Hybrid war: The real reason fighting stopped in Ukraine – for now

February 26, 2015
A man pushes a wheelbarrow past a house damaged by fighting in the town of Debaltseve

A man pushes a wheelbarrow past a house damaged by fighting in the town of Debaltseve, Ukraine, Feb. 25, 2015. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

President Vladimir Putin understands how insurgencies work better than any other Russian leader. We are watching this play out right now in Ukraine.

Before Putin took power, Moscow had long struggled to suppress rebel movements. In the 1980s, for example, the Soviet Union grappled with the Muslim mujahedeen in Afghanistan. Moscow propped up the beleaguered Kabul government with an invasion and occupation — to little avail. After 10 years of grueling conflict, Moscow withdrew, just as the Soviet Union fell apart. A few years later, rebels inflicted another serious blow against the Russian military, in the Russian province of Chechnya. Chechen militants launched attacks deep into Russia. The Kremlin again withdrew its forces and essentially sued for peace.

Until Putin took the helm.

Putin succeeded where others had failed because he was skilled at fighting dirty. As a former KGB operative, he fused together intelligence and military measures. In Chechnya he relentlessly pursued the rebels, often using undercover operations that adopted terrorist tactics, until one Chechen leader switched sides and helped him defeat the rebels.

A Russian flag flutters on top of a separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic army armoured personnel carrier as it drives through the town of Vuhlehirsk

A Russian flag flutters on a separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic army armored personnel carrier in the town of Vuhlehirsk, February 25, 2015. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Now in Ukraine, Putin has turned the tables. He is with the insurgents, not the government. Putin is to Kiev what the mujahedeen and the Chechens were to Kabul and Moscow, respectively. Given Russia’s own simmering national minority troubles and territorial disputes, the Russian president is taking a huge risk in backing an armed rebellion in a neighboring country.

But the risk is well calculated because the stakes are high. Putin has a great deal riding on this.

He firmly believes, as he has laid out in many statements, that the battle for the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine is a proxy war with the West. The United States and Europe seek to weaken Russia, Putin’s argument goes, by pulling a key Russian ally, Ukraine, into their sphere of influence. Putin’s goal is to deny Kiev the chance of associating with the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

In Putin’s view, the West stoked regime change in Kiev in February 2014 for the same reasons that the United States supported the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s — to undermine Moscow’s authority throughout the region. Putin also asserts that the West aided and abetted the Chechens throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s to destabilize the Russian Federation. So according to Putin’s logic, Afghanistan was the West’s proxy war with the Soviet Union. Ukraine is the West’s proxy war with Russia.

This being a proxy war, Putin is intent on helping the side that best serves Russia’s interests. In this case, that side is the “armed formations,” as the February Minsk agreement describes them,  of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk regions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during a meeting with Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow

President Vladimir Putin during a meeting with Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, February 25, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Kadobnov/Pool

Putin, of course, denies that Russians are fighting with the Donbass rebels. Kremlin officials insist this is a civil war between Ukraine and people who reject the new Kiev government. Putin does admit, though, that many Russian volunteers have joined the rebels, including “vacationing” soldiers. Yet Putin has also claimed that Kiev is being supported by “NATO’s foreign legion” and U.S. arms.

The Minsk agreement refers to the presence of “foreign armed formations, military technology, and likewise mercenaries” in Ukraine, without specifying their origin. The denials and the voluntary nature of the external involvement are all hallmarks of a civil war centered on an insurgency.

Having fought off an insurgency himself, Putin knows a thing or two about insurgents’ methods. Putin and the Russian military have incorporated these tactics into a larger strategy of 21st-century hybrid war. Valery Gerasimov, chief of staff of the Russian armed forces, rolled this out in a January 2013 speech. He announced the Russian military would engage in a “new kind of war” fought with “nonmilitary methods to achieve political and strategic goals.”

These methods, Gerasimov explained, would involve fomenting popular protests, using covert military measures and deploying special operations forces, often under the guise of peacekeeping or crisis management. Such tactics, Gerasimov insisted, had been used by the United States for decades. Now Russia would fight back in the same way.

Because of what Putin perceives as an asymmetry of military capabilities and economic strength between Russia and the United States and its Western allies, he feels Russia has to be more aggressive and smarter than its opponents in fighting this new kind of war. This asymmetric, hybrid war, Gerasimov noted, requires “the close coordination of military, intelligence and information operations.”

