First thoughts on Nemtsov’s posthumous “Putin. War.” report on Russian operations in Ukraine

Ilya Yashin, presenting the report

Ilya Yashin, presenting the report

Putin. War., the report on the Ukrainian adventure that Boris Nemtsov was working on when he was murdered, has been released, completed by Ilya Yashin and other allies and cohorts. It’s an interesting document, even if it essentially fleshes out what we already knew rather than saying anything truly novel (the section on the MH17 shoot-down, adding to the chorus of voices blaming the rebels, largely draws on existing, available studies, for example). That’s not in any way to undermine the genuine bravery of those people involved in the project, including not just Yashin but a range of opposition-minded figures from Oleg Kashin to Ekaterina Vinokurova. But I think it does put paid to the suggestion that Nemtsov was assassinated to prevent the report from coming out, especially as now it will probably get more coverage than it would otherwise.

Anyway, here are a few first thoughts on the report:

I’m not convinced contingency plans necessarily mean intent. Of course the Crimean operation had been carefully planned, and that takes time. The report implicitly places a desire to annex Crimea in the context of slipping political support for the regime, even hinting at summer 2013, let alone before Yanukovych’s fall. This is one area which failed to convince me. Military establishments have plans for all kinds of contingencies, ranging from the probable to the plausible; there is a Russian plan for war with China, for example, but not for a moment do I think anyone in the Kremlin is lunatic enough to want such a nightmare. I understand there was a long-standing plan in the vaults of the General Staff’s Main Operations Directorate, and that as soon as the friendly regime in Kiev looked in trouble, it was taken out and updated. But I also understand that the final stage was something of a rush job. This was an opportunist move, not part of some long-term strategy.

Russian troops were involved from the get-go. Of course it has been clear that this has been a Russian-engineered operation from the first. Moscow says otherwise, but then again Moscow said the “polite people” weren’t Russian troops…until Putin chose to boast that they were. (All states lie; but today’s Kremlin seems to do so with particular poker-faced enthusiasm.) The report usefully explores the level of Russian forces in-country, with some good analysis of the “vacationer” mercenary/volunteer presence, as well, worth reading alongside other reports.

Russian casualties: tragic but supportable politically, yet potentially a burden militarily. The report suggests at least 220 Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine (and implies rather more), with some impressive detective work to determine who, where, and from which units (essentially paratrooper divisions). Tragic, to be sure…but as many Russians die on the country’s roads every two and a half days (a horrifying stat in its own right). While of course political impact isn’t simply a matter of numbers (if it were, Moscow would be doing a lot more about those roads), combine relatively few casualties with media control, and I don’t think the sheer number of “load 200” deaths will in itself become too great a problem.

That said, most of the forces there are paratroopers or Spetsnaz, the cream of the Russian military. If the toll continues, never mind escalates, even if it is not a political issue, then it will begin to gnaw away at military effectiveness. Yes, real combat is an excellent way to identify and develop good leaders, battle harden your troops, test your weapons and tactics. But the negative effects of losing elite troops, added to exhaustion and possible demoralization (the Afghan War proved that no one likes fighting undeclared and unadmitted conflicts) can outweigh these.

The ruble costs: serious, escalating and having a real impact. For me, perhaps the most interesting section was the last one, on the economic costs of the “Donbass operation.” (Obviously Crimea is a whole other story.) Their estimates are obviously just that, and based on a fair amount of extrapolation and guesstimation, but this section was drafted by a serious economist, Sergei Aleksashenko, the former deputy chair of the Russian central bank, and deserves to be taken equally serious. The headline claim is that Moscow spent at least 53 billion rubles (say $1 billion) on the actual operation, with another Rs 80 billion ($1.5 billion) on support for refugees, etc.

Together, they represent only just under 1% of the total federal budget (Rs. 15 trillion), which might seem not so much. However, that’s roughly as much as the government will spend on its environmental protection and tourism programs for the whole year. Furthermore, the report explores the wider impact, not least how sanctions imposed because of the conflict have triggered inflation, and the cost of this to Russia and also to individual Russians. In many ways the economic implications of the war are having by far the most serious direct impact on Russia, and this report does valuable service in helping us understand and quantify it.

“Vladimir Putin is a TV star.” The section on propaganda and the war likewise may not say much that is new, but it says it very well, and rightly focuses on the crucial impact of TV in the modern propaganda campaign.

