Lessons from Russia’s Operations in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine

RAND Corporation has published a report for which I was the lead author and principal investigator back in the summer of 2015. The project included contributions from several other researchers. This work has spent a long time in the making since much of the research was done in 2015.  I hope the report will expand existing knowledge on what happened in early months of the conflict in Ukraine, both during the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of conflict in the Donbas. You can find the full report on RAND’s website here.

Abstract and Key Findings from the report’s cover page below

This report assesses the annexation of Crimea by Russia (February–March 2014) and the early phases of political mobilization and combat operations in Eastern Ukraine (late February–late May 2014). It examines Russia’s approach, draws inferences from Moscow’s intentions, and evaluates the likelihood of such methods being used again elsewhere.

These two distinct campaigns overlap somewhat but offer different lessons for participants and observers. The report finds that Russia’s operation to annex Crimea represented a decisive and competent use of military force in pursuit of political ends. Russia’s operations in Crimea benefited from highly favorable circumstances — political, historical, geographical, and military — that limit their generalizability. Analysis of the operation underscores that there are many remaining unknowns about Russia’s military capabilities, especially in the aftermath of its military reforms and modernization program. The report also finds that the campaign in Eastern Ukraine was an ineffectually implemented — and perhaps ill-conceived — effort to achieve political fragmentation of Ukraine via federalization and retain Russian influence. Russia achieved its primary objectives but at a much higher cost than desired and through a fitful cycle of adaptation.

This study thus questions the desirability for Moscow to replicate a course of events similar to the campaign in Eastern Ukraine. Conversely, the operation to annex Crimea was a highly successful employment of select elements within Russia’s armed forces, making it an attractive use of military power, but the structural and operation factors contributing to its success raise doubts whether it can be repeated elsewhere.

Key Findings

Russia’s Operation to Annex Crimea Represented Decisive and Competent Use of Military Force in Pursuit of Political Ends

  • Russia was able to seize the territory of a neighboring state with speed and mobility.
  • The political maneuvering on the peninsula during the invasion suggests that it may have been launched without a predetermined political outcome in mind.
  • Russia likely sought to seize Crimea, and then evaluated its political options depending in part on how the intervention was received at home and abroad.

Russia’s Operations in Crimea Benefited from a Series of Highly Favorable Circumstances That Makes It Difficult to Replicate

  • These included political, historical, geographical, linguistic, and military advantages in the region that have only partial analogues elsewhere in the former Soviet republics.
  • The confined geography of the peninsula, the proximity of Crimea to Russia, and its existence as a separate political unit within Ukraine gave Russia leverage.
  • Russia’s Black Sea Fleet was nearby, with legitimate transit routes that could be leveraged for a covert operation.

Russian Leaders Are Likely to Consider Eastern Ukraine to Be a Strategic Success but an Unsuccessful Operation

  • Russia’s efforts in Eastern Ukraine proved to be a series of improvisations in response to resistance and friction when the initial political warfare effort foundered.
  • The lessons of Eastern Ukraine are rather mixed, demonstrating the limits of low-cost asymmetrical approaches even against a relatively weak and vulnerable state.
  • Russia achieved its primary objectives but at a much higher cost than desired and through a fitful cycle of adaptation.

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