Download PDF Putin’s power play in Ukraine was impulsive and improvised, without any clear sense of the desired end state. After many months of effort, Russia has achieved limited gains, but at high cost.

‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ – Rolling Stones, Let it Bleed, 1969

In a piece published in the June–July issue of Survival, I considered ‘Ukraine and the Art of Crisis Management’.1 My aim was to explore the relevance of the strategic concepts of the Cold War to the unfolding drama of Ukraine, and in particular the challenge of securing essential interests without triggering a wider war. I judged the crisis to have been badly managed by Russia, not particularly well by the West, and with great difficulty by Ukraine. The consequences of the failure of crisis management lay not so much in expanding the area of conflict but instead in a sharp deterioration in relations between Russia and the West, and continuing and unsettling violence within Ukraine. The result was that, over subsequent months, the role of Russian forces within Ukraine became more direct and overt, as the more irregular separatist forces were unable to cope. The conflict became less of an externally sponsored insurgency in eastern Ukraine and more of a limited war between Ukraine and Russia. The costs were high. According to the United Nations, by 8 October 2014 the conflict had claimed 3,682 lives and wounded 8,871 in eastern Ukraine. Some 5 million people lived in the area affected by conflict. Some 427,000 had fled to neighbouring countries, while a further 402,034 were internally displaced.2

In this article I do not reprise the material on the origins of the crisis and the events up to May 2014 contained in the first article, but instead concentrate on the later intensification of the conflict and the aftermath of the ‘ceasefire’ of 5 September. I consider what, if any, strategic lessons might be drawn from this most recent stage in the conflict, looking in particular at the concept of ‘hybrid warfare’.

On limited and hybrid warfare

The concept of limited war has an even longer history than that of crisis management. It requires that belligerents choose not to fight at full capacity, in order that a conflict neither gains in intensity nor expands in space and time. This is different from accepting those natural limits imposed by resources and geography, and also from circumstances in which a strong state employs only limited forces to deal with opponents with inferior capabilities. Against inferior opponents complete victories can still be achieved with limited effort. To be a ‘limited war’, the limits must be accepted by both parties.

As a distinctive concept, limited war depended on a contrast with total war, a term popularised as a result of the First World War. The Napoleonic period saw a departure from the inherently limited conflicts of the eighteenth century. The old routines became obsolete with the expectation that the full resources of states would be pitted against each other in Darwinian struggles for survival. In total war the parties would push any conflict to its extremities. Once nuclear weapons were introduced this pointed to an absurd and tragic result: mutual destruction. If both sides could accept that whatever was at stake was not worth an all-out confrontation, then any effort to protect interests through the use of armed force would have to be governed by some sense of how far they were really prepared to go.

The conundrums this created were first thrown into relief during the Korean War of 1950–53. Although this conflict was hardly limited for the people of Korea in either its effects or stakes, the United States neither extended the war into China nor used nuclear weapons, and in the end accepted an outcome that could be characterised as stalemate rather than victory. A number of the new generation of civilian strategists sought to explain why this was a good rather than a bad outcome, a compromise that left one half of Korea under communist rule (where it has remained stuck) but the world intact.3

If the United States was prepared to fight only total war and lacked a capacity for limited war, normally understood as strong regular forces, it would face a dilemma with an incremental Soviet advance. The danger was of ‘salami tactics’, whereby each slice of the salami would appear not to be worth a major conflict, although, cumulatively, the successive slices would eventually turn into the whole.4 Limited war capabilities therefore meant being able to respond to a challenge in the terms in which it was posed and so dare the enemy to take the risk of escalating to the next and more dangerous level.

The word ‘escalation’ entered the lexicon during the 1950s as a warning about why wars might not stay limited. Once forces of great size and complexity began to clash, a conflict would become increasingly difficult to manage. Actions might be taken because of confusion, misapprehension, panic or passion. Once fighting was under way, new issues would affect attitudes to the conflict. As questions of reputation, credibility and pride came into play, the military effort might be ratcheted up to levels well beyond those justified by the original dispute. This problem could be aggravated by the rhetoric necessary to mobilise public opinion behind any operation. Should a threshold be reached or a deal agreed, then all this would have to be scaled down. In the end, limited war implied compromise, which would always be difficult when the enemy had been described in the darkest terms and the stakes raised to existential levels.

Escalation came to describe this tragic process. The original metaphor derived from the moving staircase which took one to a place one might not want to go because one could not get off. The theorists of escalation, such as Herman Kahn, resisted the idea of a loss of control. Instead, they suggested that it might be possible to find a level at which a war might be fought which suited one side’s capabilities but not the other, posing for the opponent the problem of accepting defeat or moving to yet another, more dangerous level. This was called escalation dominance.5 So a problem with limited war was that, despite the natural assumption of some proportionality between limited ends and limited means, not only might the objectives shift as a result of the fighting, but also military commitments would reflect the logic of combat. Forces would need to be sized with reference to those of the enemy, as well as the value of whatever was in dispute.

Lastly, there would need to be some means by which limits could be recognised, agreed and enforced. This required some sort of shared understandings about thresholds and boundaries. There might be natural lines – set by geography or types of weaponry or targets – but to serve the purposes of limitation they would still often need to be confirmed through forms of communication. Some diplomatic activity would be necessary if a conflict was to be kept limited.

With the end of the East–West confrontation, the issue of limited war became less pressing. The wars fought by Western countries were inherently limited, and only rarely with another state. There were challenges related to keeping these conflicts restricted in terms of time taken and resources expended, but their discretionary nature meant that if the demands of a campaign exceeded the value of the objective, then an intervention could be drawn to a close.

This year’s developments in Ukraine revived the issue of limited war. The confrontation morphed into an inter-state war with high stakes, and with one side a nuclear power, but vast armies did not move against each other, capabilities were held in reserve and diplomatic communications continued throughout. NATO, of course, was not directly engaged in the fighting, but it had to consider whether and how it might get involved. This involved assessing Russian objectives, advising Ukraine on how to respond, and examining the implications for any conflict that might develop between Russia and a NATO member in the future.

The Russian intervention has been described as an example of ‘hybrid warfare’. This term gained currency after Israel was said to have been surprised and discomfited during the 2006 Lebanon War by the combination of guerrilla and conventional tactics adopted by Hizbullah. It is now discussed as an approach that draws upon a number of types of force from across the full spectrum, including terrorism, insurgency and regular combat, along with the extensive use of information operations. As with many similar concepts, such as asymmetric warfare, once adopted as a term of art it has tended towards a wider definition. Nor does it refer to a new phenomenon, for there are many examples in military history of the combination of regular and irregular forms of warfare.6 Recently, Frank Hoffman, in connection with Ukraine, has suggested that hybrid threats involve an adversary employing ‘a tailored mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior in the same time and battlespace to obtain their political objectives’.7 This suggests a command authority that is able to choreograph the various operations to achieve the greatest synergy in pursuit of specified goals.

So, in addition to the general questions raised about limited war – the relationship of political objectives to available military means; the role of threats to escalate to higher levels of conflict according to changing political as well as military circumstances; and the identification of a compromise and durable political outcome that could be agreed without further escalation – the Ukrainian case has also raised additional questions about hybrid war. In particular, to what extent is it possible to tailor such a disparate combination of activities to a developing conflict while continuing to exercise political control, and how possible is it to integrate information operations into an overall plan of campaign?