Capsule Review: Brothers Armed: military aspects of the crisis in Ukraine

BrothersArmed_fullColby Howard & Ruslan Pukhov (eds), Brothers Armed: military aspects of the crisis in Ukraine (East View Press, Minneapolis: 2014; viii+228pp; index, map, timeline; $89.95)

Is it too soon to write anything meaningful of book length about the annexation of Crimea and the Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine? I would have said so, until I read this excellent collection of studies from CAST, the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. Its nine chapters range from an historical context of the conflict through autopsies of the decay of the Ukrainian armed forces—and let’s face it, if Kyiv or the local commanders had opted to put up a fight in Crimea, they’d have lost, but they might have forestalled the subsequent eastern Ukrainian adventure—to detailed assessments of the Russian military. There’s even a useful colour map of respective forces in Crimea.

As such, this offers not just an essential basic reference on the conflict, it also places it in the wider picture of Russia’s changing force structures and very way of war. Much of the Russian military may still be, speaking charitably, only partially reformed, but there is a core of effective, modern and flexible intervention forces that give the Kremlin new options that can offer no great comfort to its neighbors or to a NATO that is having desperately to consider how an alliance built for a “big war” can respond in an age of blended political-economic-information-military hybrid or non-linear operations.

CAST is an outstanding research outfit, and one of the few in Russia that is looking at security issues with genuine independence and acuity. This book is just more evidence of that. Very highly recommended.

A Hurricane in the East: are rebels getting BM-27 ‘Uragan’ Rocket Systems?

UraganUS intelligence sources are claiming that Russia has actually stepped up its material support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine, including heavier rocket systems. I suspect these may the BM-27 Uragan (‘Hurricane’) systems, the very kind that Moscow has been criticising Kyiv for using in recent days. This is a truck-mounted multiple-tube rocket launcher system akin to the previously-used BM-21 Grad on steroids, able to ripple-fire its 16 220mm rockets in 20 seconds. As such, it represents a substantial upgrade to rebel firepower.

A few quick observations.

1. OK, so maybe Putin won’t be backing away from the rebels…but it may be the storm before the calm. A willingness to supply heavy hardware, coupled with the uncompromising rhetoric from the Kremlin, does suggest that Putin has chosen not to back away from his adventure in eastern Ukraine. However, it’s not impossible that the hope is that allowing the rebels to give Kyiv’s forces a bloody nose will allow Moscow to negotiate some terms for a ‘peace with honour’ extrication from the mess on stronger terms, given that at present, between the seizure of Slovyansk and the moral charge provided by MH17, the Ukrainian government is in unyielding mood. This can be disastrous (witness Russia clinging on in WW1 in the hope that “next battle” would provide one such victory), but can work. (more…)

Blowback’s a bitch: MH17 and the east Ukraine campaign’s long-term costs for Russia

MH17Policy makers, especially policy makers who have never seen action, are often seduced by covert operations. They see them as the perfect policy instrument: cheap, deniable, effective. Yes, there can be tremendously effective covert or at least non-conventional operations and campaigns, but just as all intelligence operations must come to terms with the fundamental truth that nothing is guaranteed to stay secret for ever, so too these sneaky campaigns can very easily either fail or, even more likely, have unexpected consequences that may overshadow the intended outcome. After all, while Al-Qaeda and the rise of Osama Bin Laden cannot entirely be charted back to the US campaign to support Islamist rebels fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan–had the social, political and intellectual climate not been ready for the message of jihad then they would have remained on the fringes–nonetheless there is a strong connection.

(more…)

The ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ and Russian Non-Linear War

But what happens when the bear looks like a stray dog, or a cute little kitten?

But what happens when the bear looks like a stray dog, or a cute little kitten?

Call it non-linear war (which I prefer), or hybrid war, or special war, Russia’s operations first in Crimea and then eastern Ukraine have demonstrated that Moscow is increasingly focusing on new forms of politically-focused operations in the future. In many ways this is an extension of what elsewhere I’ve called Russia’s ‘guerrilla geopolitics,’ an appreciation of the fact that in a world shaped by an international order the Kremlin finds increasingly irksome and facing powers and alliances with greater raw military, political and economic power, new tactics are needed which focus on the enemy’s weaknesses and avoid direct and overt confrontations. To be blunt, these are tactics that NATO–still, in the final analysis, an alliance designed to deter and resist a mass, tank-led Soviet invasion–finds hard to know how to handle. (Indeed, a case could be made that it is not NATO’s job, but that’s something to consider elsewhere.)

