Alphen, Netherlands. 7 August. On Monday Russia began a major exercise on its Ukrainian border involving over one hundred aircraft designed nominally to improve the ability of the Russian air force to react to events. The exercise took place as Ukrainian forces advanced on the separatist-held city of Donetsk. The true purpose of this exercise is clear; to intimidate Kiev into halting its offensive. On Tuesday Moscow called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to demand a cease-fire in Ukraine and a “humanitarian mission” which Russia would lead. Yesterday, in a sign of what might be to come, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told Russian troops massing on the Ukraine border to “expect the unexpected”. In other words, Russian action maybe imminent if Kiev does not agree to a cease-fire that confirms de facto Russian control over significant parts of Eastern Ukraine. However, what of the future and what does it say about the twenty-first century Russian way of war?
“Expect the unexpected” is as succinct as any a description of hybrid warfare. Put simply, hybrid warfare is the conduct of military and other operations that involve conventional forces, irregular forces, intelligence, information warfare and cyber warfare to keep an opponent off-balance both politically and militarily. Such warfare is backed up by a deep knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of an opponent and a willingness and ability to maintain focus on the political objective by being agile and flexible in the face of events. New Russian thinking emerged in the wake of the 2010 Defence Modernization Programme driven in part by a deep analysis undertaken by Moscow’s Frunze Military Academy of the political top to military bottom conduct of operations undertaken by US and Allied forces over the past twenty-five years.
Today, Russian forces are designed to exploit hybrid warfare. Indeed, the strong presence of Russian military intelligence (GRU) and Special Forces in ‘support’ of the separatists has seen an adaptation of Western ideas of hybrid warfare into a new, more robust ambiguous warfare. Russia’s use of ambiguous warfare is the tailored use of force nominally in support of proxies with a particular focus on exploiting the political weaknesses of an opponent. In this case the ‘weakness’ in question are European politicians in denial about President Putin’s determination to ensure the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine become Russian.
So-called ‘snap exercises’ have taken place around Russia’s European border in 2014 all of which have been designed to use Russian military force to exploit and consolidate instability created by the use of proxies in large Russian-speaking populations beyond Russia’s borders. This is by no means the fault of Russian-speaking citizens of other countries but rather in line with President Putin’s 1 July statement to Russian diplomats at which he said that Moscow will ‘protect’ those who regard themselves as Russian, including a new concept of “self-defence” and a specifically Russian interpretation of international law.
Critically, the elite Special Forces, Intelligence Forces and the heavier but highly mobile new force in the Western Military District are under the direct control of President Putin who keeps them at a very state of readiness to act. They can be used in a range of ways from providing a base for insurgent operations, acting as a dagger to impose a diplomatic solution Moscow seeks or as a self-sustaining force that can assault an objective or simply move in under the guise of humanitarian relief to secure an objective.
President Putin would prefer that his political objectives in Eastern Ukraine are achieved with as little bloodshed as possible much like the operation to seize Crimea. Too much death would exacerbate the consequences Moscow would face. He also understands that whilst Ukrainian forces maybe advancing in the rural areas around Donetsk they would find it hard to prevail in a street-by-street battle. Indeed, such a battle would likely turn the city into a grotesque parody of Grozny, the shattered capital of Chechnya levelled by the Russians in the 1990s.
NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Sir Richard Shirreff, who in many ways pioneered NATO’s concept of hybrid warfare, has warned against politicians that “lack muscle memory”, i.e. prefer to avoid the nasty end of politics. President Putin has correctly understood that one of his greatest strengths is the denial amongst other European leaders about the scope and nature of his ambitions and his determination to use force to prevail if needs be.
However, there are signs of change. Russia and Ukraine will now dominate the September NATO Wales Summit. On 2 August British Prime Minister David Cameron wrote to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen calling for a NATO force that would counter the new Russian force. This new force would be modelled on the old ACE Mobile Force and would require of all the Allies significant new investment in mobile, high end forces held at high readiness and able to deploy at short notice. To be effective such a force would need a new high level command structure reinforced by real knowledge about evolving political situations.
The British could take the lead by re-instating the Advanced Research and Assessment Group which I once supported. ARAG was closed down in 2010 because its strategic analysis proved politically inconvenient for ministers and senior civil servants. It is precisely the culture now well-established in Europe whereby sound strategy is sacrificed for short-term politics that President Putin has properly understood and nimbly exploited.
Expect the unexpected!