On both these issues, I argue that the advantages of hybrid warfare have been less evident than often claimed. The complex command arrangements reduced Russian control over the developing situation on the ground, while efforts at deception were by and large ineffectual, as the Russian role became progressively transparent. The exception to this may have been a relative success in projecting a more menacing image than Russia’s actual strength warranted. This supported a limited-war strategy based on boosting Russia’s position by warning of a readiness to continue escalation. The West’s response was shaped by an evident reluctance to escalate and anxiety about moving into a less contained conflict. In the end, however, the case of Ukraine confirms the mundane observation that in disputes over territory, the most effective forms of control involve regular armed forces and superior firepower, but that physical control does not ensure a functioning economy and society.

Interpreting Putin’s plans

Until more is revealed about Russian decision-making during the course of this crisis, any analysis relies on inferences about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objectives and calculations. This is not straightforward, because the evidence supports a number of interpretations. The starting point is relatively uncontroversial: Putin viewed the break-up of the Soviet Union as a retrograde step which created opportunities for Russia’s adversaries that they did not hesitate to exploit. Against this backdrop, Moscow came to consider the overall political orientation of Ukraine, whether it looked to the East or the West, as a vital interest. This issue came to the fore during the course of 2013 as Russia put pressure on Ukraine not to sign an association agreement with the European Union, and so become the latest stage in the West’s expansion into the former Soviet space. Instead, it urged Ukraine to join the Russian-led Eurasian Union, loosely modelled on the EU. At first, Kiev opted for the EU, only to turn instead to the Eurasian Union with the incentive of a large Russian loan. It has also been suggested by former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski that this was combined with a threat to seize Crimea and possibly personal blackmail, based on evidence of the organised corruption of Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich’s government. Ukrainian intelligence had been aware of Russian operatives moving into Crimea earlier in the decade, with the possibility of annexation discussed from the middle of 2013, which is when the question of EU versus Eurasian Union was moving up the agenda. According to Sikorski, Polish intelligence became aware of Russian calculations on ‘what provinces would be profitable to grab’. Interestingly, these were the Zaporozhye, Dnepropetrovsk and Odessa regions, rather than those parts of the Donbas area that came to be controlled by the separatists.8

Yanukovich’s turn to Russia triggered the revolt in Kiev, the overthrow of the Yanukovich government and, in consequence, an apparently decisive Western turn in Ukrainian policy. If Moscow had formed a link between such a hostile turn in Kiev’s policy and the seizure of Crimea and other Ukrainian territory, then this might explain the speed with which agitation soon began in these territories. The effort to generate a counter-revolutionary movement failed, other than in Crimea, where Russia had the benefit of the Sevastapol base as well as prior preparation. Initially, the Russians may have hoped to retain annexation as a threat to encourage Kiev to reconsider its position, although, given the revolutionary enthusiasm in Ukraine, concessions to Moscow were always unlikely. The evident popular support for annexation within Russia meant that it was not long delayed. This was a definitive move that would be very difficult for Moscow to reverse. It introduced a problem into all later attempts to achieve a political settlement. A view quickly developed within the international community, however, that it would be extremely difficult to force Russia to hand Crimea back, and so the focus had to be on preventing it from taking more slices of the salami. Initially, there were a number of areas of agitation, including Odessa, but they gained little traction.9 Eventually, Russian efforts concentrated on the Donbas region and, in particular, the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Putin described these areas using the historic name of Novorossiya, expressing his astonishment that they had ever been allowed to become part of Ukraine in 1922, a ruling he considered to be as perverse as the transfer of Crimea and Sevastopol to Ukraine in 1956.10

While the loss of these territorial slices directly challenged Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, unless the whole of the salami was taken, the rest of Ukraine would be left hostile to Russia and beyond its influence. This would permit its embrace by the EU, and even NATO, to continue. This pointed to a fundamental tension in Russian objectives from the start, between carving out a chunk of Ukraine that would be effectively controlled by Russia or even annexed, and gaining influence over Ukrainian decisions to prevent moves inimical to Russian interests – what used to be called ‘Finlandisation’.11

Moreover, demanding the right to veto unwanted developments in one sovereign country raised the possibility that the same right could be demanded of other countries in the Russian ‘near abroad’. Putin’s assertion of a special responsibility to protect the position of Russians unfortunate enough to live outside the borders of the Russian Federation potentially affected a number of countries. This was already the rationale behind the frozen conflicts in Moldova and Georgia. It could be used to challenge the position of the Baltic states, notably Estonia,12 and even Russia’s notional partners in the Eurasian Union, Belarus and Kazakhstan. If it was believed that Russia was capable of moving into a full expansionist mode, then Poland, Sweden and Finland could come into the frame. ‘If I wanted’, Putin is reported to have told Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, in mid-September, ‘in two days I could have Russian troops not only in Kiev, but also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw, and Bucharest’.13

As I shall argue below, the readiness to suggest unlimited ambition and the ability to project power well beyond its borders fits in with a Russian strategy geared to intimidation and deterrence. Yet Russia’s capacity is limited. It rebuilt its armed forces during recent years of economic growth, but it would struggle to cope with a multi-front campaign or a prolonged occupation of a substantial hostile population. Should any action trigger NATO’s Article V commitments, Russian forces would be outnumbered and face superior air power from the US and other allies. Its GDP is close to that of Italy and in per capita terms is less than Poland’s. In no sense is Russia an economic superpower. It is a great power by virtue of its nuclear arsenal and permanent membership of the Security Council, but Britain also has these attributes, plus a stronger economy and many more allies. What marks Russia out is a regular need to assert its power, reflecting security problems around its periphery. Putin’s dreams may be irredentist, but for the moment, practicalities limit that dream. For all the talk about driving to Kiev, never mind Warsaw, Putin has not (yet) gone for broke in Ukraine.

The crisis generated by the intervention was not confined to Ukraine. It was geared to strengthening Russia’s overall strategic position vis-à-vis NATO and the EU while encouraging others to take its interests and concerns more seriously. It had implications for the wider European economy and energy networks. The shooting down of a civilian airliner in July affected many countries. Nonetheless, the geographical scope of the Russian effort remained limited to areas bordering Russia, including Crimea.

