Russian tactics in Ukraine test divided West’s defence policy
Professor Stefan Hedlund
Geopolitical Information Service | August 1, 2014
Fears of an overwhelming Russian ground invasion of Ukraine did not materialise. But the conflict has given the Kremlin the chance to flex its military muscles, deploy irregular forces while remaining insistent that it is not involved, and gamble – successfully – that Nato would not intervene militarily. If Moscow now destabilises other countries with the same methods, the West will again risk being locked into a disorganised retreat by way of empty threats.
THE CRISIS in Ukraine was dominated in its early stages by fears of an overwhelming Russian ground invasion.
Nato sources estimated that some 40,000 troops had been massed on Ukraine’s eastern border. These forces were deemed capable of performing a quick dash across southern Ukraine, where they would link up with Russian troops stationed in Transnistria, the eastern breakaway province of Moldova.
The Ukrainian armed forces, said at the time to have no more than 6,000 combat-ready troops, would be quickly brushed aside.
Apprehension spiked after March 1, 2014, when the Russian parliament, the Duma, unanimously approved authorisation for President Vladimir Putin to send troops into Ukraine. Full-scale war between two of the largest states in Europe was deemed inevitable.
These fears did not materialise. But the dark shadow which the Kremlin cast over its neighbour sent shockwaves through the post-Soviet region as a whole.
Even countries which had already achieved the seeming security of Nato membership, notably Poland and the Baltic republics, began to express serious concerns. They demanded visible assurance that the principle of collective defence enshrined in Article 5 of Nato’s charter would be honoured, if needed.
It is easy enough to sympathise with such worries. In the event of a determined Russian military assault, a country like Estonia would be overrun in hours.
But is this really a correct reading of events as they have played out? Does Russia really pose a military threat to Nato? Or should we be concerned about a more complex set of threats?
There can be no doubt that the Kremlin’s determination to beef up its military capability has produced tangible results in the form of improved performance and increased access to advanced weaponry.
This underscores the urgency of increasingly insistent demands from the United States that Nato’s European members must do more to shoulder the burden of joint defence.
And it suggests that Nato has been correct in responding to worries from its new members in eastern Europe by increasing its military presence in the region, mainly in the air, and undertaking joint military exercises, designed to practise rapid reinforcement.
But one nagging question will remain. Even if the Europeans re-arm, and Nato increases its military presence in those countries at risk, will this really be sufficient to ensure increased security in Europe?
Looking back at how the stand-off between Russia and the West over Ukraine has evolved, we may draw three conclusions which suggest the emergence of a new and rather complicated security structure on the continent.
The first concerns the capability of Russian forces. The Kremlin has been flexing its military muscles. The large-scale deployment drills which formed part of the mobilisation against Ukraine were also part of a pattern of similar action to test readiness conducted over several years, often at very short notice.
There is obvious rationality in this pattern. Beyond the facade of bellicose rhetoric against Nato, the Russian military is legitimately concerned about potential threats from both the Caucasus and central Asia, the latter in the event of a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
The response has been to build a rapid deployment force of maybe 100,000 troops with heavy airlift and combined arms capacity. Nato should accept and welcome this as a stabilising force on Russia’s southern perimeter.
Beyond these elite forces, it remains highly questionable to what degree Russia’s troops would be able to conduct modern warfare.
Even if the 40,000 on Ukraine’s border did prove that they could deploy rapidly and efficiently, we still have not seen them in combat. And the remainder, including much of the air force, is generally considered to remain at a status of low readiness and possess obsolete equipment.
The bottom line is that actual combat between Russia and Nato would end very badly for Moscow.
The second conclusion suggests that there is little comfort in this. The main challenge to Nato’s defensive doctrine lies in the fact that the Kremlin has developed a new form of warfare which has proved to be depressingly effective. The centrepiece is ‘plausible deniability’.
It is true that the mobilisation against Ukraine did involve an element of overwhelming force. But it is also true that actual action on the ground has been undertaken by a motley crew of irregular forces, clad in black ski masks and wearing no insignia on their uniforms, and often wearing ordinary clothes.
