This article examines both the motivations for Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, and its use of unbadged troops during that campaign. What were the foundations of the Russo-Ukrainian War, and do they indicate that a New Cold War has already begun?
During the (first) Cold War the Russian government took very strong actions to ensure the survival of the State’s population, culture, political and economic structures, and physical borders. Those actions presented the Soviet Union as an unyielding, strong enemy in the regional struggles for power that emerged after World War 2. However, it is a mistake to consider that a faceless object, ‘the State’, made those decisions.
In all cases and in all places, it is people who take the decisions which form a State’s actions on the international stage… and a very specific set of events had shaped Russia’s Cold War leaders:
- invasion by Napoleon 1812, including the loss of Moscow,
- losing Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States to Germany in WWI,
- the West sending soldiers to fight against the Bolsheviks / Red Army during the Russian Revolution,
- the ferocity of Germany’s WW2 attack in Operation Barbarossa,
- Western leaders’ condemnation of Communist ideology,
- post-war confrontation with the USA and NATO alliance, particularly in a nuclear arms race,
- a large imbalance in the production of luxury goods and innovative technologies, which created a risk of dissatisfaction and dissent within its own population.
These factors shaped Russian / Soviet actions during the Cold War, and give helpful insights into the behavior of the contemporary Russian Federation in the, so far, low-key New Cold War.
Barbarossa was Russia’s national-shock equivalent of the attack on Pearl Harbour – and after the War, like in the USA, Russia’s leaders were determined to never be caught out in a sneak attack again. Mistrusting the West, their need to protect the Motherland against an attack from the West became a dominating focus of Russian policy. Its borders were secured both physically and culturally within the huge buffer zone of the Soviet Union.
The Politburo had sufficient power to ensure that the general population followed the behavioural codes that they specified, and, after creating Russia’s own nuclear weapons capability, the ability to match NATO in both manpower and firepower. This projection of Russian/Soviet power kept the West at arm’s length and, to an extent, legitimised the State’s consolidation of power over the general population.
What Came After The Cold War? – Erosion of the buffer-zone between NATO and Russia
The collapse of the Soviet Union on 31st December 1991 marked a moment of greatly increased insecurity for Russia. It needed former members of the Union to remain its allies, otherwise its physical and cultural security were at risk of encroachments by NATO and the ideals of the Western democracies.
Was erosion of the cultural buffer zone between Russia and the West after the end of the Cold War the most significant trigger for the Russo-Ukrainian War which began in February 2014?
Poland had joined NATO in 1999, moving the potential front-line of a future land war approximately 600km closer to Russia. Then Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania aligned themselves with NATO in 2004, removing the buffer-zone in northernmost Europe and reducing Russian influence across the Baltic. The central buffer-zone remained aligned with Moscow in the form of the ‘Union State of Russia and Belarus’. But further south Ukraine was at risk of aligning with the West, which would further shrink the buffer-zone and diminish Russian influence across the Black Sea.
For over twenty years Russia had maintained close ties with Ukraine even after its people unexpectedly voted to leave the Soviet Union on 1st December 1991. It perceived the former Soviet republic as belonging to its ‘sphere of influence’ and became very concerned by 2012-13 when Ukraine began negotiating to enter into an ‘Association Agreement’ with the European Union, including the creation of a ‘Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area’ (DCFTA) – would a military alliance with NATO follow on from an economic alliance with the EU?
In August 2013 Russia retaliated by blocking all imports of goods from Ukraine. There was the risk of a deep trade war between the two countries that Ukraine could not afford. That November, the Ukrainian government suspended actions towards signing the Association Agreement. This government policy-reversal resulted in the ‘Euromaidan’ protests and eventually the 2014 Ukrainian revolution. By 23rd February 2014, Viktor Yanukovych’s government had been overthrown and replaced with an interim government, before elections on 25th May brought Petro Poroshenko into power.
Russia directly intervenes in the Ukrainian Revolution and annexes Crimea
Russia considered Yanukovych’s overthrow to be an illegal coup and did not recognize the interim government. Widespread protests against the Ukrainian revolution in areas loyal to Yanukovych created an environment in which Russia could intervene with a combination of bluff, maskirovka and asynchronous warfare tactics.
There were reports of widespread Russian interference in Ukraine’s 2014 presidential election (1). Were the subsequent uprisings in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions formented by Russia interference? Probably – the uprisings were certainly supported by Russian troops, intelligence personnel and equipment. The eventual separation of these areas into de facto independent states was undoubtedly helpful to Russia for preservation of the buffer-zone, but also served as a distraction from the main prize… Crimea.
By gaining control of Crimea, Russia could:
- also control the rights to any hydrocarbons found in the Crimean maritime zone. East and South Ukraine are estimated to have reserves of around 45 trillion cubic metres of gas (2) and interesting deposits had already been found in Russia’s Black Sea zone. Crimean deposits could be strategically vital as the reserves of cheaply accessible Siberian gas are depleted.
- control Sevastopol, an important deep water port which could support offshore drilling for hydrocarbons and give access to the Mediterranean Sea via the Turkish Straits (increasingly vital since Russia had lost access to its naval base at Tartus due to civil unrest in Syria (3).
- invoke national prestige around Russia’s status as ‘one of the world’s greatest civilisations’ (4). Many Russians believed that Crimea had been wrongly given to Ukraine by Russia 60 years previously. 60% of Crimean’s are Russian native speakers and the population is primarily ethnically Russian.
One of the deceptions of asynchronous warfare that Russia used at this time was the deployment of unbadged Russian soldiers, commonly referred to as ‘little green men’ (LGMs) due to their green army uniforms and face masks.