Russia’s military intelligence, the GRU, and the Federal Security Service have been at the forefront of operations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, as many observers have noted. Russian diplomats and media have helped to maintain a coordinated information-support campaign to persuade domestic and foreign audiences of “the futility of [exerting] any forms of pressure on the Russian Federation and its allies.” Gerasimov, in another speech in February 2014, explained that this was also a goal of hybrid warfare.

A man waits for a convoy of mobile artillery cannons of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic army to start pulling back from Donetsk

A man waits for a convoy of mobile artillery cannons of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic army to start pulling back from Donetsk, February 26, 2015. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Putin and the Russian military hierarchy have been remarkably open in describing how the Kremlin is using the war in Ukraine as a giant training exercise for conducting a hybrid war. While the rebels have directly engaged the Ukrainian army in the Donbass, the Russian military has been engaged in training exercises just inside Russian territory. These exercises include the use of space, missile and nuclear forces, special forces and conventional military units, and psychological operations teams and political operatives.

They have pulled in all branches of Russia military and security services, as well as the civilian leadership. The exercises have been covered widely in the Russian media and on Moscow’s official websites. In a May 2014 announcement, for example, the Kremlin stated, somewhat cryptically, that Putin was overseeing these giant war games “in operational mode.”

So where are we now in this giant war game? On Feb. 24, we appeared to enter what Moscow might term a “political-diplomatic phase.” This was the first full day without casualties since the Feb. 12 Minsk agreement. As Gerasimov asserted in his speeches, the goal of an asymmetric hybrid war is to achieve objectives without launching a full-blown conventional military war. Hybrid war has many weapons and many ways of fighting.

Diplomacy can be one of them. In late January, the United States government debated whether to send arms to the Ukrainian military. The intent was clearly to push Putin from covert to overt support of the rebels — and into a conventional war. Instead, however, Putin was able to push the U.S. debate into the background by plunging into diplomatic negotiations with the Ukrainian president, the German chancellor and the French president — which ultimately resulted in the second Minsk agreement.

The agreement, in spite of its references to foreign fighters, maintains Russia’s position that the war in Ukraine is between Kiev and the Donbass “armed formations.” The arrangement also provided enough diplomatic cover for the rebels to rout the Ukrainian army from the town of Debaltseve, a railway hub that connects Donetsk and Luhansk.

The timing and wording of the agreement’s provisions that Putin directly hammered out provided sufficient strategic ambiguity for the rebels to press their advantage. As Gerasimov noted a year ago, “political-diplomatic and foreign economic measures … are … closely interconnected with military, information, and other measures.”

Now that the rebels have consolidated their area of control, one operational phase of the game seems to have concluded. Putin bought time for the rebels to take Debaltseve. With the rebels having secured a position of strength on the ground, the ceasefire can now be enforced.

In the next phase, Putin and the rebels will likely regroup. They will pocket whatever concessions they can take from Kiev. They will then likely reassess what they need to do militarily, politically and economically in the next phases of the proxy hybrid war to maintain pressure on Ukraine and the West.

This sort of tactical maneuvering is something Putin learned in the KGB. As circumstances change, you step back and see how everyone else reacts. You have to be willing to adapt and have a range of  backup plans to keep one step ahead of your adversaries.

If the military part of an operation runs into a problem, for example, try another approach. If diplomatic efforts don’t bear the fruit you want, look elsewhere. You just have to be willing to use all methods available — and be ruthless to achieve your goals.


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This piece sets the table nicely. I’m curious what’s for dinner?

Posted by aeci | Report as abusive

Quote: [Putin] is with the insurgents, not the government.

The government of the Ukraine was the result of coup that overthrew the democratically elected Yanukovych.

Posted by PaperTrails | Report as abusive

@PaperTrail – Democratically elected who ordered snipers to shoot a bunch of protesters, that’s the real reason why he was ousted.

Posted by sweet-potatoe | Report as abusive

One of the dumbest English proverbs is: If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. It should read: If at first you don’t succeed, give up and try something different. Knocking your head against a brick wall is just stupid.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

Ah I see PaperTrails is here as part of the Russian social media trolling strategy so often mentioned by Reuters and other outlets.

Posted by evilhippo | Report as abusive

“In late January, the United States government debated whether to send arms to the Ukrainian military. The intent was clearly to push Putin … into a conventional war.” Interesting statement.

Posted by AlexKa | Report as abusive

This thorough summary of Putin’s management of the Ukraine coup d’état certainly represents a good argument against western adventures in the few remaining satellites of the former Soviet Union. The piece very nicely itemises the ugly side of current martial tactics and, even if some exaggerations have crept in, portray a mean and cunning side to Kremlin methods.