Tactical evolution

The tactics adopted by Russia in Ukraine have many antecedents, but an early 2013 speech by Valery Gerasimov, newly appointed chief of Russia’s general staff, highlighted how appropriate they might be in contemporary conflict. Reflecting some of the Western debate on hybrid warfare, he described how in Middle Eastern conflicts there had been a progressive erosion of the distinctions between war and peace and between uniformed personnel and covert operatives. Wars were ‘not declared but simply begin’, so that ‘a completely well-off and stable country’ could be transformed into ‘an arena of the most intense armed conflict in a matter of months or even days’. In these circumstances, military means became more effective when combined with non-military means, including ‘political, economic, information, humanitarian and other measures’. These could be supplemented by covert and thus deniable military measures, as well as offers of peace-keeping assistance as a means to strategic ends. ‘New information technologies’ would play an important role. As a result, ‘frontal clashes of major military formations … are gradually receding into the past.’ They now involve ‘the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian and other non-military measures’. All of this, he said, could be supplemented by firing up the local populace as a fifth column and by ‘concealed’ armed forces.14

It was evident in Crimea that preparations had been made for this contingency for some time. Here was seen the first use of professional soldiers in uniforms without markings (the so-called ‘little green men’). They were deployed again in numbers in April, as Russian agents acted with indigenous separatists to seize administrative buildings and other facilities in the Donbas area. At first these operations were successful, in part because the local response by Ukrainian security forces was lame. Yet, although there was evidence of intimidation by the separatists and substantial support from Russia, the rebellion struggled to establish itself because of a lack of popular backing. Referendums held in support of separatism had little credibility and were not taken seriously internationally.15

After the election of President Poroshenko at the end of May, the Ukrainian military effort against the separatists was stepped up, under the heading of an anti-terrorist operation. The separatist forces struggled to cope. They lacked coherence, combining local agitators, militants who had learnt their trade in Chechnya and Georgia, and some Russian special forces. Coordination was often poor, and political leadership at times eccentric. Their methods alienated local people, and they used the sophisticated equipment with which they were provided recklessly. With Ukrainian forces becoming better organised, and prepared to deploy firepower more ruthlessly, they gave ground. In a significant battle on 26 May government forces, using aircraft and helicopters, took Donetsk airport. Ill-prepared separatist fighters suffered many casualties, a number apparently as a result of friendly fire.16

This particular episode may be one reason why Russia began sending more advanced equipment to the separatists, including anti-aircraft weapons and GRAD rockets. Surface-to-air missiles made the skies more dangerous for Ukrainian military aircraft. They also caused an international scandal when a Malaysia Airlines flight was downed on 17 July by a missile fired from a Russian BUK system, causing the deaths of 281 passengers and crew. The furore that followed added to Russia’s isolation, not helped by a refusal to accept any responsibility. Western sanctions, first introduced after the annexation of Crimea, were intensified. These events may also have distracted the separatists’ attention from the defence of their positions. Slowly but surely, Ukrainian forces pushed the rebels back to about half of their original holdings. It looked likely that they would be pushed out of first Donetsk and then Luhansk.

At this point, a decision seems to have been taken in Moscow to get a grip on the situation. One move, which may have added to rather than reduced Moscow’s problems, was to replace the leadership of the rebellion with Ukrainians rather than the Russian citizens who had initially taken charge.17 In late August, Russian armed forces became involved in a much more overt way. The starting point was an argument over a so-called humanitarian convoy to deliver assistance to the areas under siege.18 Soon, there were reports of 15,000 troops on the border, with at least 1,000 operating inside Ukraine.19 In a long battle for Ilovaisk, a town between Donetsk and the Russian border that had been retaken from separatists on 19 August, Ukrainian troops were surrounded. As many as 300 soldiers may have been killed in the battle. Luhansk airport was retaken. Ukrainian forces buckled under the new onslaught. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk observed that it was easy to deal with ‘Russian-led guerrillas and the Russian-led terrorists. But it’s too difficult for us to fight against well-trained and well-equipped Russian military.’20 As ground was lost in the Donbas, the government had to suspend the anti-terrorist operation to concentrate on defence. By now some 65% of Ukraine’s military equipment had been lost, while the armour left in storage was described by Poroshenko as being as good as ‘tins cans’.21 More of Ukraine appeared to be at risk. Russia seized the border town of Novoazovsk and threatened the port of Mariupol, and raised the possibility of a land corridor to Crimea which, with only sea links, was proving a challenge for Moscow to keep adequately supplied.

Reason for caution

Despite the growing ascendancy of Russian-backed forces, on 5 September an agreement on a ceasefire was reached at Minsk, signed by representatives of Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), as well as the leaders of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. It is evident why Poroshenko wanted a ceasefire: to provide Ukrainian forces with a respite and to move forward with economic and political reform. Moreover, the agreement was largely based on a plan originally proposed by Poroshenko in June and offered a degree of decentralisation of power and protection of Russian language; political and economic reconstruction in the affected areas; liberation of hostages and amnesties; withdrawal of illegal armed formations; and a buffer zone on the border. The September agreement gave the OSCE a substantial role in monitoring the provisions. A further agreement of 19 September required that heavy weaponry be pulled back 15 kilometres from the line of contact, banned offensive operations and flights by combat aircraft over the security zone, and called for the withdrawal of foreign mercenaries and an OSCE monitoring mission.22 On 24 September, NATO reported a ‘significant’, although not complete, withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. At the start of November, there were believed to be 250–300 Russian soldiers still in the country. These troops were said to be not for fighting but specialist training and equipping of the separatist forces. There were reports that these forces were being reinforced with more weaponry at the time of the separatist elections in early November. Russian forces on the border were down from the 18 battalions of August to some seven, still enough to unnerve Kiev.23

In principle, by accepting Ukrainian sovereignty, this agreement favoured Kiev more than Moscow. Why then was it agreed, given the prevailing balance of power in the region? One explanation for Russian caution was the added risks associated with further intervention, including getting bogged down in an occupation against a hostile population. It was one thing to shell Ukrainian positions, and another to move in numbers against those positions; one thing to occupy territory with superior force, but another to administer and reconstruct, as the United States and its allies had learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were also reports of significant Russian casualties, ranging from the hundreds to the thousands.24 These were causing consternation in Russia, especially because of the lengths the authorities went to deny that the deaths had occurred in Ukraine or to insist that, if they did, this was because the casualties had temporarily left the army and volunteered to help the separatists.25

A second reason for caution might lie in Western economic sanctions, which were steadily ratcheted up, including after the Minsk agreement. These measures affected investment in future exploration for the oil and gas industry. The easing of sanctions (or their potential intensification) was linked explicitly to the implementation of the agreement. According to US Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken, there was a need to make sure that ‘Russian personnel and equipment leave Ukraine, that the border is appropriately back under the control of Ukrainian forces and the Ukraine government, that it’s monitored appropriately, and that there are buffer zones on both sides’.26 Under other circumstances Russia might have found it possible to disregard sanctions, but the economy was already slowing down prior to the crisis and also had to cope with a significant decline in the oil price. The sanctions therefore aggravated an already difficult situation. Some Russian responses, notably the banning of some agricultural products from the EU, added to the costs and reduced the choices for Russian consumers. The prospect was one of squeezed living standards as the country faced a declining currency, along with recession and rising prices, especially for foodstuffs.27 In addition, although Russia meets about a quarter of Europe’s demand for gas,28 the pressure on revenues limited the country’s ability to threaten to cut supplies, and there were even some moves to resolve the vexing issue of Russian supplies to Ukraine.29