On February 27th 2014, 60 gunmen took control of Crimea’s parliament. They were described as being ‘professionals’ and ‘heavily armed’. An initial group of thirty captured the building and the rest arrived later with additional weapons. These LGM gunmen were unbadged but raised Russian flags – while they held control of the building, Crimea’s parliament voted to end the current government and install Sergey Aksyonov as Prime Minister – some MPs later claimed that they were being threatened and that votes were cast for them as well as for other MPs who were not even present (5).
On 28th February 2014, a missile boat of the Russian Federation blocked in Ukrainian Sea Guard ships stationed at Balaklava harbour. At the same time, eight Russian military helicopters (Mi-24) were relocated to Sevastopol and 13 Russian IL-76 transports loaded with Russian Airborne Troops landed at the Hvardiyske military airport. Russia then sent an ultimatum to the Ukrainian government saying that either they had to give the Crimea peninsula to Russia without any military defence, or Russia would occupy their whole country (5).
President Putin at first said that the Little Green Men were groups of local militia who had seized the weapons of the Ukrainian Army – I doubt that anybody believed that statement.
Then he said that there was no pre-planned intervention by Russia, and that the heavily-armed, coordinated groups taking over Crimea were spontaneous ‘self-defence groups’ who could have obtained their Russian-looking uniforms from local (military) shops. He continued to deny they were Russian troops until 17th April (6).
Uncertainty about the status of the Little Green Men bought time for them to seize control of the Crimean peninsula. Everyone guessed that they were Russian troops, but how was the West to respond to them?
On the 1st March the Russian government unanimously voted to use military force against Ukraine. The following day the government of Crimea announced the formation of its own Defence Ministry.
Two days later Russia withdrew troops conducting ‘military exercises’ close to the Ukrainian border.
By the 7th March it was reported that Russia had deployed over 30,000 troops in Crimea.
On the 8th March, Russian forces took over the Border Guard Service. By this time, several hundred Crimeans, mostly native Tatars, had fled Crimea.
Over the following days unidentified forces began controlling and limiting travel from Simferopol railway station. Russian Forces took control of Simferopol International Airport’s control tower, closing Crimean airspace until the end of the week. On the 13th March Russia put on a fine show of intimidatory power, announcing ‘military exercises’ in the border regions of Rostov, Belgorod and Kursk involving artillery batteries, assault helicopters and at least 10,000 soldiers.
Crimea then declared its independence on 16th March 2014 following the installation of Sergey Aksyonov’s pro-Russian government.
Two days later President Putin signed a bill to absorb Crimea into the Russian Federation.
On the 19th of March, Russian soldiers seized control of Ukrainian military bases in Crimea. At Sevastopol, a tug boat from the Black Sea Fleet attacked and damaged a Ukrainian corvette Ternopil through the use of grenades, which was then captured by Russian special forces the following day. Many other Ukranian boats and submarines were attacked or seized by Russian forces at Sevastopol.
International protests and sanctions did not change the situation, and today Crimea remains a disputed territory.
After the annexation of Crimea
In March 2015 President Putin said in a state TV documentary that Moscow had been ready to use any military means necessary to defend Crimea against ‘the nationalists’ in Kiev and their ‘puppet masters’ – the US government. He said Russia had been ready to bring its nuclear weapons into play – “we were ready to do this… [Crimea] is our historical territory. These are our Russian people there. We couldn’t abandon them and leave them in danger.”
Crucially he said that Russia’s interests in Crimea would always be greater than the West’s – “You are where? Thousands kilometres away?…This is our land…We are ready for the worst possible scenario (7).”
In a speech on 18th March 2014, Putin condemned the West’s reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, in particular the sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian politicians. He also gave an assurance that Russia would not seek confrontation and that Ukraine and Russia are one people… (8)
A New Cold War?
The use of asymmetric warfare tactics like LGMs and cyber-attacks, and Putin’s initial lies about what the Russian was doing, mean that Western leaders are very likely to disbelieve Russian foreign policy statements in the future.
In the meantime, Russia continues to modernise its military forces, including the creation of nuclear-armed submarine drones (9) and hypersonic missiles (10), weapons which have a potent nuclear first-strike capability.
- Intimidation and asymetric attacks
- Threats of invasion
- Seizure of territory
- Development of new nuclear weapon systems
All the nutrients needed for a nuclear Cold War are there.
Even in the face of a growing stand-off with China, the West cannot ignore the existential threat that Russia now poses.
Although it is unannounced, and no rational leader would want it, a New Cold War is in progress. The question is, can the leaders on both sides show the careful restraint that was learnt after ‘Able Archer’ in 1983 (11), or are we stepping up to the edge of an apocalypse once again?
Only time will tell.
1 – “Putin and Russia: Meddling hard since 2004” – https://www.cheatsheet.com/culture/states-cities/nations-russia-putin-election-interference.html/
2 – “Why does Putin want Crimea anyway?” – https://euobserver.com/opinion/123496
3 – “Why Crimea matters to Russia” – https://www.ft.com/content/514abee5-c09b-34f6-9a3a-865a64540a65
4 – “Why Russia Wants Crimea” – https://www.history.com/news/crimea-russia-ukraine-annexation
5 – “Timeline of the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_the_annexation_of_Crimea_by_the_Russian_Federation
6 – “Little green men (Ukrainian crisis)” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_green_men_(Ukrainian_crisis)
7 – “Ukraine conflict: Putin ‘was ready for nuclear alert’” – BBC News – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-31899680
8 – “Crimean speech of Vladimir Putin” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crimean_speech_of_Vladimir_Putin
9 – “Status-6 Oceanic Multipurpose System” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Status-6_Oceanic_Multipurpose_System
10 – “Avangard (hypersonic glide vehicle)” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avangard_(hypersonic_glide_vehicle)
11 – “Nuclear Close Calls: Able Archer 83” – https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/nuclear-close-calls-able-archer-83