Moscow’s appeals for constraint in Iraq 2003 and in Libya 2011 and in Syria 2013 all underline their inherent stance on attacks on various nation states. To reflect on the current condition of these three countries must surely highlight the total futility of the use of modern weaponry against civilian areas and the colossal damage in terms of human suffering and in devastated townships. Putin, by the way, took no part in the Middle East activities post Afghanistan.

Posted by baglanboy | Report as abusive

Looks like Estonia is next , the Russian minority which is 25% of the population is badly treated in the country and even provoked by NATO parading weaponry on the independence through the city of Narva which has 90 % Russian population.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

So the USA started this & Putin is doing everything sensible/possible to contain this? Yet the Russians are the bad guys? I don’t follow, pls explain the relationship of instigation, self-defense, & moral responsibility? Thank you

Posted by TigerFalls | Report as abusive

Russia is a dying nation. They lack global influence, they are losing investors, and their chief remaining exports are orphans and herpes.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Very well stated. The real question remains, when, if ever, the west stand together to give Putin the bloody nose that is the only way to stop his resurrection of the old Soviet Union?

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Putin could join the world community and lift his “subjects” out of poverty. That would cost his crony tycoons, I suppose.

Posted by Amwatching2c | Report as abusive

this article disregard the fact the Obama administration have throw ukrain to the wolves, Obama encouraged ukrainians to rebel against the regime loyal to moscow then he turned back to them, not even providing with few billions in aid or just light weapons, what a coward, i understand why the US standing in the world have plunged under his administration.

Posted by Noproxy | Report as abusive

Non-intervention is key. Ukraine does not matter. It’s literally the home of Chernobyl. This is not our fight, not our problem. Let Putin get his own boots stuck in this mud for decades.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Putin will rue the day he conducted this war with the Ukraine. He will have an internal war with the Russian people, and, like other Russian dictators he will end up like csar Nicholas. When the populatian really sees through the smoke and mirrors he will be gone and and the annexed portions of the Ukraine will be returned to the Ukrainan people.

Posted by brd893 | Report as abusive

Ms. Hill, This is one of the most thoughtful articles on Putin and the Ukraine I have read. It is refreshing to read a real good critical analysis. What are you publishing next?

Posted by HardHeadedDane | Report as abusive

“.. according to Putin’s logic, Afghanistan was the West’s proxy war with the Soviet Union. Ukraine is the West’s proxy war with Russia..”

This is not some “Putin’s logic” but is an open and well known reality with operational support of USAID and other instruments that US fomented the conflict, over the years.

Good article.

Goes to show somewhat un-parallel leadership-prowess of Putin and how US keeps grossly underestimating this and refuse to learn nor yield but keep paying the heavy price in terms of – loss of life in the regions of conflict and at the steep cost of US tax payer dollars in billions/trillions, over decades.

What a shame past 6 years the budget deficit was averaging close to $1T/year unseen in history to-date and yet, both public and media seem calm about this.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive

Unfortunately these days the only way to get something published and get paid is to write anti-Russian and anti-Putin. God bless Russia an Vladimir The Righteous.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Petty border skirmish. This is proof that Russia is no longer a significant nation.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

The author should write an article that will explain us the difference between Kosovo and Novorossiya,Crimea,Nothern Ireland,Catalonia, Basque etc…

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

And Macedonian should write an article that will explain why separatism is good within Ukraine, but bad in Chechnya, Dagestan, Circacia, Karachay, etc.

Freedom movements which are suppressed with typical clumsy Russian force and paranoia.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

As much as I could see recent videos showed Chechen fighters were fighting on the Russian separatist side even that in the Chechen war there were Ukrainians fighting on the Chechen side.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

To Alkaline State: Russia was against separatism worldwide and repeatedly warned the West of the consequences of redrawing the world map. One can divide Africa in thousands of countries as there are thousands of tribes with different languages and beliefs. There are even separatist movements in US too

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Dagestan is multiethnic republic of Russia and has 14 official languages more like the situation in Africa.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

The equation is simple. Ukraine No psy for gas, Ukraine no get gas. It is known in the west as pay to play. Too bad the Eu is at the end of the pipeline and will be shut off due to their pals in Kiev. The
EU has been boasting about diversifying its gas imports and getting rid of Russia as a supplier despite Russia having been a very reliable partner for many years. Oh well with all the hot air in Brussels and General Breedlove’s warmongering there seems to be enough hot air for the EU now.