The positions held by separatists undoubtedly created a serious problem for Ukraine. Yet the territory held at the time of the ceasefire could not ensure that Russia would achieve its main aims. There was no land corridor to Crimea, and the territory controlled by the separatists was too small to make much sense as a stand-alone entity, incoherent both economically and politically, yet large enough to require a substantial subsidy if it was not to collapse internally. Russia was already struggling with Crimea,30 and none of its other frozen territories were exactly economic success stories. It was unlikely that those displaced by the conflict would return while fighting continued. If these territories did secede, there would be continuing tension on their border with the rest of Ukraine, and so a need for high levels of military mobilisation, and a likely deterioration in economic and social conditions. Industrial production had collapsed, pensions were not being paid and provisions would be necessary for the winter. Meanwhile, Ukraine would be bound to work even more closely with Western Europe. As was expected, the more pro-Russian parties faltered in the 27 October parliamentary elections. Of more significance, in terms of the propaganda claim that neo-Nazis were at the heart of the new order in Ukraine, was the weakness of the right-wing Svoboda party. The main victors were the more moderate pro-Western parties. Of perhaps most importance for Russia was the fact that the party of the more hawkish Prime Minister Yatsenyuk did slightly better than that of the more conciliatory President Poroshenko.31

While some sort of deal might have made sense for Russia, whose role was reduced after Minsk, the provisions of the agreement made little sense to the separatists. For this reason the fighting did not actually stop as they sought to extend their area of control, resulting in many more casualties. At best this was more de-escalation than ceasefire. The separatists made little progress, at least in two crucial areas. Against Mariupol they appeared to give up quite quickly, except for occasional shelling, because of the entrenched position of Ukrainian forces. Against Donetsk airport assaults were regularly rebuffed. By then, the airport had acquired a certain symbolism. It had been taken early on by the separatists. Its recapture in May by Ukrainian forces had been a demoralising blow. Although the actual airport was left destroyed, it remained in Ukrainian hands. This separatist failure left many casualties and undermined claims of separatist control over the region.

Moscow’s interests were therefore not necessarily the same as the separatists, although ultimately the separatists could not survive without Russian support. This explains the tensions between the two, as Russia did not endorse full independence for or annexation of Novorussyia, but only the compromise position that the region would stay part of Ukraine but with a significant amount of autonomy. The obvious questions were: how much autonomy, and would regional representatives be in a position to block the eventual accession of Ukraine to the EU or vote for combination with Russia? The separatists showed no interest in these issues or any compromise along these lines. Igor Plotnitsky, head of the Luhansk People’s Republic, observed that ‘sooner or later, we will become part of the Russian Federation’.32 His fellow signatory to the Minsk agreement, Alexander Zakharchenko of the Donetsk People’s Republic, claimed that he was forced to sign, and that this was an act of ‘betrayal’. One of his deputies explicitly rejected the agreement to return control of the border to Ukraine.33 On 20 October Zakharchenko announced the ceasefire over. There were soon demands that Ukraine cede more territory or else it would be taken by force.34 Elections were conducted separately in Donetsk and Luhansk on 2 November, in contravention of the Minsk agreement as they did not follow Ukrainian law, and produced results that were unsurprising given the limited choice allowed.35 Poroshenko described the elections as a ‘farce at gunpoint’, and questioned whether there was much point continuing with the Minsk agreement, ordering more troops to move to the east to prepare defences against any new separatist push.36

Putin dared not abandon the separatists, yet he was unable to get them to meet their obligations. His unwillingness to force them to do so was one reason for the lack of progress at a meeting in Milan on 17 October involving Putin, Poroshenko and EU leaders.37 For its part, Ukraine, severely weakened by the events of 2014, with its economy undermined and key territories out of its control, had a clear interest in a negotiated solution, although there were growing elements in the country pushing for tougher action.38 The conflict encouraged nationalist sentiment in Ukraine as well as Russia. Thus, while Poroshenko accepted the need for compromise in terms of more autonomy for the troubled regions and respect for Russian concerns, he could not abandon closer relations with the EU as a goal.

All this made it less likely that Russia would be able to meet its original objective of restraining Kiev’s policy in relation to the EU. Following Minsk, Russia continued to demand that Ukraine not get closer to the EU. It had some success at a trilateral EU–Russian–Ukrainian meeting on 12 September, at which the parties agreed to postpone the implementation of the EU’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with Ukraine from November 2014 to the end of 2015.39 Russia threatened tariffs for Ukrainian exports to Russia should implementation take place. The conciliatory stance adopted by Kiev led to the resignation of Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister. Nonetheless, the line from Brussels was that ‘the European Union will not allow Russia to dictate conditions for the EU’s relations with Ukraine.’ Nor did the trilateral agreement prevent ratification of the treaty. This apparently surprised Moscow: the day after ratification by both the Ukrainian and European parliaments, Putin wrote to European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, demanding that the treaty be changed before implementation and threatening ‘immediate and appropriate retaliatory measures’ against Kiev if implementation went ahead.40

Alternate reality

Because territory has been taken from Ukraine, the Russian intervention was still widely seen as successful, even though the conflict was unresolved and Russia had yet to achieve its main objectives. Russian success was attributed to its skilful adoption of the techniques of hybrid war. This was reflected in the use of a range of force types. Initially, the main requirement was sufficient force to take over administrative buildings and intimidate local police forces. Over time the demands increased, to the point where local agitators had to be supplemented with Russian fighters with combat experience, apparently often Chechen. Eventually, regular forces had to become directly involved. Throughout there was a deceptive intent, recalling the old Soviet concept of maskirovka (masking) or even Potemkin villages.41 The aim was to sustain the pretence that the fighting force was wholly indigenous, supplemented by no more than some friendly volunteers from over the border. Thus, the Washington Post editorialised:

Some have called the new approach ‘hybrid war,’ a conflict waged by commandos without insignia, armored columns slipping across the international border at night, volleys of misleading propaganda, floods of disinformation and sneaky invasions like the one into Crimea. In this hybrid war, a civilian airliner was shot down by surface-to-air missiles, but the triggerman or supplier of the missile was never identified; artillery shells are fired but no one can say from where; Russian military material and equipment appears suddenly in the villages and fields of eastern Ukraine. While people are being killed, as in any war, and while Ukraine has mustered its forces admirably to push back, this hybrid war features an aggressor whose moves are shrouded in deception.42

Russian strategists were said to judge information operations to be important as a means of challenging the claims made by their opponents and of shoring up support at home.43 A constant challenge was mounted to the claims made by Ukrainian and Western opponents of Russian action, and a competing narrative was developed, based on the supposedly illegal and fascistic nature of the Kiev government, its sole responsibility for the existence of a conflict and for particular tragedies (such as the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner), and the shelling of civilian areas. This was combined with a larger narrative about the greatness, exceptional quality and legitimate interests of Russia.44 Economic sacrifices and the risks being run in Ukraine were justified as enabling a shift away from dependence on trade with Western Europe to intensified links with Asia. The increasing control over national media and Internet providers, along with intimidation of dissenters, made it possible to shape Russian opinion. For example, after the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers in St Petersburg expressed concern about Russian casualties in Ukraine, the Ministry of Justice declared the non-governmental organisation to be a ‘foreign agent’. Enormous efforts were made to harass perceived opponents of Russia, including the deployment of an army of trolls with a mission to contradict and abuse those taking anti-Russian positions on social media,45 and the use of Russia Today (RT), a Russian-controlled news network.46

As deception operations, these efforts were largely unsuccessful: few were deceived. Although the starting point for Russian operations was plausible denial, after a while it seemed as though Moscow no longer cared.47 The claims about a lack of direct Russian involvement in the fighting became progressively implausible and eventually incredible. Ukrainians did not rally en masse to the separatist cause. Russian positions taken in a series of awkward Security Council sessions were widely disregarded and derided, and the country’s standing fell internationally.

