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.

A COMPARATIVE GUIDE TO RUSSIA’S USE OF FORCE: MEASURE TWICE, INVADE ONCE

My latest article examining Russian use of force, published on War on the Rocks.

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In the 20th century, the Soviet military’s penchant for area of effect artillery and armored firepower had earned it the reputation of a large hammer always in search of nails.  This popularized impression stuck with Russia long after the Soviet Union’s demise, but today’s Kremlin employs military power in a much more nuanced manner to pursue its objectives.  In recent conflicts, Russia has demonstrated a keen understanding of how to apply this instrument of national power to achieve desired political ends, doling out force in prescribed doses in the quest for decisive leverage.  Although Russian military power remains a blunt force instrument, the state wields it more like a rapier, demonstrating discretion and timing.

In a previous article on the key pillars of Russian strategy, I argued that Moscow favors an emergent strategy based on “fail fast and fail cheap” approaches. The Russian military itself has a long way to go in terms of modernization, but conversely, America’s political leadership needs to reexamine how great powers, with far fewer resources, use the so-called “big stick” to get the job done.  The unipolar world order appears to be rapidly melting, while great powers are back on the agenda.  When it comes to use of force by peer rivals contesting America’s interests, it is only going to get harder from here on out.

The United States may not wish to emulate Russian approaches, but American strategists should certainly study then.  Those who fail to learn from the experience of others must inevitably gain it at personal cost.  As Mark Twain  is said to have remarked, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”  To take another step along the journey of understanding Russian strategy, I explore how Russia changes facts on the ground, compels its adversaries, and achieves much of this on the cheap.  The goal is to examine Russian use of force and draw lessons for an era when American use of power must become judicious, timely, and better married to something that resembles political objectives.

Read the rest here.