Posted by Bfstk | Report as abusive

Why is the EU always led by the nose by the US. Surely all the EU member countries would have a varied relationship with Russia as compared to the relationship US has with Russia but EU always falls into line with whatever position the US takes. And its not only with Russia , the EU are US puppets …..WHY ?????

Posted by ASEtaboo | Report as abusive

good article, well done.

Posted by spartyb | Report as abusive

The modus operand in the middle east is the same in Ukraine by the same global criminal cabal. Arm and empower radical extremist, blame the legit government and or leaders while creating false flag operations and then commencing genocide against civilians.

Europe has been subjugated to third world status as was practiced in South American countries and in the US today. Now the European populations are waking up to the realities of war and economic destruction while being goaded into a destiny of no return if they don’t wrest control from NATO and the fascist who run NATO as their military enforcer of this mafia control.

There is an answer that is obvious to most but feel powerless to correct. Novorossia is showing that St. George legend is alive and well as the dragons are starting to whale louder incoherently against this will to resist the offering of human sacrifice rituals.

Posted by GKRIII | Report as abusive

“Dagestan is multiethnic republic of Russia and has 14 official languages more like the situation in Africa.”

So what? They don’t deserve freedom if they talk funny? Dagestan is not Russian.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

So what is the proper response to all this?

Posted by genec | Report as abusive

Dagestan is Persian, Like Azerbaijan. That’s why they want to be independent from Russia. Everyone knows that. Except Russian trolls.

So does Putin support freedom fighters, or does he not? Looking at you, Macedonian.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

“he feels Russia has to be more aggressive and smarter than its opponents in fighting this new kind of war.”

Well he sure is smarter, no argument there.

Posted by Sinbad1 | Report as abusive

This is a game at which two can play. All the US–and its Western allies–need to do is let the “Islamic State” play out in the Middle East. This will act as a training ground for all the disaffected Muslims in both Russia and China. There are large mainly-Muslim areas in both countries, and Russia and China have much more to fear from the Islamic State than the West. The West can simply force all would-be travelers to its territory to submit to a screening. Both Russia and China have large, loosely controlled borders through which terrorists can easily penetrate. If the West does not stop Putin now then not only Ukraine but the Baltic States will fall. Then there will be another general European war.

Posted by sixfathom | Report as abusive

Nothing particularly original about this. The Communists Putin served for much of his career used these tactics globally from the moment they took power in Russia.

Posted by FabiusMaximus | Report as abusive

What you are saying is that Putin learns from his mistakes (whereas the US Military Industrial Empire cannot seem to do the same).

Posted by ImminentAnarchy | Report as abusive

Very astute! Can be labeled “Stalin lives!” His plans to populate satellites with Russians, gulags, “siberias” were specifically targeted just as U.S. “manifest destiny” propaganda. We eliminated Native Americans, Russians eliminated “home rules” with KGB puppets (Yanukovich backfired being old school communist. East Germany, Bylorussia, Chechnya, Moldova, etc.)

Posted by 18popeye | Report as abusive

We dropped this foreign policy nightmare right on Russia’s border and feign incredulity in the press at the response from Russia.

If you’re waiting for some analyst or senior fellow from one of the roughly 600-800 think tanks worldwide to explain our expansionist policies and the dark side of our history of fomenting regime change, in this op-ed page, make yourself comfortable, you’re in for a wait.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Further to my previous. The article gets one thing correct. It is now all over. The junta in Kiev is stuffed. They can’t get there better equipped army to fight and they can’t get more recruits. Desertions are still a big problem. They just don’t have the support. Of course the Rebels are regrouping just like the few loyal parts of the Ukraine army are regrouping and licking there wounds. It is now inevitable. East Ukraine will now demand virtual complete autonomy. End up virtually a State of its own. Maybe even secede like Crimea. Once this happens of course all other Pro Russia areas will want the same. It is not a Hybrid War. It is simply the USA getting a lesson again in trying to impose there wishes on people who want nothing to do with them. The very reason the Junta in Kiev is suing there vicious Right Wing Militias to try and stop the people of Mariupol from joining with the Rebels. They can’t use there Regular troops made up of mostly decent people. They would not be prepared to be vicious enough to impose there way on what in effect are there Eastern cousins. Not everybody thinks like the USA and Terrorists. Use force to make other conform to your ways. Australian. Conservative voter overall and 5th Generation.

Posted by Rkap | Report as abusive

Russia is in decline. Investors are pulling out.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Putin’s playing chess; Obamaa’s playing checkers!

Posted by billgreene | Report as abusive

Hard to see how the Kremlin’s economic strategy is helping them.

Posted by alexdownunder | Report as abusive