Hindsight, as ever a sneakily snarky knowitall, eagerly points out that we could have expected this in light of an at-the-time unremarked article by Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. In fairness, it was in Voenno-promyshlennyi kur’er, the Military-Industrial Courier, which is few people’s fun read of choice. Nonetheless, it represents the best and most authoritative statement yet of what we could, at least as a placeholder, call the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ (not that it necessarily was his confection). I and everyone interested in these developments are indebted to Rob Coalson of RFE/RL, who noted and circulated this article, and the following translation is his (thanks to Rob for his permission to use it), with my various comments and interpolations. (more…)

Those Mysterious Tanks in Ukraine

UkraineRussianTanksThe appearance of three mystery tanks in east Ukraine may be a serious escalation of the conflict (as Russia throws extra military hardware into the fray) or another one of those desperate attempts to prove a Russian presence. I honestly don’t know, but until we have more solid data, I hope people will be cautious about accepting the “they must be Russian tanks” line uncritically. I hope, but don;’t expect: even if some caution ends up buried in the text, the headlines are already taking it at face value that Russian tanks have rolled into Ukraine. But:

1. We’ve been here before. Remember the “Russian lieutenant colonel“? There have been many hurried assertions of direct Russian roles that ended up having to be retracted. Just for the record: of course there is a serious Russian role, both direct and indirect, but with the possible exception of the initial insertion of Vostok (which has since started “Ukrainianification”), it tends to be in the form of facilitating, arming, supporting, not directly intervening.

2. The evidence presented so far has been pretty thin. For example, NATO has released imagery with a strong implication that it points towards Russian involvement (as it contributes to the “effort to ensure Russia remains publicly accountable for its actions”), but the suggestions are based on:

i. That there were some Russian tanks near the border beforehand. OK, fair enough and I wouldn’t discount this, but apparently all the wizardry of NATO image interpretation still can’t say if they are the same T-64 tanks we’ve seen inside Ukraine. After all, given that the T-64 has actually been phased out of Russian service, that would be a big deal if they fielded some. If NATO can show that they were T-64s, then that to me really would be as close to real proof as we can get from such imagery.

ii. The tanks we’ve seen do not have Ukrainian markings. Sure, had they just defected or been stolen they’s presumably have markings, but that presumably was not the case. To add, as NATO does, that “this is consistent with Russian vehicles and equipment that were deployed to Crimea” is rather circumstantial.

iii. There are no Ukrainian armoured units in the east. The State Department spokesperson said “no Ukrainian tank units have been operating in that area.” OK, but not only do Ukrainian mechanised units also include tanks, there certainly are reserve stocks and depots for tanks awaiting modernisation or scrap. (The Malyshev Tank Works, for example, which produced T-64s, and now offers conversions, is in Kharkiv, north-eastern Ukraine.)

3. Why just three? If Moscow is wiling to up the ante–which it might well–then why in such a minimalist fashion, enough to alarm the West and give Poroshenko more leverage, but not enough to have a significant impact on the conflict? It is not that they lack stored weapons? Why not thirty? Or, better yet, why not artillery? Had the Ukrainian forces been on the ball, after all, they could have caught those tanks on the road with their Mi-24 helicopter gunships or, better yet, Su-25 ground attack aircraft and destroyed them in one raid: tanks can be phenomenally powerful used in the right way, but they are also strikingly fragile in other ways.

I am, I must stress, not stating definitively that these are not tanks the Russians dragged out of their reserve stocks and sent into Ukraine. All I am doing is issuing a plaintive and no doubt fruitless appeal that in these days of hyperspeed 24/7 news cycles, we should not assume that a press release from the White House (or the Kremlin) represents definitive proof…

PS: Testing the Waters? In the comments below, Malcolm Davis makes a valid point that the Russians could just be seeing what (if any) Western response the first intrusion draws. Maybe. But my sense is that Putin/the Russians actually tend to work the other way, to act fast and decisively (when they are going to act) in order to define the truths on the ground and then sit back and present the outside world with a fait accompli. Indeed, this predates Putin: think of the 1999 “Pristina Dash.” Dribbling in a few tanks here and maybe a few more there actually allows the West (and Kyiv) to be able to construct some kind of meaningful response. And as I say above, three tanks accompanied by a single truck-mounted anti-aircraft gun (with no radar guidance or the like) and a truck or two of troops actually could have been very vulnerable. I think the Russians think like Heinz Guderian, whose rule of thumb was Nicht Kleckern sondern Klotzen! (Boot’ em, don’t spatter’ em!)…

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