Until the tragic downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, the Kremlin was successful in denying it had any role in supporting these forces. The lightning strike to seize Crimea was performed by what reporters called ‘little green men’ who even the Kremlin eventually recognised – and honoured – as Russian special forces.
They were able to exploit Moscow’s naval base at Sevastopol as a Trojan horse of sorts, using its port and airstrips to infiltrate troops clandestinely. And the presence of the 40,000 regular soldiers on the eastern border was sufficient to deter the Ukrainian armed forces from intervening.
The fact that Crimea was taken with few, if any, shots fired in anger is bad news for other countries with Russian bases on their territory, including Moldova, Georgia and Armenia.
But it remains a rather special case. The broader challenge to Nato lies in the way the Kremlin has succeeded in destabilising eastern Ukraine, and in fanning a brutal civil war, while remaining insistent that it is in no way involved.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko assumed a tough-guy stance following his election in May 2014, ordering an ‘anti-terror operation’ designed to burn out the rebellion.
The liberation of Slavyansk on July 7, 2014, seemed to confirm that success was close at hand. But Russia responded by increasing the flow of tanks, armoured personnel carriers, Grad rocket launchers and surface-to-air missiles. The downing of Flight MH17 was a tragic consequence of this escalation, of rebels gaining access to a BUK missile battery which they were incapable of handling.
If the airliner had not been shot down, the Kremlin would probably have remained successful in claims of not being involved, and the hand of the rebels could have been strengthened without provoking sanctions.
The tragedy of 298 innocent people being blown out of the sky changed the equation. Plausible deniability is gone, and Mr Putin has taken heavy criticism for his alleged involvement – despite the absence of proof.
The third conclusion to be drawn suggests that the main reason why the Kremlin succeeded for so long in claiming innocence rests in the deep internal divisions which so obviously plague and paralyse the West.
To begin with, the Kremlin has been convinced that Nato would not intervene. Perhaps the only really credible statement made by US President Barack Obama during the crisis was when he noted, at the outset, that Nato would not resort to military force. This gave Russia carte blanche to conjure up the threat of a massive ground invasion.
Having ruled out military intervention, the West has relied instead on sanctions. But the effectiveness of such threats may be summarised by saying that ‘if you cross the red line we will warn you, if you do not withdraw we will warn you again, and if you persist in defiance you will get yet another warning’.
It is not surprising that the Kremlin has failed to be impressed. Mr Putin and his men have been confident that while the West has been long on talk, it will remain short on action.
The downing of Flight MH17 has been a game-changer, suddenly galvanising Western political resolve and turning the tables on Russia. But there is nothing to suggest that Mr Putin is about to back off.
Reinforcements to the rebels are escalating and the endgame in Donetsk looks set to be a bloody. The scorecard of Western support for Ukraine is not a happy one.
Looking towards the future, there are grim lessons to be learned. Mutual animosity between Russia and the West has reached a point where negotiation and rebuilding trust appear distant goals. Escalating sanctions and international isolation will inflict heavy damage on Russia, and the Kremlin will retreat deeper into domestic repression, coupled with rallying against the enemy.
If it continues probing for Western weakness, its opponents will draw little comfort from having superior military power. The Kremlin, knowing that Nato will be extremely reluctant to face a real battle, will be able to make much out of the forces it has.
And if Russia engages in destabilisation of other countries on the pattern set in Ukraine, the West will again risk being locked into a disorganised retreat by way of empty threats.
As former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger noted on March 5, ‘For the West, the demonisation of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.’
This needs to stop. The first step on a long road towards negotiation and reconciliation with Russia simply has to be the formulation of a unified security concept which prevents the Kremlin from playing divide and conquer. It needs to place the common interest before the rivalry of nation states and place long-term security and stability before the short-term interests of commerce.
It will not be easy. But the alternative is truly depressing.
