Ukraine: The Shoestring War

April 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

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The Russian ”slow-motion invasion” of Ukraine, waged primarily by asymmetric means, suggests that the mighty Russian army could be but a mirage. Some commentators, such as Anne Applebaum, writing for Slate Magazine, describes the ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine as a ”new kind of war”: ”There is no “shock and awe” bombing campaign, just systematic, organized attacks on police stations, city councils, airports.”

This description gives Russia undue credit: in reality, this underhanded ”strategy” is born out of poverty and necessity rather than from a position of strength. That said, because the strategy is apparently working, it transforms weakness into strength. Seen from another perspective, Russia’s strategy is strengthened by the lacklustre response from a divided and corrupt Western society.

What’s an army good for anyway?
War, in Carl von Clausewitz words, is simply ”the continuation of politics by other means”. In war as in politics, the Machiavellian ”Prince” seeks to achieve an outcome by the cheapest possible means. The creation, outfitting, training and fielding of a conventional army is without a doubt the most expensive endevour imaginable. As we have seen in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that kind of army is not present other than as a final confirmation of an already established fact. The deployment and use of a conventional army is not needed, indeed, it is counterproductive to and the absolute reverse of the strategy of insidious conquest.

The only use of a conventional army today is to act as a threat and a bargaining card. It is sufficient to field a bare minimum of combat-ready troops and materiél acting as a façade, a Potemkin village, a ”marketing tool” to further the nation’s political agenda. This is how Russia has accomplished its goals in Ukraine.

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Russia’s soldiers: Drunk, Hungry and Unfit for action
Facts on the ground points to Russia’s military as lacking in almost every respect. In an uncorroborated story told by Andrei Bulgarov, a well-known smuggler went over the border at night and, perplexed by the lack of perimeter guards, bumped into a Russian tank unit deployed there. According to the smuggler, the Russian army near the Ukrainian border is a second-rate rabble. After more than a month of mind-blowing inactivity in the field, the conscript soldiers are bored out of their skulls, half-starved and, not surprisingly, constantly drunk. Food was only supplied for the duration of the scheduled exercises. Since then the soldiers have been reduced to scavenging, begging and stealing food and other supplies in the surrounding villages. Their combat vehicles are ill-serviced and quite unfit for action.

Opposite to this bleak picture, the vanguard Russian troops seen in Crimea and eastern Ukraine belong to highly specialized airborne formations (VDV) and Special Operations units (Spetsnaz). These troops are well trained and well equipped with the latest weapons and protective gear. Others have been spotted wearing the new “Ratnik” combat gear, a suite comprising uniform, comms and protection equpiment that Western armies have fielded for decades. This kind of materiél is only just being introduced to Russian specialist units, in a very limited edition. This suggests that the remainder of the Russian units, lacking such equipment, are unfit for the modern battlefield.

The specialist troopers are but a minority of the force deployed to the Russo-Ukraine border regions. The majority of Russia’s military assets currently believed to be in the area, amounting to approximately 40,000 men, are “standard issue” units trained for conventional battlefield tasks. It is quite unlikely that this exceptionally blunt force will be called on to execute such offensive tasks as they are trained and equipped to perform, especially if their readiness and quality is such as described by the “smuggler” recounted above. They are a temporary occupation force at best, and at worst, a considerable liability.

Thus, the overt military threat to Ukraine is extraordinarily small. The bulk of Russian units are only for show and will never be used in their designed capacity. Therefore it is safe to say that Russia is waging a poor man’s war against Ukraine – and that this war can and should be opposed by comparatively cheap means: vigilant border guards, diligent enforcement of Ukrainian airspace, standard police work in public areas, and active counter-terrorist measures by special operations forces.

That said, a strong conventional army is of course a vital guarantee for the state’s existence. Without it and its latent potential for destruction, belligerent conquest is a foregone conclusion.

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