Ukraine At War Spring 2014

Putin’s war of aggression in Eastern Ukraine failed its original purpose: to replicate Crimea’s easy capture and herald the so-called “Russian Spring.” Putun must now play for time and bank on his ability to improvise better than Western passivity and derail the May national elections.

Ukraine, Putin, Russia, Sloviansk

The initial operation featured 100 Spetsnaz GRU special forces officers leading pre-identified networks of pro-Moscow forces in Eastern Ukraine. Joined by Russian citizens (“tourists”) flooding into Ukraine, the FSB and GRU operatives used the social smart phone app Zello, Twitter and other means to direct and rally ‘spontaneous’ pro-Moscow support. GRU intercepted calls reveal they were taking direction from Moscow-based PR agencies.

Stage one was to seize key Eastern cities such as Kharkov, Donetsk and Luhansk like in Crimea. Once secured, the Russians planned to spread west and south, backed by the threat of Russian military forces across the border. The plan didn’t work.

Ukrainians surprised Moscow by their resistance or passivity. Despite Moscow offering up to $100 a day to join a pro-Russian protest, no crowd ever topped 4,000 anywhere – in cities with a million or more population. Most crowds were pitifully small. More disappointing to Russia, Yanukovich’s old Party of the Regions, the main political force in Eastern Ukraine, largely supported a unified Ukraine with conditions. Some oligarchs also played a double or triple game with their patronage networks and private militias. Local police frequently were bought off, but local populations still remained inert.

Moscow used the Geneva negotiations to buy time. The Crimea model failed. But Moscow lacked reliable local cadres to pretend to be the face of an ‘authentic’ Ukrainian protest against Kiev.

In the new strategy, the GRU no longer hid its hand. Russians operated openly after taking over government buildings in Sloviansk and Donetsk, etc. Moscow discarded its hoped for partner in the Party of Regions. Russia is recruiting and activating more radical elements in the East, Ukrainians (and transplanted Russians) who despise not only Kiev, but the entire kleptocracy of oligarchs, Party of Regions, local government, etc. Organized crime in the East is also a natural partner, preferring lawlessness and disorder to a successful Kiev stabilization.

This new approach is a revolutionary step. Moscow not only is rejecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity but its existing institutional base – from political parties to local governance. Even pro-Moscow figures such as Kharkov’s mayor Kernes are abused as traitors and enemies. Eventually Kernes was shot and denounced in pro-Russia social media. Moscow is trying to build a new mass, radical political movement on the fly.

Russia is having difficulties. The new model still depends on direct Russian control. The new political facades of local ‘separatists’ follow orders. For example, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the self-proclaimed mayor of Sloviansk, takes orders from a Russian officer from Crimea, “Strelkov”. Strelkov, identified as 44 year old GRU reserve officer Igor Girkin, was a principal military advisor in seizing Crimea. He entered Ukraine on February 26, 2014. Gurkin/Strelkov has been caught ordering Ponomarev, to dispose bodies of a murdered local council man who supported Ukraine and a young college student. A third corpse has been found in the same location. For his part, Gurkin/Strelkov now boasts to media that over 50% of his forces are from Russia.

Still, Russia needs more time. It must consolidate actual control of a few key cities beyond a few government buildings. Government and media buildings will allow Moscow to frustrate the May national referendum. But real work remains to create on the fly its above-mentioned new mass nihilist movement.


Ukrainian efforts to dislodge Russian efforts to improvise and consolidate their position in the East alarm Moscow. Russia understands their fragile hold – controlling a few buildings in cities of several hundred thousand or million. Russia threatens military to intimidate Kiev into abandoning their ragged “anti-terror operations”. Moscow also seeks to humiliate and demoralize Ukrainian SBU and MVD troops as well.