Breedlove: NATO must redefine responses to unconventional threats
Stars and Stripes | July 31, 2014
Supreme Allied Commander Europe Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove talks to the media after visiting a Patriot missile battery of the 5th Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery Regiment in Gaziantep, Turkey on Thursday, July 31, 2014. He urged NATO to redefine its commitment to defend member states from aggression by adding new and unconventional threats such as cyberwarfare and irregular militia operations. Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes
GAZIANTEP, Turkey — NATO’s top military commander on Thursday said the alliance should redefine its core commitment to defend its members from external aggression by factoring in new and unconventional threats such as cyberwarfare and irregular militia operations.
“We need to mature the way we think about cyber, the way we think about irregular warfare, so that we can define in NATO what takes it over that limit by which we now have to react,” Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO supreme allied commander, said during a stop at a U.S. Patriot antimissile site in southern Turkey. For NATO, Article 5 of the alliance’s founding treaty has long served as the bedrock of the 28-nation pact, ensuring that an attack on one member demands a collective response from all. Its roots are in the Cold War when the threat was singular — overt military action from the Soviet Union. Now, Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its involvement in eastern Ukraine show how threats in Europe have morphed, Breedlove said.
Though Ukraine is not a NATO member state, Russia’s arming and backing of separatists there as a way to create instability must be factored into how NATO plans its responses in future, said Breedlove, who also serves as head of the U.S. European Command.
“We see Russian leadership in Ukraine. Russian supplies, armament, financing, everything inside Ukraine. What does that mean as it relates to how we define Article 4 and Article 5?” Breedlove asked. “It is illustrative for us to look at this form of warfare we’re seeing from Russia and how we will react to it in the future.” Article 4 of the NATO treaty allows members to ask for consultations on any issue it feels may affect security.
Breedlove’s comments come as NATO is preparing for a major summit in September, when heads of state will assemble in Wales with the aim of restructuring elements of the military alliance to better prepare for potential threats emanating out of Russia.
Russia denies that it has intervened in the conflict in Ukraine. Moscow has also dismissed as “ridiculous” allegations that it represents a threat to the security of any NATO country.
Still, a report from a British parliament defense committee, looking ahead of the NATO summit Britain is hosting, said NATO must take swift action to transform itself, especially in light of unconventional Russian tactics in Ukraine.
A crippling cyberattack in 2007 on Estonia — a NATO member once under Soviet domination — which was believed by Western officials to have been conducted by Russia, also raises questions about NATO’s capacity to respond to assaults even on its territory.
“A Russian unconventional attack, using asymmetric tactics (the latest term for this is “ambiguous warfare”), designed to slip below NATO’s response threshold, would be particularly difficult to counter,” the U.K. report stated. “And the challenges, which NATO faces in deterring, or mounting an adequate response to, such an attack poses a fundamental risk to NATO’s credibility.”
NATO must adapt to become more responsive to such threats, according to the report by Britain’s House of Commons Defence Committee, which recommends:
- NATO make dramatic improvements to the existing rapid reaction force;
- Pre-position equipment in the Baltic states;
- Maintain a continuous presence of NATO troops to conduct training and exercises in the Baltics;
- Re-establishment of large-scale military exercises, including representatives from all NATO states.
NATO also must examine the circumstances in which the Article 5 mutual defense guarantee will be invoked in the face of asymmetric attack, the report stated.
In the past, many west European members of the alliance have been reluctant to station forces close to Russia’s borders, feating tha this might antagonize Moscow.
Breedlove, who has spoken of the need for NATO to reorganize various headquarters and transform the NATO Response Force into a more rapidly deployable force, said NATO is reviewing a broad range of measures to deal with such shortcomings.
Among the measures being looked at is forward positioned equipment closer to potential hotspots in the east and a more constant presence of NATO forces in the region. What is not yet clear is how NATO will deploy forces in the east and whether those measures would be a permanent or a rotational presence. That is a matter for political leaders, Breedlove said.
“The most important thing is, we are going to work on measures that will make NATO more responsive,” Breedlove said.
“I believe this is a very important time here in Europe, perhaps the most critical since the end of the Cold War.”
