Editor’s note: Over the last year Phillip Karber has made 14 trips to the frontline assessing the military situation. His most recent trip was in May 2015. The analysis and opinions represented in this article are strictly the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the intelligence community or the Department of Defense.
For the third time in a hundred years, storm clouds are darkening over Eastern Europe. Once again, a major power is sponsoring attacks against a sovereign country as well as making threatening statements and military demonstrations against American allies. Month-by-month since Russia’s 2014 invasion and occupation of Crimea, Moscow has doubled down on its aggressive actions against Ukraine and escalated its hostile posturing versus NATO. What seemed unimaginable 18 months ago is now a reality — a contingency few saw coming, but a challenge with which we now have to cope.
In retrospect, 1999 is likely to be viewed as a pivotal turning point in European security. That is the year when former KGB agent Vladimir Putin came to power believing “the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He since seems committed to reestablishing Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe and restoring Moscow’s coercive leverage as far west as the Vistula. It is also when the Russian Army began a decade-long restructuring of its forces and successfully introduced new tactics in the second Chechen War.
Recognizing that Russia faced three very different types of military opponents — high tech in the West, mass armies in the East and unconventional threats from the South — the General Staff designed the Russian Army for highly decentralized and dispersed operations covering the spectrum from unconventional, conventional and tactical nuclear battlefield environments. This new approach was employed against Georgia in 2008 and practiced against NATO in the Zapad (“West”) large-scale field exercises of 1999, 2009 and 2013.
It was also in 2013 that Russian military writers began writing about “new generation warfare” and the Chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, called for “rethinking on the forms and methods of warfare.” Russia’s proxy war with Ukraine over the last year has moved its evolving operational concepts out of the realm of theory into a brutal practice.
As practiced in Ukraine, Russia’s new generation warfare is manifested in five component elements: political subversion, proxy sanctuary, intervention, coercive deterrence and negotiated manipulation.
Russia’s new generation warfare differs from Western views of hybrid warfare — a blend of conventional, irregular and cyber warfare — in that it combines both low-end hidden state involvement with high-end direct, even braggadocio, superpower involvement. Contrary to Western politicians, the Russian leadership understands military options and plays them like a Stradivarius.
Aspects of this Russian strategy were evident earlier, but its implementation in Ukraine is where the veil has been lifted on this toxic brew. In Crimea, we saw subversive agents organizing internal opposition and fake elections. By spring, the Donbas was converted into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe and artificially generated civil war — with Moscow fueling the proxy insurrectionists.
Against every expectation, the Ukrainian Army conducted the largest mobilization and redeployment of any Western or East European country since World War II and has fought admirably given its two decades of military neglect and inventory of 30-year-old equipment. The surprise is neither that they resisted, nor that they have lost a string of recent battles but that, after nine months of near continuous combat, the Ukrainian Army is still standing.
When Ukraine attempted to restore order over its territory, Russian artillery launched massive and lethal cross-border fire strikes in July, and in late August unleashed a direct armored invasion. The first Minsk “ceasefire” was repeatedly broken by violent attacks that its Western-promoted monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe were impotent to stop and in turn led directly to the recent Winter Offensive where, without modern antitank weapons, Ukraine lost hundreds of its best armor and artillery in high-intensity combat.
As of this date, Russia has introduced into the Donbas several thousand pieces of heavy equipment — late model tanks (including T-90s), long-range artillery and rocket systems armed with thermobaric warheads, and a variety of sub-munitions, modern air defense and electronic warfare systems (many of which are unique only to Russian forces). Now Ukrainian forces are running low on ammunition, their air force has been driven from their own skies, forward units are down to half strength, and there is no reserve left. They are alone and the fate of people who just wanted to be part of the West is now in the “lap of the gods” — or worse, Putin’s whim.
The Donbas is currently in its third ceasefire but suffering daily violations while opposing battalions are reinforced and reorganized into Russian-led brigade and corps formations capable of much deeper operations.
Meanwhile, proxy leaders talk of future “fourth and fifth Minsk ceasefires” after they have seized even more territory.
Western sanctions, coupled with the fall of oil prices and endemic oligarchic corruption, have hurt the Russian economy, but Putin seems determined to make an example out of Ukraine — possibly seizing a land bridge to Crimea, or even extending Moscow’s control of Novorossiya all the way to Transnistria. The decision of the West not to provide replacements for Ukraine’s attrited weaponry or even meet their request to purchase modest numbers of modern antitank guided missiles (like Javelin or TOW II) serves as a virtual military embargo. Ironically, the most successful Western sanction has been in preventing a friendly country from defending itself.
Accompanying this aggression on the ground, Russia made direct nuclear threats against the Ukraine — a state that had given up possession of thousands of nuclear weapons under the 1994 Budapest Agreement in exchange for an explicit guarantee by Moscow of its sovereignty. Operating in proximity to NATO countries, Russian air, naval and strategic forces have conducted increasingly dangerous and provocative over-flights, nuclear force demonstrations and hostile exercises.
From the Arctic Circle to the Caucasus, frontline NATO members are expressing anxiety. Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania all feel threatened. Neutrals and NATO partners like Sweden, Finland, Moldavia and Georgia look for help.
Last September, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove NATO’s SACEUR and EUCOM’s Commander, was one of the first in Europe to call attention to Russia’s new style of hybrid warfare and to point out that its potential for malevolence and instability was not limited to Ukraine, but could threaten the rest of Europe. Whether Western politicians like it or not, the Russians are pursuing military options made viable less by their inherent strength than the victim’s isolation and weakness.