We don’t believe Moscow wants to invade Ukraine. First, the 40,000 troops on the border are the bulk of her rapid deployment force. Since their formation several years ago, they were designed to intervene, ‘win’ and leave – initially for post American Central Asia. The Russians have little or no training in occupation. Second, the force density required to secure Eastern Ukraine is easily 300-400% greater than 40,000, and would be there in combat or occupation for a sustained period of time. And finally, Moscow does not have the logistics and troop rotation to keep that force on the Ukrainian border at a permanent high operational tempo.

On the other hand, Ukrainian capacity to plan, deploy and execute operations is clearly very poor. Some of that is due to penetration by the Russians. Estimates are that over 30% of Ukraine’s SBU security services were on Moscow’s payroll. The MVD and military’s limits are also similarly clear. Local police are almost totally unreliable, bought off by the Russians, local oligarchs or intimidated.

While calls to arm Ukraine strike an emotional chord with some in the West, their fundamental institutional problems won’t be solved by new weapons. In fact, the weapons would likely end up in Moscow’s hands. Intelligence sharing poses the same problem. Plus, besides technical and overhead means, we don’t have alot to offer. Brennan’s visit to Kiev we believe driven by the fact CIA (and others) is essentially blind (or scrambling to become less blind).

Ukraine and Moscow are in a race to reconstitute a reliable political and military force to claim the East. They are both improvising. The Russians are learning. It remains to be seen how Kiev acts on the lessons learned to date.


  1. Brian D. O'Neill says

    Stiftung: Great posts on this subject. Very interesting. Putin sooooooooo reminds me of Hitler in the 30s, a vicious little dictator/stone-cold-killer choking with rage, revanchism and irredentism, all mixed up with Volk fantasies about “greater Russia.” Sickening.

    • DoctorLeoStrauss says

      Brian, thanks for the comments and note. As an officer of the court, your observations have particular meaning – we share that common background. Thank you for visiting this cozy corner of the Net over the years. All of us probably get little pleasure seeing our conversations and predictions become manifest so often. For us, perhaps, the last years have been a Ken Kesey acid flashback in reverse!

  2. Aldershot says

    Your take that Putin is firing up ancient Russian archetypes is scary. Are you positive he doesn’t want to channel that into some sort of relatively benign authoritarian capitalist framework?

    Also, what is your take on the CIA orchestrating the Maidan uprising? Does that count for anything?

    Finally, can you give a link about Russia threatening to make Ukraine into a Syria. Egads!

    • DoctorLeoStrauss says

      Putin, of course, is above all for and about Putin. And Russian fascist and neofascist elements he has unleashed and promoted do complain now and then that he is not radical enough.

      What Durgin has set forth as the Russian Fourth Way is to see 4 major organizing world political forces: liberalism (neo or not), fascism, communism and the Russian alternative. Because in the Russian view liberalism’s so globally dominant (they do believe that), to destroy it and usher in the Russian alternative, alliances with any and all alternatives is strategically essential, as long as all effort serves to undermine the West/America.

      Thus, Russia and Russian media like RT promote Wikileaks and juvenile libertarianism attacking liberal democracy, Russia and Russian media support Rightist/Fascist political parties in France, UK and Hungary, Russia and Russian media infiltrate the anti-Enlightenment American Right over gays, racism, liberal secularism, etc.

      Each initiative may appear to be inconsistent with the other but they all serve to attack and try and weaken the West and the US in particular from within, to produce cynicism and paralysis that brought down France 1923-1940.

      re CIA, they are not competent enough to engineer Maiden or Tahrir or even the Orange Revolution. Never were. CIA lost its DO cohorts 1992-2000 at alarming rate, completely depleted and demoralized. The rebuild after 9/11 (especially after losing its war with Cheney 2003-06) mostly paramilitary and regional specific.

      The U.S. blogosphere’s linear causality claims about an alleged NGO in Kiev in Nov. 2013 and the like are good SEO tactics and self-promotion but divorced from actual reality. Mirror image if the FSB claims.

      As for Syria, its something that can be found Googling. You might want to start with the Executive Director of Russia Today/RIA Novosti’s declarations.

