Are Russian troops in eastern Ukraine? (Some, probably, but I don’t think that’s really the point)

ukraine-pro-russia-activists-seize-kramatorks-interior-ministry-buildingAs 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.

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  1. As always, compulsory reading for any informed view of the current, emerging and potential future scenarios in Ukrainian – Russian relations.

  2. Reblogged this on rovitothis201 and commented:
    This article has a great description of paramilitaries operating in Eastern Ukraine.

  3. “Local ethnic Russian elites in eastern Ukraine, generally thoroughly corrupt and whose businesses depend on their relations with Russia, are working actively with Moscow.”

    Names, please.

  4. Thankyou for another very informative article.

    And what about the 60%+ Ukrainians populations in these regions? From what I have seen it has been small numbers of demonstrators which does not imply massive local support from ethnic Russians either. I can’t see how the Ukraine government can hold back and do nothing so Russia annexes one part of the country after another by proxy.

    My Western Ukrainian family’s view is that if they don’t want to live in Ukraine as a minority, then they should move to Russia which is 28 times the size of Ukraine. But that is not Russia’s objective of course. If after Ukrainian intervention and the probable Russian invasion response, will Putin annex just the east or all of Ukraine?

    If you study the history of other dictators and despots, like Stalin, Hitler and Saddam Hussein etc., however much they have got they always want more. This new dark version of Putin is no different. With a flat Russian economy, heading for recession, Eastern Europe is becoming an increasingly dangerous place. How often where Putin relies on ever improving living standards to keep the population happy, will he need to boost his domestic popularity, at reelection time, by further annexations?

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  April 14, 2014

      Quite, the situation in eastern Ukraine is very different from Crimea (where there was genuine, mass support for annexation), which is why, ultimately, I don’t think that’s Putin’s game plan. He wants to make sure Ukraine is forced to federalise and accept its position as a Russian dependency. By threatening invasion, annexation, civil war, etc, this looks like the lesser of two evils. It’s a classic Putin strategy: if you want something that people don’t want to give, threaten to take a lot more and then “compromise” down to what you wanted in the first place… He’s not a Hitler, nor a Stalin, but a ruthless and effective geopolitical opportunist.

  5. The accents of some of these armed clearly indicate that they are Russians, from Russia (i.e. not locals). Whether they are military or not is another questions.

  6. They are a little smarter this time and not showing up so obviously Russian – old uniforms, mixed uniforms, etc. They were too obvious in Crimea, possibly on purpose so that now they have plausible denial if that is the right term. There is no real large support for joining Russia but the criminals in SE Ukraine have had it their way so long (since independence) they can’t bear to find themselves under any kind of rule of law. The frustration of the people there is real as they have lived under the shadow of the mob for too long and have been ignored by Kyiv for too long, especially Luhansk. Ten years ago they were complaining to me about neglect by Kyiv. But the Russian proposed version of Federation is NOT the answer though some devolution of power to local government certainly is.

  7. Following the incredibly clumsy putsch instigated by the USA in Kiev (on behalf of Chevron, Shell, et al), it has been fascinating to study Putin’s counter-moves, and the annexation of Crimea was sublime.

    Relevant to this, I’ve said before and it’s worth repeating here, the USA’s premier intelligence agency is in a sad state for reasons easily understood (except by those most critical to grasping the problem.) There has been a severe attrition in the ranks of the CIA following two tracks; 1) the more talented leaving for private contracting where salaries can be double or more and 2) the more ethical getting out of the game (for reasons ethical people would have little trouble imagining in the case of recent history.)

    The result being numerous green analysts & operatives, less experienced middle management & planning, and more ideologically driven senior staff. Alternately stated, a recipe for everything one could imagine might go wrong, likely will go wrong for the people at Langley, Virginia.

    Nothing quite like handing Crimea to Russia gift-wrapped, so to speak…

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  April 17, 2014

      Whatever the state of the US intel community, I don’t for a minute see what happened in Kiev as a “putsch instigated by the USA” — this was a response to years of corruption, mismanagement and political failure, catalysed by the eleventh hour repudiation of the EU agreement and then the violence of the government’s response to initial protests.

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