As much of the campaign was conducted through social media, Russian efforts were hampered by the role played by independent analysts who used considerable forensic skills to evaluate claims being made by both sides. This was particularly effective after the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane. In addition to denying that BUK surface-to-air missiles could have been in the area, Moscow attempted to suggest that the airliner had been attacked from behind by a Ukrainian Su-25. There were obvious reasons (such as altitude) to doubt the story, but what was notable in this case were the captured tweets and Facebook entries from before the separatists realised what they had done; demonstrations that a BUK had been in the appropriate place; the analysis of the debris, which showed damage consistent with a BUK; and the comprehensive debunking of the Su-25 theory.48

The challenges to Russian claims made little difference in Russia. Here, the information campaign was effective, reflected in a surge in Putin’s popularity.49 The president rode a wave of nationalist sentiment, particularly with regard to the annexation of Crimea. While consolidating power in Moscow may not have been the prime objective of the campaign, Putin certainly took advantage of the situation to do so, with those worried about the economy losing out to those seeking to strengthen the state along traditional lines.50 Yet a government which insists on fictional descriptions of situations can get caught out, in what Jeffrey Michaels has identified as a ‘discourse trap’, whereby maintaining consistency with the fiction means that it must be upheld even when the result is to push counterproductive policies.51 This had already created risks for the government. Nationalists were unnerved by possible betrayals of the separatists (a factor which may have encouraged Putin in the more overt intervention), allegations which were sure to re-surface if the separate territories were in any way re-integrated into Ukraine. There were diplomatic costs as well. When an interlocutor insists on an alternative reality it becomes hard to engage or to trust, making diplomatic intercourse more difficult. This was one reason for the poor relations between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Putin.

There was, however, one important sense in which the Russian propaganda effort was successful. This was in creating a sense of danger that probably had an effect, albeit one that is hard to measure, in deterring the West from supporting Ukraine as much as it might otherwise have done. This effort involved rhetorical threats, such as regular reminders of Russia’s nuclear strength. ‘Russia’s partners’, Putin was reported saying in August as his forces were moving into Ukraine, ‘should understand it’s best not to mess with us.’ He added a reminder that ‘Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers.’52 Exaggerated claims were made about the speed with which Russian nuclear forces could be modernised and replaced.53 There were suggestions of a new Russian doctrine that would ‘re-establish NATO as Russia’s primary threat and effectively set Russia’s defence policy toward combating it’.54 There were also staged incidents, such as the kidnapping of an Estonian officer and regular violations of Western airspace.55 By way of contrast to Russian bluster and braggadocio, Western commentary often accepted the foundations of this self-promotion at face value instead of mounting a challenge. Russian boldness was often compared unfavourably with the feebleness of Western support.56 While the hawks exaggerated Russian power, the doves showed sympathy for its stance, accepting that the origins of the crisis lay in Western expansionism rather than Ukrainian self-determination.57

The price Russia paid for the deterrence value of this additional menace was a restructuring of the European security debate. More attention began to be paid by NATO to tangible forms of reassurance to the Baltic states, while neutrals such as Sweden and Finland got closer to the alliance. NATO adopted a ‘Readiness Action Plan’ to establish military bases in Eastern Europe and a rapid-response force to protect its members from Russian incursions. It also committed financial and material support to Ukraine and promised to hold regular military exercises on its territory. If nothing else, NATO was provided with an answer to the question of what it needed to worry about as it left Afghanistan. Energy-security issues were also on the agenda. There were claims that, in response, Russia would reduce its dependence on Western markets by looking to Asia.58 But China was largely taking advantage of Russian weakness to achieve attractive deals on oil supplies, while Japan had also imposed sanctions.59 Over time, Russia would need to re-engage with the EU. The Russian foreign minister even floated the idea of a new ‘reset’ with the United States.60

In the run-up to NATO’s Wales summit of early September 2014, which took place at the same time as the ceasefire negotiations in Minsk, US President Barack Obama’s proposition that there could not be a ‘military solution’ to the Ukraine crisis was adopted as something of a mantra.61 The effect was to signal to both domestic audiences and Ukraine that NATO members were not going to get militarily involved. Although Poroshenko had made an urgent appeal when he spoke to the US Congress in September for more military support, the limited $53m package he was offered, including radar, vehicles and body armour, stopped short of providing weapons or other lethal aid. Despite pressure from Congress and within government, the White House was anxious to avoid a proxy war with Moscow.62 Combined with heavy combat losses, this may well have convinced Poroshenko not to continue to push back militarily against Russia and the separatists, and to accept a ceasefire.

This mantra about there being no military solution was true, but also missed the point. Wars are political struggles and therefore any solution will be marked by a political settlement. The military situation on the ground, however, will hardly be irrelevant. Thus, Russia’s more forceful intervention meant that when areas of control were supposedly frozen under the Minsk agreement they were far more advantageous to the separatists than they would have been just a couple of weeks earlier. It did not, however, ensure a political solution that met Russia’s objectives. Limited wars can only conclude if both sides accept a new reality as preferable to the risks involved in trying to achieve an even better reality. There must be a degree of compromise. Both must convince themselves that they can live with the outcome. After Minsk, Western capitals began to take the view that the worst of the crisis was over. This was too complacent. This limited war had not been transformed into a frozen conflict along the lines of those in Moldova and Georgia.

The situation remained unstable. Russia had damaged, but not defeated, Ukraine. By sticking to economic rather than military sanctions, NATO and the EU had damaged, but not defeated, Russia. The crisis was not over, because the future of Ukraine remained uncertain. This was largely because the separatists could not accept the political logic of the Minsk agreement, which meant in practice that they would have to agree that they could not actually stay separate. Even if Russia held on to Crimea, recognised de facto if not de jure, Putin was left with the dilemma of accusations of betrayal if Donetsk and Luhansk were re-integrated into Ukraine and of loss of influence over Ukraine if they were effectively to become part of Russia. The logic of the situation was that the separatists would be sustained, and even push further into Ukraine, but without regular Russian units taking too prominent a role.

This indicates an important problem with ‘hybrid warfare’. Definitions which assume unified political control overlook the most challenging aspect of trying to bring together irregular forces, representing one set of political interests, and regular forces, representing another. It can be challenging enough to meld together different units of the same army – for example, special forces and infantry battalions – but even more difficult where the forces coming together not only have different military tasks and methods but also distinct command structures and diverging political interests. Even among the militia groups in Donetsk and Luhansk there were differences. As conditions became harsher within those areas these differences were likely to grow. Lines were already becoming blurred between politics and criminality.63 At the same time, Ukrainian forces had also seen awkward combinations of militias and regular forces.64

Russia sustained a weak position and boosted its bargaining position by conveying a readiness to escalate. This was a constant of Russian rhetoric, including reference, on occasion, to nuclear capabilities. From the start there were menacing deployments of Russian forces along the border. The menace was validated to a degree by the invasion of Ukrainian territory. The threat of escalation certainly had an effect on Ukrainian calculations, reinforced by Kiev’s awareness of its own limited ability to escalate. While the Russian threats were not quite Potemkin villages (in that they had real substance), they were still exaggerated. Similarly, rather than complain about sanctions Russians decried them as being against international rules, but of little consequence. This dismissal of sanctions, as with claims that Russia could march with ease to Kiev, or turn off gas supplies without a thought for the consequences, or pivot to China, could be challenged on the basis of the underlying economic realities of its position. The gloomy prognostications by many Western commentators about how Putin was determined to take on all neighbouring states in some ways boosted this aspect of Russian strategy, making the country appear more powerful than was actually the case.