      • Aldershot says

        One of my greatest take-aways about you is your direct experience in Russian affairs, and I value your take on Putin. But do you at least give him credit for caring about Mother Russia and her peoples?

        How much weight to you give to the fiasco that occurred with their switch to capitalism, with oligarchs buying up public institutions for pennies on the dollar…under our tutelage. Or our broken promise to not move NATO one inch eastward.

        I’m willing to accede that Putin’s anti-Western liberalism, and the West’s poking of the Bear are group selection. But it has to be even-handed. Liberalism, which has morphed into neoliberalism leads us to ‘too big to fail’ and other modern assaults on private property and freedom.

        • DoctorLeoStrauss says

          Good points. Circumstances of the ‘Fall” and its aftermath do merit greater empathy than Neocon triumphalism and vacant liberal market cant.

          I opposed both at the time on the ground in Moscow/Peter and the US.

          The ‘Break Up’

          Many (including Bush in Kiev) urged some new version of the Soviet Union evolve – on the basis of new laws, freedoms, elections and even new membership. The Russian people rejected the Soviet Union, not the West. Putin was in Germany for most of that so did not experience it.

          The near universal demand in Moscow and Peter was “Why should Russians pay for the defense of Kazakhstan (or other ‘Stan)? Russian money for Russians!” – heard that from Russians of all station and points of view.

          Arguing for some form of cohesive geopolitical entity for “stability” (yes, VVP’s favorite word) as – shock – ‘superpower’, Russians almost universally retorted – essentially “You Americans know nothing of the Russian soul, the Russian spirit or Russian history” yada yada yada.

          Yeltsin wasn’t a traitor. Gorbachev wasn’t a traitor. If they were, then 85% of Moscow and Peter were traitors. The Russians now obviously have buyers’ remorse and neighbor (U.S.) envy – but be clear Putin is demanding a ‘do over’ for something that many of Russian people themselves demanded.

          Today, Russians’ arrogantly believe their ‘buyer’s remorse’ trumps everyone else, such as Ukraine’s desire to be free – or Russian agreements regarding independence.

          The Economy

          Russian culpability is slightly less for the economic tragedy. Initially, the entire Soviet/Russian apparat, including the security entities, were open to working with the U.S. as a trusted partner who would do the ‘right thing’ – they expected like Europe after WW II.

          We extended minimal aid. Considering sums squandered in Afghanistan or Iraq, American refusal to engage Russia could be criticized.

          Bush, Baker and Scowcroft elected to stay hands off. Very quickly the Russians saw the meager ‘aid’ (the Euro was new then) almost all consumed by accountants, consultants, lawyers, who merely dropped on desks a velobound, badly translated copy of the New York bankruptcy law. For large fees. Or famously ala Sachs and Aslund, provided catastrophically bad advice.

          When we started the initial steps of light privatization in Nizhni Novgorod and Saratov (chosen because of their historical ties to market economies in Russian history) for the IFC/World Bank, it became clear it wouldn’t work. This after experience with the successful Czech effort, Hungary, Poland, etc.

          Chubais, Gaidar and the other academics were in way over their heads. Russia did not have the social memory of the Enlightenment and market economies of the other countries. What worked in Western and Central Eastern Europe obviously wouldn’t work there. Proceeding with privatization under those circumstances was the knowing pilfering and impoverishment of the Russian people.

          Again, though, Putin gets wrong. He blames retired CIA analysts working as economists in Cambridge, etc. and Sachs, etc. as some conspiracy.

          The U.S. mistake is worse: no one really cared what happened to Russia. And the car wreck – Russia got in the car knowing she was drunk, ignored warnings and drove into a brick wall, creating the oligarchs.

          Putin needs to believe the U.S. schemed to create the car wreck in the 1990s because the alternative is worse: to be invisible – the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. The most Clinton bothered to do was put Gore in charge of handling Chernomyrdin and give Yeltsin a photo op at a yearly Summit.

