Crimea Taught Us a Lesson, But Not How the Russian Military Fights

I have started a new collaboration with War on the Rocks. I’ll be writing for them once a month or so. Here’s the first piece, on Crimea and the Russian military.


With the rapid operation that resulted in the annexation of Crimea earlier this year, the Russian military returned to the collective consciousness of the American public. Many commentators were impressed with the “little green men’s” professional demeanor and shiny new equipment. In some cases, this impression was undeservedly expanded to apply to the rest of the Russian military. In this context, it is important to discuss what the Crimean operation does and does not tell us about the capabilities of the Russian military.

The first clear lesson from the Crimean operation is that the Russian military understands how to carry out operations with a minimal use of force. This observation may initially seem banal or trivial, but we should keep in mind how Russian troops acted in previous operations in Chechnya and even to some extent in Georgia. Subtlety was not a strong suit in these operations, nor did it seem to be particularly encouraged by the political leadership. Instead, the goal seemed to be to use overwhelming force without much regard for civilian casualties. By contrast, the entire operation in Crimea was conducted with virtually no bloodshed or violence. There were three keys to this success:

Diversionary tactics

The Swedish analyst Johan Norberg was perhaps the first to highlight the significance of the major military exercise that was held on Ukraine’s eastern border in late February. While the Ukrainian government, as well as Western analysts and intelligence agencies, were distracted by the large-scale publicly announced mobilization in Russia’s Western military district, forces from the Southern military district and from airborne and Special Forces units located elsewhere in Russia were quietly transferred to Sevastopol.

You can read the rest of the article at War on the Rocks.

4 thoughts on “Crimea Taught Us a Lesson, But Not How the Russian Military Fights

  1. This article overlooks the most important factor in the Russian military’s success: the seizure of Crimea was supported by an overwhelming majority of the local population. While the 75% ethnic Russian population of the peninsula had long wanted to rejoin Russia, the Kremlin orchestrated a very effective info campaign after Yanukovich was ousted. This narrative impressed upon the pro-Russian audience in Crimea the danger that the “pro-Western, quasi-Nazi, Bandera-like junta” would have for ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. As a result, the “polite” Russian forces were viewed as true liberators among most Russians in Crimea.

    • You are right and I should have mentioned that factor. At the same time, I think we need to be very careful to avoid assuming that ethnic Russians living in Ukraine automatically wanted to join Russia. The last poll taken on this question before annexation (mid-February 2014) showed 41% support for joining Russia in Crimea as a whole. Clearly, this increased afterwards due to the info campaign, but it can’t be assumed that everyone was in favor.

  2. “The Russian military used the element of surprise… before the Ukrainian government and the international community had time to fully understand what was happening. ”

    “Ukrainian government” meaning junta formed outside of Constitutional norms?

    The article fails to mention that Russia was in fact INVITED to protect UKR citizens from forces loyal to the junta by the President of the legal government of Ukraine. Claiming this precedent to be a “worry” to other countries seems bizarre: Any current legitimate government should be REASSURED from Russia refusing to follow Western consensus and ignore legal details in order to recognize revolutionary regimes. These governments all had relations with and recognized Yanukovych, so what is upsetting about Russia’s actions there?

    Russia was not coy about it’s stance to the junta: it directly announced it’s position from the beginning: For an entire week following the coup, it took no action but diplomacy, but all the Western countries who now like to posture against Russia’s actions in fact preferred to revel in their moment of regime change triumph and IGNORE Russia’s diplomatic position, as well as the legal norms their pet junta had demolished. (never mind the EU’s own Parliament’s previous sanction against any cooperation with Svoboda, violated by EU members before and after coup)

    Re: recognition of Crimean secession, 1) that is the international legal norm, there is no international law AGAINST secession, it is assumed to be legit EXCEPT as balanced by sovereign national laws. 2) In this case, UKR’s Constitutional Court would normally rule on the process’ legality, except the (illegal) junta funnily enough (illegally) sacked the judges it didn’t like, not leaving enough legit judges to render a valid judgement, so there is no legitimate Constitutional Court ruling to bar Crimea’s move. How Russia can be attacked for violating legal technicalities while ignoring a host of technicalities the junta is in violation of is beyond me… But any scrap of legal legitimacy seems to lie clearly in Russia’s favor here.

    What is with the pussy footing language?:
    “Russia could even claim that the increase in the number of Russian troops in Crimea did not violate the relevant treaty.”
    Why not just openly state: The troop numbers were well within treaty limits at all time, and combined with the express invitation of the legitimate President Yanukovych, cannot be termed an invasion. Even the US admitted this at one point, admitting that the Russian forces were not attacking, but were establishing defensive positions, in accordance with Yanukovych’s request.

    “The treaty required Russia to notify Ukraine of significant troop movements, so the failure to observe that provision was in violation of the treaty even though the numbers remained within permitted levels.”
    The treaty required Russia to notify the LEGITIMATE Ukrainian authorities, who in fact invited Russia’s actions (in writing). The treaty says nothing about informing illegal usurpers of power. NATO recognizing them does not make them legitimate… at least by the Ukrainian Constitution. Although I believe most of these forces had been moved in before the coup anyways, with Yanukovych’s assent while he was still in Kiev, I did not see any large movements of troops between the coup and the lightning operation to secure Crimea from junta forces.

    Complaining about Russian infiltration of security services avoids the larger issue: significant portions of Ukrainian security services were not loyal to the coup detat, and cooperated with the Crimean events, either initially or subsequently after a neutral period of indecision and uncertainty. Hardly surprising given the junta’s vilification of Berkut etc, that when the junta illegally seized power, ignoring the 3/4 requirement for impeachment, that they did not give the junta their full loyalty. Last I checked, that’s exactly what any military should do, not give their loyalty to illegal usurpers. Any Russian infiltration of communications is secondary to the fact of the junta not gaining the loyalty of all Ukrainian servicemen.

    Finally, how can Georgia (888) in any way be portrayed as NOT a “minimal use of force”? I mean, your language there makes it seem as if you are almost embarrassed to make such a claim, but there is no reason at all to include 888 in that sentence: Saakashvili had already used Grads and other heavy weapons, and the Russian response was not any sort of escalation of that, Russia did constrain it’s attacks and avoid civilian casualties as much as was realistic, and did nothing further to “punish” Georgia militarily besides ending it’s capacity to violate the rights of Ossetians and Abhkaz, after Saakashvili demonstrated his willfull violation of the cease fire and peacekeeping agreement, etc which left zero trust to continue with status quo.

    (Weirdly, Saakashvili showed up in Kiev giving “moral support” or something, apparently feeling safe that the junta would not be cooperating with authorities in Tblisi and extraditing him for questioning over capital crimes)

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