Ukraine is dealing a strong setback to Putin’s allegedly novel model and doctrine of 21st century irregular war. Ukrainian forces drive back Russians and their allies across 2/3 of the Donbass.
Russia’s ‘new’ model of war escaped Moscow’s control. Putin seemingly understands the forces he unleashed could evolve into a political threat inside Russia. Even now one can hear the faintest whispers of revolution.
We finally see the limits of Putin’s Ukraine escalation. He will not risk challenge to his authority at home. Of course, he still plays to win in Ukraine. Ukraine will bear his brunt for years. And his dream of a global revanche is unchanged.
Putin faces a dilemma. He refuses frantic demands in Moscow and from Russians fighting in Ukraine to commit formal Russian troops. Polling reveals no popular support for overt war. Lavrov calls for “a quick resolution” of the crisis. Russian state controlled media banishes Ukraine from the front pages of Komsomolskaya Pravda and elsewhere. The tone change is striking. Putin now seeks to be a face-saving “humanitarian” rather than war lord.
Yet Putin’s emotional foundation that launched this war remains. We agree he still yearns to up end the international order and gain psychological revenge on Americans for the Soviet Union’s demise.
Putin walks away from full war for several reasons. First, the Russian military is still in a re-armament cycle. A protracted campaign in Ukraine would require all available operational forces. Given current Russian tooth to tail ratios of 6-1, even all operational units committed would lack the force density required for a contested occupation. Second, as noted, formal war is unpopular with Russians who prefer TV war without cost. Finally, formal war necessarily would radicalize Russia further. Putin’s ability to control that environment would be in question.
By early May, Russia faced major strategic decisions about escalation, politics, potentially non-trivial sanctions and end games. A focal point – upcoming Ukrainian presidential elections. Putin blinked. Seeking to forestall the West, Putin postured military on the border while agreeing the so-called Donetsk Peoples’ Republic would not have an independent referendum.
Russian nationalists and fascists reacted sharply. This tweet about an intercepted call from a Russian fascist fielding and supplying combat troops in Donbass offers just one small glimpse.
Russian fascists ignored Putin. Further intercepted calls revealed Chechen warlord Kadyrov, Russian fascists and Duma representatives staged appearances on Russian television to force Putin’s hand. A key demand? Introducing the GRU-backed Chechen Vostok Battalion troops.
Russian ultra-nationalists and fascists defied Putin and held the referendum anyway. Putin faced the worst of all worlds: embarrassment. Was he in control? If so, why was he ignored? If he was in charge and lied, why did he bungle the referendum? If he wasn’t in charge, who is?
Compounding Putin’s faltering improvisation, Ukraine normalized society through valid elections and gained stronger international recognition. Her anti-terror operation (ATO) built traction in late May and June and won back ground against Russians.
Putin faced stronger domestic pressure from the extremes. Dugin, for example, openly questioned whether Putin would ascend to holy “Sovereign” (Carl Schmittean code for true fascism) and invade Ukraine or follow internal traitors, hesitate, and diminish merely as Lt. Colonel Putin.
Russian ultra-nationalists and fascists vented frustration on Putin. Others blamed FSB officer Girkin, self-appointed Russian military leader in Ukraine, for retreating from the Ukrainian city of Sloviansk. Dugin diagnosed Russia’s losing and found a “6th Column” in Moscow — pro-Putin officials who question the Novorossiya ideological project.
Putin eventually agreed to allow the Chechens’ Vostok Battalion to enter Donetsk (it was to be a mix of mercenaries and original veterans). Putin held back the Russian army itself. To Moscow’s surprise, the Ukrainians repulsed the Vostok Battalion around the Donestk airport. Moscow refused to acknowledge the numerous dead or the unexpected defeat.
Russian nationalists desired to use images of casualties to spark further Russian escalation and incite racialist animosity. Putinist media, print and television, denied coverage or images.
The Putin regime’s news blackout left them isolated and furious. Perversely, Russian fascists and ultra-nationalists resorted to using Russian opposition newspapers and liberal Echo Moskvyi radio/web site to show Russians harrowing pictures of the Vostok deceased.
Matters only got worse. Furious that Putin equivocated and refused to invade Ukraine fully, Russians independently began fund raising for Novorossiya, Girkin and Russian irregulars via their Live Journal webpages, etc. One prominent outraged Russian nationalist web page was closed for attempted fundraising. He created the popular Twitter hashtag #введивойскасука [send in the troops, bitch (Putin)].
Monies raised from such efforts would be minimal. Politically, however, this step represents forbidden self-organization. After 2012 if not before, Putin views NGOs or other non-state controlled organizations as mostly illegitimate, if not illegal foreign agents. Informal nationalist self-organizing on the Internet could be politically unpredictable. Social movements begin this way.
Putin lost narrative control. His AgitProp created self-empowered actors in Donbass and inside Russia. Consider these tweets from the co-head of Russia Today. They only hint at the 24 hour a day, non-stop storm unleashed on the willing Russian people via television. One can’t turn on a dime after this deluge.
Here are the limits of Putin’s alleged new model of war. Once nationalist and race rage is ignited, the only truly safe political course is continued escalation. Blowback can’t be controlled easily on this blunt scale. One sign of Moscow’s worries about blowback? Russian border guards are reportedly shooting Russian fighters and their allies trying to flee Ukraine back into Russia.
There are many reasons Putin chose to avoid escalating with an overt, formal military invasion. Some are geopolitical, some are related to domestic popular opposition. Some are purely operational.
Nonetheless, even without a full military engagement, Putin will seek to undermine Ukraine as a proxy for years. As of this writing, however, Russia’s Ukraine campaign must rank a net strategic failure.
In some ways, Ukraine represented the best environment to test Russia’s war fighting. Russian failure — to date — is noteworthy because Moscow assaulted a particularly fragile state. Ukrainian national identity even before Maidan was tenuous. Ukrainians historically never shared Russian imperial fantasies and related resentments.
In February 2014 Ukraine largely was an imploding state both politically and economically. Kiev today is unified now with an electoral political legitimacy beyond Russian aspirations. Ukraine receives more economic, technical and military aid than before. Ukrainians also boast a new ethos and national identity. A majority of Ukrainians polled evince a deep hostility to Russia.
Russia’s failure is striking given the uniquely deep linguistic, cultural and business ties across Ukraine, especially in the East. Russia’s chosen venue for Novorossiya and war, the Donbass region, arguably was the most fertile region in the world for Russian subversion. Local oligarchs control life more than distant Kiev. The region is rife with a mafia-directed/crime ridden culture. It’s also the home turf of Putin crony, deposed former president Yanukovich.
Yet as of early July, Putin and Russia are in retreat. And they feel it. Russians can be expected to study events of February-July 2014 for lessons learned. How did they miscalculate so much, so often? We’ll offer some thoughts on that in the future. Certainly, the Baltics can expect a different look based on Moscow’s stumble in Ukraine.
Kiev’s struggle for independence and reform is just beginning. A prosperous Ukraine following even moderately in Poland’s steps is a permanent rebuke to systemic Putinism and Russia herself. Apart from Russian revanchist fantasies.
Tactically, Russians and their allies control still the major cities of Donetsk and Luhansk in the South East. Moscow can use many tools besides gas as economic levers against Kiev. Russia is already hyping the dislocation costs of reform and Kiev’s adhering to European standards to fan resentments. Each day will be a test of Ukraine’s will and sovereignty.
Newly elected Ukrainian President Poroshenko can look forward to a challenging tenure. Our challenge? Putin’s revanchist goals likely will be pursued for many years not only in Ukraine.