          In truth, Putin would blame the U.S. whether we created a large scale aid presence like the Marshall Plan or not. For Putin, it is the necessity of being a victim and drawing energy from emotional wounds, even if fabricated.


          I opposed the NATO expansion at the time, despite being familiar with many of its proponents at State and elsewhere. Some were Neocons, some captured by client state romance.

          Russian sensitivities weren’t the main reason I opposed it. After all, NATO invited Putin to join – and created the NATO-Russian Council.

          To me, it was unwise to but Article 5 obligations on the U.S. when as I have maintained “Most Americans think the Vistula is a Microsoft operating system”.

          There are also zones: independent states (DE, Poland, CZ), former occupied parts of USSR (the Baltics) and heartland former USSR states (Belarus, Ukraine).

          From the Putinist Russian pov, I believe Libya was the breaking straw for NATO, not Serbia, although the wounds over the late 1990s linger. Russia and China backed the French and British demands for humanitarian aid to the Libyan rebels. Cameron and Sarkozy took that as war authorization. For an out of area operation. This breach of trust/humiliation is far more profound than most in West understand.

          Obama did his usual Goldilocks equivocation, caved to London and Paris and launched the attack to take down the Libyan air defenses, and then we watched NATO flounder w/out US help just across the Med. Finally, boots on the ground (covertly) saved Misrata and Khaddafi was killed gruesomely. But look at it today – NATO and the EU left it worse than Iraq or Afghanistan.


          Liberalism is flawed no doubt. Much of it because its beneficiaries prefer to critique and consume snark than participate in active politics. Indivuduals have failed to support and defend liberalism and enforce institutional power to defend the individual and constrain the powerful.

          Those flawed choices are from people, not the system itself as it can be.

          As you know, this site warned the naive Net Roots/FirePuppyPuddle/Daily Kos types starting in 2007 that Obama would be a disaster for them (emotionally and substantively) and for any true restoration post Bush Cheney. We called Obama before any other site anywhere, small or large. And warned people daily 2007-2008 (when we used to post daily).

          The alternatives to the flawed American liberal democracy are what? -Euro-fascism, Russian pre-modernist authoritarianism, Chinese market-driven corrupt authoritarianism? How would too big to fail, property and freedom be better under those regimes?

          • Aldershot says

            Doc, forgive the late reply…crazy season here. Thanks for the thorough overview. Sounds like you’d like to rename him Poutin.

            “Russia did not have the social memory of the Enlightenment and market economies of the other countries.”

            Fascinating observation. Maybe there is something to the Russians’ complaint that they’re not understood?

            In the last couple years, I’ve finally gotten around to reading or listening to a couple Russian novels; Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment. Both sublime, of course.

            I now have in my possession Matlocks’ Autopsy on an Empire. Two inches thick…I only have so much time left, ya know :)

          • DoctorLeoStrauss says

            Matlock’s a good read iirc. Been a while.

            The West did generally mistake Russia embracing consumer lifestyles 2000-2011 as implicit societal embrace of a liberal democratic (small caps) world system. Neocons’ willful bellicosity to Russia (and the world) drove many to excuse or overlook nascent Russian fascism emerging on 2004 and onwards. We also collectively made the mistake of ignoring facts and actions for wishful interpretations of words and blandishments.

            We were critical here of Neocons pushing BMD, wanting to expand NATO and demanding Russian cooperation in the Middle East on Iran, etc. Such geo strategic incoherence is still remarkable. Yet the Neocons are not a get out of jail free card.

            A Kennan truism should be remembered: almost always, Russian/Soviet foreign policy is a manifestation of domestic regime priorities. From 2005 onwards, its now clear Putin began assembling the infrastructure for authoritarian revanchism. By the time of his Munich speech in 2007, his vituperative language and perspective was already years old.

