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.
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.