Alphen, Netherlands. 12 December. Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s”. The 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine has been informally dubbed “Operation Russian Spring” by the Russian military. Why did Russia invade Ukraine? How did Russian forces perform? What are the implications for future Russian strategy and action? The work of my colleagues Dr Igor Sutyagin of RUSI and Dr Frank Hoffman of the National Defense University has informed this blog for which I am grateful.
Why did Russia invade Ukraine? By the end of 2013 it was clear to Moscow that Russia would ‘lose’ Ukraine. On 17 December last year the Russia-Ukraine Action Plan was agreed between President Putin and soon-to-be ousted Ukrainian President Yanukovych. The plan was a clear statement of Russia’s determination to ensure Ukraine remained part of Russia’s “sphere of privileged interest”. Specifically, the plan included the abandonment of the Crimean Kerch Peninsula by Ukraine and the ceding in effect and in perpetuity of Sevastopol and the Black Seas Fleet base to Russia. However, the Euromaidan revolution which began on the night of 21 November, rendered the plan redundant and acted as a trigger for the implementation of long-standing Russian plans to seize parts of Ukraine if deemed necessary to protect strategic Russian interests.
These strategic interests comprised and combined military, economic and energy factors. Ukraine is central to Russian military strategy as Kiev has traditionally supplied anti-tank sights, air-to-air missiles, ICBM components, engines for cruise missiles and uranium for nuclear warheads. Indeed, according to Dr Sutyagin there are some 259 Russian military bases that are dependent on Ukraine.
Critically, the Russian fleet base at Sevastopol is vital as a platform for Moscow’s military influence not just in the Black Sea but beyond into the Mediterranean and across the Middle East. Some have suggested Novorossiysk as an alternative. However, the Novorossiysk base cannot sustain a major fleet due to climatic conditions.
Economic considerations also seem to have been prominent in Moscow’s thinking. At the time of the February 2014 invasion of Crimea Moscow was concerned about the protection of key gas export pipelines, such as the proposed South Stream project. Last week Moscow cancelled South Stream, partly it seems because of a growing struggle with the EU which sees Russia’s attempt to use energy as a geopolitical lever as breaching energy-market rules. This is a clear example of the culture clash between a Moscow that sees power as the essence of balance and an EU that is enshrined in a law-based concept of international relations. Indeed, implicit in the entire Ukraine crisis is the growing fear of the EU in the elite Russian mind, primarily as a form of latter day German empire.
Interestingly, the discovery of 4 trillion cubic metres of shale gas under eastern Ukraine has also concentrated the Russian mind. Indeed, the deployment of Russian forces around Ukraine’s eastern borders suggests a posture that designed to remove that specific region from Ukrainian control if needs be. Moscow had hoped that the invasion of Crimea would have been enough to force Kiev back into Russia’s “privileged sphere” but by late March 2014 it was apparent that was not the case. When Ukrainian forces began to defeat the chaotically-disorganised separatists in late-2014 in the Donbass Russia acted.
How did Russian forces perform? “Operation Russian Spring” has demonstrated the growing ability of Russia to project military power and at the same time the force’s still many weaknesses. Specifically, the operation has demonstrated Russia’s continuing problems with generating the kind of manoeuvre forces upon which such operations rely.
The invasion of Ukraine involved the mobilisation of some 90,000 troops from 27 separate units that were massed around Ukraine’s borders in early 2014. Russia today has some 10 Field Armies, which are the equivalent to a US division. Five of Russia’s field armies had to deploy all their so-called “manoeuvre units” to invade Ukraine and other such elements were drawn from across Russia to ensure the operation worked.
However, it is the use of force in combination with 'strategic ambiguity' that has proven both novel and effective. The use of disinformation and ambiguity worked long enough to keep European leaders off-balance for sufficient time to render the invasion a fait accompli, which is the current status. However, the operation did not succeed in all of its aims. For example, Russian Air Force aircraft were painted in Novorossiya colours to maintain the pretence of exclusively separatist action. The aim had been to capture Donetsk Airport to provide a base for this ‘ghost’ air force but in the face of strong resistance by the Ukrainians in defence of the airport that plan seems now to have been abandoned. It would appear that as of December 2014 Moscow is re-thinking its strategy and focusing on consolidating what gains it has made.
What are the implications for future Russian strategy and action? Last week in his State of Russia speech President Putin confirmed that Moscow would spend 23 trillion roubles ($700bn) by 2020 to modernise Russia’s armed forces with a specific focus on developing advanced expeditionary and deployable forces. In spite of the current economic travails facing Russia it would be a mistake not to take the President at his word. Indeed, it will take a cataclysm for President Putin to be dissuaded from his “Defence First” strategy.
The 2010 Defence Modernisation Programme will be pursued to its conclusion, albeit erratically and often incompetently and it will not realise the force it promised of 1 million men under arms, 70% of whom will be equipped with most modern equipment (compared with 10% in 2010). Equally, defence spending rose by 18.7% this year and will continue to command some 20% of all public investment in the years prior to 2020. By 2020 Russia will have a markedly more capable and more deployable force.
Assessment: For the past five years President Putin has been centralising power on himself and his own office and ‘securitizing’ the Russian state through the increasingly influential National Security Council. The process has itself intensified the classical Russian paranoia and prejudice about the West in which President Putin deeply believes and on which the strategy is based. Several of his speeches have warned about foreign influence of which to his mind the so-called Colour Revolutions were proof.
Russia’s strategy also reflects Russia's inherent weakness – size versus strength. Russia simply faces too many challenges across too large a strategic space that stretches from the Arctic to the Far East to prevail everywhere. Therefore, the current policy of limited aggression masks an essentially declinist and defensive strategic posture. However, a militarily-capable but weakening Russian state could pose far more of a real danger than a strong Russian state. Therefore, the West must expect friction, exploitation of weakness and opportunism as Russia attempts to exert its influence by occupying the space between war and peace. Consequently, and in effect, Russia has invited through its actions the re-imposition of a containment strategy by the West.
In essence the 2014 Ukrainian crisis is a clash of strategic cultures and as such it is a struggle over strategic principle. On the one side is a Europe that rejects spheres of influence in favour of a community model of international relations. One the other side is a Russia determined to re-establish a classical sphere of influence in 2014 Europe and with it what Moscow sees as Russia's lost influence and authority.