            In 2007, the Russians launched a massive cyberattack on Estonia. A year later, they baited an impulsive Georgian regime into war (abetted by Neocon romanticis who stoked Georgian fantasies of US support). We now have Russian leaked video on YouTube (by Putinist allies) mocking Medvedev’s handling of the set up and launch of war.

            And so on.

            Regarding Ukraine, we have claimed here and in public fora that the Russians failed at each escalation stage so far. Russian military commanders on the ground are depressed. The failure to generate a popular (or facade of a popular) ‘uprising’ in South Eastern Ukraine weights them down.

            Russian military and political strategy historically often absorbs setbacks while seeking to increase pressure in multiple ways to create a crack somewhere for exploitation. So setbacks today are by no means determinative. Still, the depression among senior Russians on the ground in Ukraine noteworthy.

            Girkin claimed military authority over all Russian and pro-Russian ‘milita’ in South East Ukraine. Here’s some more on his background in English:


            Beyond the videogame, role-playing FSB (apparently) reserve col. he is linked with a Russian commercial firm whose senior official just popped up in Donetsk as the alleged new governor. Such an overtly Russian face to things after a bungled ‘referendum’ in the South East not the original plan.

            Girkin’s recent morose 8 minute video interview disparages Ukrainians’ fighting ability, willingness to fight. “I never expected that out of 4.5 million people (in and around Donetsk), not even 1000 men would volunteer to risk their lives at the front line.” He then went on at length to disparage Ukranians, Ukranian men, and called on women to fight since their men won’t.


            Girkin’s deputy, “Abwehr” (yes, a a pro-Russian militarist is using the name of Wehrmacht military intelligence), gave another interview, complaining and exuding frustration. (Eng. subtitles). His chief complaint is that Ukrainian oligarchs’ recent public rejection of separatism and support for a united Ukraine undermine his command.


            Pawns often complain about being sacrificed. Moscow has other means besides them to de-stabilize Ukraine. How it unfolds with some Ukrainian oligarchs (at least for now) supporting a unitary Ukraine and the upcoming May 25th elections an open question.

            Quite possible the answer is not in Ukraine itself but elsewhere on the ethno-Russian periphery. We believe the revanchist game Putin is playing is far bigger than Ukraine.

            re the Kennan quote, supra. Moscow should be keenly aware that fomenting nationalist racial hatred in Ukraine and armed activism can easily blow back into Russia as veterans and “tourists” return home. Domestically, Putin is sitting on a powder keg of ethnic volatility bordering on near pogrom-level intensity – as made clear by riots in Pushkino (Moscow) over an Uzbek claimed to have murdered an ethnic Russian.

  3. Aldershot says

    Thanks for the analysis, Doc. Love the picture.

    I was interested that Putin knows his limits, as far as probing how far he dare go before being in over his head. It strikes me that using Ukraine is a pretty good idea for working out subterranean issues. Ukraine was in such bad shape, oligarch-wise, that I hope this international attention will lead to some positive changes by way of wooing from both sides.

    • DoctorLeoStrauss says

      Not clear Putin does know his limits. Or that his concept of limits correspond to status quo mentalities. Adjusting tactics on the ground just that.

      The subterranean issues are overt. It’s not really about Ukraine. Ukraine happens to be the excuse.

      Putin has embarked on his (in our view) long planned ultimate drive to upend the post-1945, post-1991 world order. It happened maybe 5-7 years before he was ready. Putin and the ‘new’ national racial fascist Russia emerging are visceral enemies of liberal democracy, the Enlightenment and rationality.

      Putin stoked(s) deep psychological wounds and nihilism in the Russians across demographic boundaries, old (Soviks), the so-called (largely marginal) middle class the young, etc. And as noted before, the bonds between such a populace with a revanchist leader can be extraordinarily strong and deep – meaning that privation can be absorbed beyond what Westerners might expect.

      If Russian declarations are true that their goal is to create a new Syria or Lebanon in Ukraine to grind down international resolve and interest, this will be a long slog.
      And we should expect other Russian provocations outside of Ukraine as well.

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