions aren't in the cards, condemnation of Russia's actions were swift. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen called Russia's actions a "major escalation" of the crisis. Gen. Philip Breedlove, the top U.S. military commander in Europe, compared the Ukraine incursion to "'humanitarian' and 'peacekeeping' efforts to Georgia, Moldova, and Crimea," referring to areas Russia has either annexed or partially controls.

But the enduring mystery of what exactly is in those Russian trucks remains. Putin knows, putting him one step ahead of everyone else.

"We don't have a perfect picture of what's inside those trucks," Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said at a Friday briefing. "I don't have an imperfect picture either."


The Cable

Exclusive: Baghdad Open to Letting U.S. Warplanes Fly From Iraqi Bases

Iraqi officials have given their American counterparts clear signals that Baghdad is willing to let U.S. fighter jets operate out of Iraqi air bases, a move that would allow planes to stay airborne longer and deliver more strikes. But the Obama administration, at least for now, doesn't seem all that interested.

The back-channel discussions over the bases, which have not previously been reported, highlight the White House's uncertainty about escalating its low-level air war against the Islamic State. President Barack Obama proudly pulled all U.S. troops out of Iraq in late 2011. He has repeatedly stressed that the military campaign there that began Aug. 8 will be limited in both scope and duration. With broad swaths of Syria and Iraq under Islamic State control, key U.S. allies are pressing the administration to step up the fight. Taking off from Iraqi bases would make it much easier to do so because it would put the American aircraft closer to their targets.

"Everything is harder when you're doing it from the outside," a senior military official said.

At issue is a little-noticed aspect of this air campaign: None of the strikes against Islamic State targets inside Iraq have been carried out by U.S. aircraft based inside Iraq. Since the bombs began falling, U.S. aircraft have carried out more than 84 strikes. F-18s taking off from the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, which is in the North Arabian Sea, conducted more than a third of those strikes. The remainder were carried out by U.S. aircraft assigned to bases inside Qatar and other nearby countries.

The latest airstrikes hit an array of Islamic State targets Wednesday near the Mosul Dam, the scene of fierce fighting between the militants and Iraqi and Kurdish troops. Defense officials said the strikes destroyed or damaged six Humvees, two armored trucks, and an array of other militant equipment and fighting positions. The administration's public case for the military campaign initially focused on alleviating a humanitarian crisis and protecting U.S. personnel in the country. The new attacks seem to be directly targeting the Islamic State, raising questions about whether the mission is expanding beyond the administration's stated goals and objectives. Pentagon officials on Wednesday insisted that the scope of the mission hadn't changed.

It's difficult to gauge how much the strikes are helping. According to the White House, the bombing near Mosul helped Iraqi and Kurdish forces retake the dam. The Pentagon, though, has conceded that the airstrikes have only minimally hindered the militants' overall fighting strength and stressed that Iraqi forces aren't up to the task of retaking large areas -- including Mosul, the country's second-largest city -- under militant control.

"It would be a totally different story," said David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert who spent several years as a top advisor to Gen. David Petraeus when he lead the U.S. war effort in Iraq. "Right now you're stuck with a remote option that limits how long you're in the air or how far you can fly. If you had bases [in Iraq] you could fly for more than 45 minutes at a time and maintain combat air patrols over different Iraqi cities."

A senior Iraqi official said that Baghdad is ready to give U.S. aircraft access to bases throughout the country, including several that had been key American hubs during the Iraq War. Baghdad, he said, is waiting for a formal request from Washington.

"We would have no issues with that whatsoever," the official said. "We would have no objections."

But the White House has not asked, said a person familiar with the matter. The White House declined to comment, referring questions to the Pentagon. A senior defense official said it is unlikely that the United States would base planes inside Iraq anytime soon. "I just don't see it," the official said.

To be sure, setting up American air operations at an Iraqi base would be a difficult undertaking, and would require the Obama administration to make a much bigger commitment to the effort in Iraq. The massive Baghdad International Airport is likely too crowded to use. The sprawling Al Asad facility in western Iraq is seen as one of the likeliest homes for any U.S. aircraft. But the Pentagon would have to assign hundreds of maintenance personnel there, as well as security for the American pilots, support crews, and planes themselves. Even though such troops could technically operate inside the base and still not be considered "combat boots on the ground," it's likely that such a move would only come if the administration was willing to sign off on an expanded U.S. mission with no clear end date, the military official said.

Still, Pentagon officials acknowledge that running air operations from outside Iraq makes conducting them that much harder. It takes longer -- and more fuel -- to get fighters or drones to their targets. From a tactical standpoint, that can sometimes contribute to less effective targeting. It can take a jet fighter more than an hour just to get from western Iraq to an area north of Baghdad, the military official said. If jets need to stay in the area over a potential target longer, they require refueling. That means another aircraft, a tanker, must be on call in the area. And that contributes to the complex nature of such operations.

"It becomes very challenging because without a tanker, you end up with time-on-station limitations," the senior military official said. "In other words, you've got to get up there, you've got to be used right away, or you're going to 'bingo' out of there, you're going to run out of gas."    

Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Brian Stephens/Pentagon