As western Ukrainian security forces reportedly seek to dislodge ethnic Russian paramilitaries from government buildings in Slaviansk (although that’s now being questioned) and anti-Kyiv forces muster in other eastern Ukrainian cities, allegations are flying thick and fast about the presence of Russian troops in these disturbances. (I should mention that The Interpreter‘s liveblog is an invaluable service in keeping track of all the claims, counterclaims and reports on the ground.)
The facts on the ground are confused, the claims are often overblown, but there does seem to be some basis for believing that limited numbers of Russian agents and special forces are present. However important that undoubtedly may seem, I think focusing on actual bodies on the ground misses the main point: Russia’s real role in this new Great Game is not so much direct but to incite, support and protect the local elites and paramilitaries who are driving the campaign against Kiev.
When the so-called “little green men” deployed in Crimea, they were very obviously Russian forces, simply without their insignia. They wore Russian uniforms, followed Russian tactics and carried the latest, standard Russian weapons.
However, the situation in eastern Ukraine is much less clear. US Secretary of State John Kerry has asserted that it was “clear that Russian special forces and agents have been the catalyst behind the chaos of the last 24 hours.” However, it is hard to find categorical evidence of this.
In the main, press and other pictures of supposed “Russian forces” actually do not stand up to detailed scrutiny. Even where groups of men with similar uniforms are shown, these are typically not in modern Russian camouflage, and there are other details which do not add up. Some may be in beards, for example, or maybe they wear police rather than military issue body armour with military uniforms.
Furthermore, many Ukrainian police have defected to the anti-government side, including members of the infamous Berkut public order force. So too probably have local officers of SBU, the Ukrainian Security Service. Berkut and SBU special forces deploy in camouflage and body armor and carry modern assault weapons. They would also be expected to demonstrate the kind of tactical proficiency observed among some of the anti-government forces—and be in a position to transfer weapons to the paramilitary irregulars.
All that said, though, as with events in Kyiv during the last days of the Yanukovych regime, it is difficult to rule out more direct Russian involvement, even if just at the level of a few specialists to guide, direct, assist and instruct the local paramilitaries. The Ukrainian press has reported that at least one officer from the Russian Spetsnaz special forces of the GRU, military intelligence, has been seized. There have also been reports of Russian army-issue weapons not generally found in Ukraine in the hands of some individuals.
But in many ways the concentration on Russian personnel misses the point. Local ethnic Russian elites in eastern Ukraine, generally thoroughly corrupt and whose businesses depend on their relations with Russia, are working actively with Moscow. At the very least, they need to ensure that Kyiv offers them a generous level of local autonomy, so they can maintain the impunity they have enjoyed so long. They are able to muster a strong force of security force defectors, mercenaries, thugs and rent-a-mobs, and thanks to the seizure of police stations and arsenals, there are weapons to go around.
These elites depend, though, on Moscow’s support. The forces massed on the border (ranging from low-end estimates of 40,000 to 80,000 upwards), combined with dire warnings to Kyiv about the risk of “civil war” if it uses force against the paramilitaries represent a formidable political cover, which is deterring the government from using the full means at its disposal. Moscow is a past master of fighting its battles with proxies, agents, allies and dupes. Whether or not there are many actual Russian soldiers and agents in eastern Ukraine, Moscow’s role is clear and, if anything, increasing.