Putin’s power play in Ukraine was impulsive and improvised, without any clear sense of the desired end state. In a wide-ranging speech in October at Sochi, which was largely devoted to explaining how the US had been engaged in a foolish quest to dominate the world by breaking all international rules, Putin offered no long-term vision for Ukraine. He re-asserted the case for self-determination for Crimea, but also claimed to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity and to be ‘ready to make every effort to ensure the implementation of the Minsk agreements’. He also blamed the Ukrainian authorities for the violence, warned against using force to resolve the deadlock and told them ‘to understand that there is no sense in holding on to some village or other – this is pointless’. Yet by the time of this speech the separatists had denounced the Minsk agreements. Putin was stuck with boosting them both militarily and politically, perhaps hoping that Kiev would eventually accept that it must negotiate on their terms.65 It would serve neither Ukraine nor Russia if Donetsk and Luhansk fell into disrepair and disarray, adrift in some separatist limbo, but it was not clear that either had the capacity to provide a viable future. The separatists would not allow these territories to be re-integrated into Ukraine, while Russia could not afford to annex them. Militarily, Russia could help the separatists expand their area of control and use this to coerce and unsettle Ukraine. Politically and economically, it had few good options.

There was therefore still a risk of serious escalation. The Minsk agreement was not being implemented. The border between the separatist areas and Russia was left open and unmonitored, while those with Ukraine lacked any particular geographical or political logic that might allow them to be frozen and the fighting to be contained. The military clashes could become more intense. While the economic situation might push Moscow to look for a deal, the sense of continuing crisis and the nationalism it engendered played to Putin’s domestic political agenda. But, if the conflict was not resolved, economic sanctions would become embedded and there was a chance that Washington would have to reconsider its refusal to supply Ukraine with lethal equipment.

For its part, Ukraine was left struggling with a dire economic situation, aggravated by the costs of war, stuck with a demanding and unresolved military conflict, and divided internally, with a disaffected minority still looking more to the east than the west. It would be dependent on the EU for regular financial support. Not much of a start had been made on dealing with problems of chronic corruption and incompetence left over from the old regime. If Ukraine could not be strengthened economically, politically and militarily, which would require substantial contributions from the West, the situation could return to the one before 2014, when it was hard to imagine the country ever being in a fit state to join the EU.66

The first stage of this crisis demonstrated poor crisis management. The second stage proved that in a struggle over territory, superior force makes a difference. However, without popular support, along with economic and administrative capacity, Russia would struggle to transform seized territory into a viable political entity. After many months of effort, Russia had achieved limited gains, but at high cost. The situation had yet to stabilise. In limited war you don’t always get what you want. Nor do you get much satisfaction.


1 Lawrence Freedman, ‘Ukraine and the Art of Crisis Management’, Survival, vol. 56, no. 3, June–July 2014,

2 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, ‘Ukraine: Situation Report No. 15 as of 10 October 2014’, These numbers include 298 casualties from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. They depend on reports from official sources and medical establishments and are likely to be underestimates. Another report attributes civilian deaths to indiscriminate shelling of residential areas by both pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian armed forces. See Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine’, 16 September 2014, p. 3,

3 See, for example, Robert Endicott Osgood, Limited War: The Challenge to American Strategy (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1957).

4 This term was first coined in the late 1940s by the Hungarian communist leader Matyas Rakosi to explain the political process by which the Soviet Union gained control of Eastern Europe. The communists first organised ‘anti-fascist’ governments that would then shut down the parties to the right of them one by one, ’cutting them off like slices of salami’, until only the ‘end-piece’ of the Communist Party was left. It was therefore about the progressive exclusion of opponents. Later in the Cold War the term tended to be used to refer to progressive but incremental victories. There is, however, one continuity here with the current Ukrainian crisis in the liberal use of the ‘fascist’ label to delegitimise all other parties.

5 Herman Kahn, On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios (New York: Praeger, 1965).

6 Frank G. Hoffman, ‘Hybrid Warfare and Challenges’, Joint Forces Quarterly, no. 52, 2009, pp. 34–9. For historical examples see Williamson Murray and Peter R. Mansoor (eds), Hybrid Warfare: Fighting Complex Opponents from the Ancient World to the Present (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

7 Frank Hoffman, ‘On Not-So-New Warfare: Political Warfare vs Hybrid Threats’, War on the Rocks, 28 July 2014,

8 This is according to an interview with former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski. Ben Judah, ‘Putin’s Coup: How the Russian Leader Used the Ukraine Crisis to Consolidate his Dictatorship’, Politico Magazine, 19 October 2014,

9 Odessa was of obvious importance as a regional capital. On 2 May there was a tragic incident in the city. After violent clashes between pro-Russian demonstrators and pro-unity supporters, the separatists were overwhelmed and retreated to a trade-union building, which was set on fire, possibly as a result of petrol bombs originally used by those inside the building. Thirty-two people died as a result. The incident aggravated already tense relations in southeastern Ukraine.

10 Novorossiya was originally a far larger area than that currently occupied by the separatists. It included what had been Ottoman territory conquered by Catherine the Great, including Odessa.

11 This was another term associated with the Cold War. It referred to the post-war deal with the Soviet Union whereby Finland was able to adopt a democratic system and a market economy in return for remaining friendly to the Soviet Union in its foreign policy. It became a term of abuse, initially in Germany, employed against those who seemed to be ready to give Moscow a veto over foreign policy in return for a quiet life. Richard Milne, ‘“Finlandisation” Makes a Polarising Comeback in Finland’, Financial Times, 24 September 2014,

12 Anna Dolgov, ‘Russia Sees Need to Protect Russian Speakers in NATO Baltic States’, Moscow Times, 16 September 2014,

13 Justin Huggler, ‘Putin Privately Threatened to Invade Poland, Romania and the Baltic States’, Daily Telegraph, 19 September 2014,

14 This was a speech of late January 2013 to the annual general meeting of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences on ‘The Role of the General Staff in the Organization of the Defense of the Country in Correspondence with the New Statute about the General Staff Confirmed by the President of the Russian Federation’. See Sam Jones, ‘Ukraine: Russia’s New Art of War’, Financial Times, 28 August 2014,; and Paul Goble, ‘Putin’s Actions in Ukraine Following Script by Russian General Staff a Year Ago’, Interpreter, 20 June 2014,

15 The referendums were held on 11 May 2014. They took place after Putin had asked that they be postponed. It was claimed that 2,252,867 had voted in favour of self-rule, with 256,040 against, on a turnout of nearly 75%. The 89% ‘yes’ vote was in line with what had apparently been suggested in an intercepted call with the organisers and a Russian politician, but out of line with recent opinion polling in the region. See ‘Ukraine Rebels Hold Referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk’, BBC, 11 May 2014,; ‘SBU Audio Links Donetsk Republic to Russian Involvement’, Ukrainian Policy,

16 For a vivid account see Mumin Shakirov’s interview with Artur Gasparyan, an Armenian fighting for the separatists: ‘I was a Separatist Fighter in Ukraine’, Guardian, 15 July 2014, According to Gasparyan, only some 20% of the separatist militia were Ukrainian.

