With tension in Ukraine still very high, I am fortunate today to share this interview with Commander James Nicolaou, Strategic Global Intervention Team (SGIT).
Question: Thank you Commander for taking time from your busy schedule for this interview. What can you share with us about the full extent of Russian military involvement in Eastern Ukraine?
Commander Nicolaou: Well, to begin, let me point out the obvious—there is much information that I cannot share due to national security interests. However, as the international press has reported, a Russian military convoy numbering about two dozen armored vehicles—mostly armored personnel carriers—crossed the border and entered Ukraine sovereign territory two days ago. This is not new, and the Russian military has repeatedly violated the eastern border. For example, you may recall press photos of Russian surface-to-air missile launchers retreating back to Russian in the day following the downing of the Malaysian airliner. NATO has confirmed many of these illegal incursions into Ukraine. Following the most recent invasion of an armored Russian convoy, Ukrainian artillery shelled the convoy, destroying many of the vehicles and forcing the convoy to retreat.
Question: Do you believe that an invasion of Ukraine is imminent?
Commander Nicolaou: That’s a difficult question to answer for the simple reason that we are dealing with the psychology of President Vladimir Putin. He is without doubt insecure, and he has a strong nationalist ideology. This is bolstered by a very high domestic approval rating topping 85%. Putin and many in his government covet the former Soviet Bloc countries of Eastern Europe. The sanctions imposed by European countries and the US have done little to put pressure on Putin or erode his support within Russia. Now consider that he has placed 20,000 troops on the border, plus he has sent smaller military units and equipment across the border regularly since the Crimea was unlawfully annexed by Russia, and I’d suggest there is only one conclusion that makes sense.
Question: Do you think that the Russian aid convoy is legitimate? That Russia genuinely wants to help achieve a peaceful resolution?
Commander Nicolaou: Look, the so-called aid convoy of about 200 trucks is manned by young men, all of fighting age. These young men have been photographed by international members of the press all wearing the same clothing, khaki shorts. The trucks are not fully loaded, which begs the question, why have so many partly filled tricks? And why do we not see a normal cross section of men and women of varying age if these are aid workers rather than soldiers? If President Putin truly wants to see a return of peace to the region, all he has to do is remove Russian military support and the rebels initiative will collapse. That he has not done so signals his intentions; take control of Eastern Ukraine—as he did the Crimean Peninsula—under false pretense of preventing harm to ethnic Russians.
Question: If the convoy is not to distribute humanitarian aid, why go to the trouble? What is the purpose of the convoy?
Commander Nicolaou: That’s a good question and one that the intelligence community has considered carefully. My own analysts at SGIT have put forward three reasons. Normally, I would not be allowed to go to this level of detail in a public briefing, but the military brass has made the decision that this is one case where secrecy is not helpful. Reason one—Russian is cultivating a public image of the peacemaker. Although this image does not sell to the general public in the US, it is appealing in many other countries, especially those that do not care much for the US. Reason two—intelligence. Driving a large convoy into Eastern Ukraine is a good cover for on-the-ground intelligence that would be extremely useful to the invasion force. And reason three—smuggling arms and ammunition into Ukraine for the benefit of the pro-Russian militia.
Question: Do you expect NATO to engage in any significant way if Russia does invade?
Commander Nicolaou: I really can’t speculate on what military response might be forthcoming from NATO. But I will remind you that Ukraine is not a member of NATO, thus there is no treaty obligation on the part of Europe and the US to offer military support.
Question: It sounds like this would be an ideal mission for Special Forces. Any expectation that SGIT will be on the ground in Eastern Ukraine.
Commander Nicolaou: Again, I can’t answer that.
Question: I understand. Thank you Commander, for sharing your insight.
Commander Nicolaou: Certainly. Thank you.