Ukraine must be a wake-up call for NATO
The Defence Committee publishes its Third Report of Session 2014-15, Towards the Next Defence and Security Review: Part Two – NATO, HC 358
Defence Committee | 31 July 2014
The Defence Committee, in its report published today, argues that recent events in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine should be a wake-up call for NATO and the UK. It argues that NATO is not well prepared to face the new threat posed by Russia. NATO has serious deficiencies in its command and control structures, in its ability to predict and give adequate warning of potential attack, and in the readiness of its forces. NATO may not have the collective political will to take concerted action to deter attack.
Russian Federation actions in Ukraine have now raised the prospect, however unlikely, of a Russian attack on a NATO Member State. The risk of a conventional attack by the Russian Federation on a NATO state is low, but NATO needs to take much more action to deter that risk. The risk of an unconventional attack using the “ambiguous warfare” tactics deployed in Ukraine and elsewhere, whilst still small, is more substantial and would be even more difficult to counter.
NATO needs to reorder, train and exercise its capabilities to be able to defend against both eventualities. The Committee calls on the UK Government to take the lead at the NATO Summit in Wales in September to ensure that NATO is ready to face such threats.
The Committee’s specific recommendations call for:
- The pre-positioning of military equipment in the Baltic States;
- A continuous presence of NATO troops on training and exercises in the Baltic;
- The re-establishment of large-scale military exercises including all NATO Member States and involving political decision makers;
- Improvements to the NATO rapid reaction force and the possible establishment of a new Standing Reserve Force for NATO;
- Improvements to processes for warning of imminent attack;
- Radical improvements in Russian expertise in the UK government, allowing for real analysis and assessment of the Russian threat;
- The development of new tactics to respond to the threat of “ambiguous” attacks from Russia – including how to counter threats from cyber, information warfare, and irregular militia; and
- A reconsideration of Article 5, to allow response to less conventional attacks.
The committee concludes that the threats to UK security are increasingly dynamic in their scale, complexity, uncertainty and urgency. NATO needs radical reform to be able to anticipate, plan and respond to these threats. Threats from terrorism and failed states continue to increase, change and develop. Meanwhile, events in Ukraine and Crimea represent the re-emergence of a real state on state threat to NATO’s eastern borders.
Rory Stewart MP, Chair of the Committee, said:
"The risk of attack by Russia on a NATO Member State, whilst still small, is significant. We are not convinced that NATO is ready for this threat. NATO has been too complacent about the threat from Russia, and it is not well-prepared. Even worse, the nature of Russian tactics is changing fast – including cyber-attacks, information warfare, and the backing of irregular ‘separatist groups’, combining armed civilians with Russian Special Forces operating without insignia. We have already seen how these tactics have been deployed by Russia and its proxies in Ukraine to destabilise a NATO partner state, annex part of its territory, and paralyse its ability to respond.
The instability in Russia, President Putin’s world-view, and the failure of the West to respond actively in Ukraine means that we now have to address urgently the possibility – however small – of Russia repeating such tactics elsewhere. In particular, the NATO Member States in the Baltic are vulnerable. We are not convinced that NATO or the UK Government has fully grasped the implications of this threat.
The UK has the opportunity at the Wales summit to lead the reordering of NATO. It should drive the planning and capabilities now required to counter such threats. It should ensure that NATO begins to train and exercise at a scale to make its ‘deterrence’ credible. The UK should demonstrate leadership in this area. To make Articles 5 and 4 of the Washington Treaty credible, NATO needs to re-examine its capabilities and organisational structures. It must put itself again into a position to carry out its core responsibilities of protecting its member states. It needs to do this alongside its current focus on terror and failed states".
Towards the Next Defence and Security Review: Part Two – NATO, HC 358
- Report: Towards the Next Defence and Security Review: Part Two – NATO
- Report: Towards the Next Defence and Security Review: Part Two – NATO (PDF)
- Inquiry: Towards the Next Defence and Security Review: Part Two – NATO