17 Andrew E. Kramer, ‘Plenty of Room at the Top of Ukraine’s Fading Rebellion’, New York Times, 19 August 2014,

18 One allegation was that a purpose of the convoy was to extract from Ukraine material from defence plants necessary for Russian defence production. See Reuben Johnson, ‘Russian Aid Convoy Committed Wide-scale Looting, Says Ukraine’, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, 27 August 2014,

19 Adrian Croft, ‘More Than 1,000 Russian Troops Operating in Ukraine: NATO’, Reuters, 28 August 2014, The prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, reported before Russian troops engaged fully that 1,200 fighters had trained in Russia for four months, had crossed into Ukraine and were ready to fight, supported by 30 tanks and 120 armoured vehicles. He later retracted this statement. (Roman Olearchyk and Courtney Weaver, ‘Separatist Leader Boasts of Fresh Tanks and Trained Troops from Russia’, Financial Times, 16 August 2014, He told Russian media in late August that among the 3,000–4,000 Russian citizens fighting with the separatists were ‘fighting serving soldiers, who would rather take their vacation not on a beach but with us, among brothers’. ‘Serving Russian Soldiers On Leave Fighting Ukrainian Troops Alongside Rebels, Pro-Russian Separatist Leader Says’, Telegraph, 28 August 2014,

20 ‘Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Ukraine’s Challenges’, Council on Foreign Relations, 24 September 2014,

21 Lucian Kim, ‘Ukraine’s Slow Descent into Madness’, Slate, 23 October 2014,

22 ‘Ukraine Deal with Pro-Russian Rebels at Minsk Talks’, BBC, 20 September 2014,

23 ‘Ukraine Crisis: Nato Sees “Significant” Russian Troop Pullback’, BBC, 24 September 2014,; Adrian Croft, ‘Russia Still Has Troops in Ukraine, NATO Says’, Reuters, 24 October 2014,; Michael R. Gordon and Andrew E. Kramer, ‘Russia Continues to Train and Equip Ukraine Rebels, NATO Official Says’, New York Times, 3 November 2014,

24 ‘Ukraine Says 2,000 Russian Servicemen Killed in Ukraine Conflict’, Reuters, 5 September 2014, This seems too high. There are, for obvious reasons, no authoritative Russian figures.

25 Terrence McCoy, ‘What Does Russia Tell the Mothers of Soldiers Killed in Ukraine? Not Much, Washington Post, 29 August 2014,

26 ‘Russian Sanctions Could Be Eased Soon if Ukraine Progress Made: U.S. Adviser’, Reuters, 10 October 2014, The link with Crimea was less clear.

27 ‘Russia Risks Recession After Economic Sanctions Over Ukraine Crisis’, International Business Times, 26 September 2014,; Paul Roderick Gregory, ‘Western Sanctions And Rising Debts Are Already Strangling the Russian Economy’, Forbes, 28 August 2014,

28 For data on the dependence of individual European countries on Russian energy, see this New York Times chart, updated on 2 September 2014:

29 The EU brokered a temporary deal between Russia and Ukraine at the end of October 2014. Edward C. Chow, ‘Russia–Ukraine Gas Deal – Another Last-Minute Special’, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 31 October 2014,

30 ‘Crimea Seeks Billions From Moscow to Aid Investment Projects’, Moscow Times, 15 September 2014,

31 ‘Ukraine’s Election: Good Voters, Not Such Good Guys’, Economist, 1 November 2014, It is notable that turnout was lower in the east compared with the west (only 32% in the Ukrainian-controlled areas of the Donbas).

32 ‘Fight Club’, Economist, 11 October 2014,

33 Roland Oliphant, ‘Ukraine Peace Plan Blow As Rebels Reject Donetsk and Luhansk Autonomy Deal’, Telegraph, 17 October 2014, Zakharchenko observed on 18 October that ‘we can no longer live in one state with Ukraine. Most likely, we will stay unrecognized. One [sic] the one hand, this seems bad. On the other hand, it is very good for the economy. Being unrecognized means more money. This means no international obligations.’ ‘Donetsk People’s Republic Likely to Remain Formally Unrecognized: DPR Prime Minister’, RIA Novosti, 18 October 2014,

34 ‘Donetsk Forces Plan to Retake Slaviansk, Kramatorsk, Mariupol’, RIA Novosti, 23 October 2014,

35 This was confirmed by the OSCE, which was supposedly charged with monitoring the implementation of the Minsk agreement. (See OSCE, ‘So-called Elections Not In Line With Minsk Protocol, Says OSCE Chair, Calling for Enhanced Efforts and Dialogue to Implement all Commitments’, 31 October 2014, But the OSCE did not monitor the elections. Under the aegis of something mischievously described as the Association of Security and Cooperation in Europe, a number of extremist politicians (from right and left) validated the election. Before they took place, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had declared the results ‘important for legitimizing the authority’ of the separatist governments, and promised to ‘recognize their results’. David M. Herszenhorn and Andrew Roth, ‘Russia Backs Plan by Ukraine Separatists for an Early Election’, New York Times, 20 October 2014,

36 ‘Ukraine Crisis: President Poroshenko’s Threat After Rebel Polls’, BBC, 4 November 2014,

37 Lizzy Davies, ‘Vladimir Putin Under Pressure to Denounce Rival Elections in Ukraine’, Guardian, 17 October 2014,

38 A poll carried out in September 2014 by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) showed that Ukrainians remained evenly divided on whether a military (40%) or a negotiated solution (41%) was preferable. ‘Ukraine’s Election: Springboard for Change?’, IISS Strategic Comments, 13 October 2014,

39 ‘Joint Ministerial Statement on the Implementation of the EU–Ukraine AA/DCFTA’, Brussels, 12 September 2014,

40 Peter Spiegel, ‘Putin Demands Reopening of EU Trade Pact with Ukraine’, Financial Times, 25 September 2014,

41 In 1787, when Empress Catherine II visited Crimea after a devastating war, the region’s governor, Grigory Potemkin, sought to create an erroneous impression of a vibrant settlement. This was achieved by fabricating villages on the banks of the Dnieper, populated by Potemkin’s men. These would exist for only as long as it took for the empress’s barge to pass by; they would then be dismantled to be reconstructed further down the river. While this story may well be apocryphal, its essence has been a feature of Russian practice, even during the Cold War, to hide weakness by seeking to create an impression of strength.

42 ‘Editorial: Russia’s New Tactics of War Shouldn’t Fool Anyone’, Washington Post, 27 August 2014,

43 Timothy Snyder, ‘To Understand Putin, Read Orwell’, Politico Magazine, 3 September 2014,

44 As Peter Pomerantsev put it, ‘Nobody who lives in that part of the world today ever thought of themselves as living in Novorossiya and bearing allegiance to it – at least until several months ago. Now, Novorossiya is being imagined into being: Russian media are showing maps of its “geography,” while Kremlin-backed politicians are writing its “history” into school textbooks.’ Peter Pomerantsev, ‘Russia and the Menace of Unreality: How Vladimir Putin is Revolutionizing Information Warfare’, Atlantic, 9 September 2014,

45 Max Seddon, ‘Documents Show How Russia’s Troll Army Hit America’, BuzzFeed News, 2 June 2014,

46 The defection of some of RT’s reporters to the West, and the absurd nature of some of its claims, did little for its credibility (although it is important to note that in some parts of Europe, Russian media sources are widely used).

