COMMENT: Putin, Ukraine and asymmetric politics

By bne IntelliNews April 14, 2014

Mark Galeotti of New York University -


Successful guerrillas master the art of asymmetric warfare, making sure that the other side has to play the game by their rules and doesn’t get the opportunity to take advantage of its probably superiority in raw firepower. Appreciating the massive military, political and economic preponderance of the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin is demonstrating that he is a master of asymmetric politics.

The seizure of the Crimea was in many ways a textbook example. The deployment of elite Russian forces — the “little green men” or “polite people,” depending on whom you ask — without insignia to take key political and communications centres and lock Ukrainian forces inside their barracks. The deception may have been pretty transparent, as they all wore the latest Russian kit and drove military vehicles with official license plates, but the ruse gave them the crucial hours they needed for their mission, especially as alongside them were genuine volunteers and paramilitaries. Were they mercenaries? Local activists? Acting without orders? Unsure what was happening, reluctant to appear the aggressor, Kiev was paralyzed for long enough that it didn’t matter what it decided, the Russians were in charge.

Meanwhile, the political dimension: pliable local elites clamoring for Moscow’s “protection,” popular marches in support of the move, a hurried referendum in favor of annexation. Before the West and Kyiv alike really knew what was happening, Crimea’s incorporation into the Russian Federation was a done deal. To be sure, international recognition is a long way away, but Moscow has always been more interested in de facto than de jure.


The detail of what is happening in eastern Ukraine is different, but then again so too is the likely aim. While the idea of gathering these predominantly Russian lands back into the patrimony may appeal to Putin emotionally, it is unlikely to be his preferred outcome. After all, unlike Crimea, they also have sizeable ethnic Ukrainian populations, and while they may be prosperous by Ukrainian standards, they would represent a serious drain on an overstretched federal budget. Besides which, the art of asymmetric politics is typically not to aim for an ambitious and obvious target. Seizing eastern Ukraine would force the West into action; I’d expect to see Nato forces deployed into the country to prevent any further Russian move, as well as massive economic and military assistance. It would also bog Moscow down not just into a long-term integration programme, but also the risk of Ukrainian insurgency (remember all those tempting oil and, especially, gas pipelines).

Instead, Putin’s ideal outcome is probably a weak and federalized Ukraine that accepts its position as part of Russia’s sphere of influence. No closer ties with the EU or Nato, membership of the Russia-led Eurasian Customs Union, and enough autonomy for the eastern provinces that its elites can continue to be Moscow’s agents within the system (and protect themselves from corruption investigations and lustration committees). Just as his threat to eastern Ukraine has meant that the West has pretty much written off Crimea, so too by massing forces on the border and encouraging local paramilitaries, Putin can make the “Finlandization” of Ukraine look like the least worst option.

A crucial aspect of this campaign is precisely to inject as much uncertainty and deniability as possible into the process, and to move either with sudden and irresistible decision — as in Crimea — or else in small, seemingly meaningless steps. The aim is to try and make any potential countermove look like overkill. Kyiv could, for example, potentially deploy regular army units made up of volunteers to shell the government and police stations taken by local irregulars and Berkut and police volunteers. However, that would appear to be a dramatic escalation and conceivably the excuse Moscow would need to send forces into Ukraine. After all, if Kyiv (or its supporters) seem to be acting as if what was happening was civil war rather than local incidents of lawlessness, then it plays directly to Moscow’s narrative of a failed state sliding into anarchy — such that it has a moral duty to secure its borders and protect its compatriots.

Are there Russian soldiers and agents among them, coordinating and instigating the attacks as both Kyiv and US Secretary of State John Kerry assert? I have no idea, but I would expect so. While I have carefully looked at all the photos of alleged Russians in the recent disturbances, none clearly appeared Russian the way the “little green men” clearly did, and the professionalism demonstrated by the paramilitaries was generally limited, at best. Nor are the weapons brandished or uniforms worn ones that could not be found in Ukraine, especially given the mass defections of police and the arsenals at their disposal. There are almost certainly are some Russians there — Kyiv claims to have captured at least one — but, like any good guerrillas, they are hiding amidst the population.

A Great game, not Cold War

So this is Putin’s guerrilla geopolitics, and so far he’s winning. After all, today’s global conflicts are not fought between rival blocs of broadly comparable strength, who therefore agree an unspoken set of rules between them. This is not a new Cold War, with all the ideological division and stability that entails. If anything, this is closer to the freewheeling days of the 19th century, and especially the Great Game of imperial rivalry in Central Asia.

These conflicts will be won by whoever is able to force their enemies to play to their rules, and by whoever best understands that military force is often the least important kind of power. Like the Great Game, the struggles will be fought using deniable covert actions, political misdirection, economic leverage, propaganda, espionage, hackers, mercenary agents and useful dupes. In the 19th century, wily tribal warlords would sell their services to the highest bidder; today, it is the political elites of Donetsk and Kharkiv. Being able to leak an embarrassing phone conversation at just the right moment (just ask Victoria Nuland) or to have the means to incite local paramilitaries will be more effective than a whole aircraft carrier’s fighter wing.

In this new Great Game, spies and political operators will be every bit as crucial as tanks and helicopters. More to the point, it demands flexibility, ruthlessness and clarity of aim. This is, let’s be honest, the ideal kind of contest for Vladimir Putin and his Russia.

Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the SCPS Center for Global Affairs, New York University

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