47 In response to the capture of Russian soldiers in Ukraine, the official line was that they were there ‘by accident’. ‘Captured Russian Troops “in Ukraine by Accident”’, BBC News, 26 August 2014,

48 Before the crash was announced, separatist leader Igor Girkin claimed ‘we just downed a plane, an AN-26 … We have issued warnings not to fly in our airspace.’ ‘Ukraine Separatist Social Media Site Claims Plane Downing’, Radio Free Europe, 17 July 2014, (A Ukrainian AN-26 transport had been shot down by a Russian surface-to-air missile on 26 July.) Shortly afterwards, Ukrainian intelligence released a radio intercept of conversations between separatists, available at On 9 September 2014, the Dutch Safety Board released its report on the downing of the airliner. The report ruled out technical failure, and cited evidence that the aircraft was ‘penetrated by a large number of high-energy objects’ which ‘originated from outside the fuselage’. The report concluded that the aircraft broke up in mid-air; before this happened, there were no communications from the pilot or crew to suggest that there were any problems with the flight. All this accorded with a sudden and catastrophic event, consistent with the jet being destroyed by an advanced surface-to-air missile such as a BUK. See Dutch Safety Board, ‘Preliminary Report: Crash Involving Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 Flight MH17, Hrabove, Ukraine, 17 July 2014’, September 2014, German intelligence was said to have concluded that the aircraft was shot down by separatists. See ‘Deadly Ukraine Crash: German Intelligence Claims Pro-Russian Separatists Downed MH17’, Spiegel Online International, 19 October 2014,

49 Thomas Sherlock, ‘Putin’s Public Opinion Challenge’, National Interest, 21 August 2014, Polls showed high support for Putin at 87%, but also wariness about a prolonged conflict in Ukraine and concern about economic prospects. ‘His approval rating rose to 86 percent in September from 65 percent in January, according to pollster Levada Center, which surveyed 1,600 people across Russia over four days.’

50 Judah, ‘Putin’s Coup’.

51 Jeffrey Michaels, Shock and Flawed: The Discourse Trap from the War on Terror to the Surge (London: Palgrave, 2013).

52 Tom Parfitt, ‘Ukraine Crisis: Putin’s Nuclear Threats are a Struggle for Pride and Status’, Telegraph, 29 August 2014,

53 Alexander Goltis, ‘Russia’s Nuclear Euphoria Ignores Reality’, Moscow Times, 6 October 2014,

54 One issue was whether the new doctrine would discuss pre-emptive nuclear strikes. Matthew Bodner, ‘Russia Hardens Military Thinking as NATO Fizzes Over Ukraine’, Moscow Times, 7 September 2014,

55 Mark Galeotti, ‘Estonian Kidnap Is Russia’s Latest Provocation’, Moscow Times, 11 September 2014, See also Ott Ummelas and Bryan Bradley, ‘Lithuania Says Russia Seized Ship as Baltic Tensions Grow’, Bloomberg, 19 September 2014,; ‘Nato Reports Rise in Russia Military Flights Over Europe’, BBC, 29 October 2014, NATO reported that it had intercepted Russian aircraft more than 100 times so far this year – three times more than it did last year.

56 Elizabeth Pond, ‘The End of Deterrence? Ukraine Is At the Mercy of Moscow Now, the West is Watching Helplessly’, IP Journal, 23 September 2014,

57 John J. Mearsheimer, ‘Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin’, Foreign Affairs, September–October 2014, See replies by Michael McFaul and Stephen Sestanovich in the November–December issue (‘Faulty Powers: Who Started the Ukraine Crisis?’,

58 According to Sergey Karaganov, Western strategy misunderstood the extent to which the struggle was about stopping ‘others expanding their sphere of control into territories they believe are vital to Russia’s survival’, and also the extent to which ‘Russia is far stronger, and the west far weaker, than many imagine’. ‘Western Delusions Triggered This Conflict and Russians Will Not Yield’, Financial Times, 14 September 2014,

59 ‘On May 21, Mr Putin suddenly reversed a decade of resistance and caved in to Chinese demands for a lower gas price, accepting $350 per thousand cubic metres. That is 42 per cent less than the price Lithuania pays – so low that it risks depressing natural gas prices throughout the Far East, including for future Russian sales to Japan.’ Matthew Bryza, ‘Call Putin’s Bluff – He Will Not Cut off Europe’s Gas’, Financial Times, 1 September 2014, On Chinese caution when it comes to doing deals with Russia, see Jack Farchy and Kathrin Hille, ‘Chinese Lenders Grow Wary of Russian Embrace’, Financial Times, 13 October 2014. The $25 billion prepayment for gas agreed in May was still said by Gazprom to be ‘hanging in the balance’ as of mid-October.

60 ‘Russia Says Relations with US Need New “Reset”’, Hurriyet Daily News, 28 September 2014,

61 Speaking in Estonia on 3 September, President Obama said: ‘Since ultimately there’s no military solution to this crisis, we will continue to support President Poroshenko’s efforts to achieve peace because, like all independent nations, Ukraine must be free to decide its own destiny.’ ‘Remarks by President Obama to the People of Estonia’, Tallinn, Estonia, 3 September 2014, While supporting sanctions, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany ‘will certainly not deliver weapons, as this would give the impression that this is a conflict that can be solved militarily.’ Andrew Higgins and Neil MacFarquhar, ‘Ukraine President Says Europe’s Security Depends on Stopping Russia’, New York Times, 30 August 2014,

62 Philip Shishkin and Jeffrey Sparshott, ‘Ukraine to Get More U.S. Aid, but Not Weapons’, Wall Street Journal, 18 September 2014,

63 Mark Galeotti, ‘Crime and Crimea: Criminals As Allies and Agents’, RFE/RL, 3 November 2014,

64 An example here is the paramilitary Azov Battalion, which is linked to the Right Sector in Ukraine and was involved in the defence of Mariupol. Alec Luhn, ‘Preparing for War with Ukraine’s Fascist Defenders of Freedom’, Foreign Policy, 30 August 2014, Http://

65 Speech by President Vladimir Putin, ‘Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club’, 24 October 2014, On economic sanctions he stated: ‘We know how these decisions were taken and who was applying the pressure. But let me stress that Russia is not going to get all worked up, get offended or come begging at anyone’s door.’

66 On the importance of strengthening Ukraine, including with further cash injections, see George Soros, ‘Wake Up, Europe’, New York Review of Books, 20 November 2014, See also Steven Mufson, ‘Ukraine’s Economy Choking Under Russian Pressure but Western Help is Scarce’, Washington Post, 15 October 2014,

Lawrence Freedman is Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. His latest book is Strategy: A History (Oxford University Press, 2013). An earlier version of this article appeared on the web magazine War on the Rocks on 8 October 2014.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

December 2014–January 2015

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