The newest iteration of Russia’s military doctrine, signed by President Vladimir Putin in late December 2014, was clearly written with an eye to Ukraine. The military operation in late February 2014 to secure the Crimean peninsula and the very real—if deniable—support which Russia provided to the rebel forces in Donbas, particularly to stop the Ukrainian government offensive in August 2014 have revealed new capabilities and tactics that the Russian military possesses today. This is a far cry to the army which saw fighting in Georgia in 2008. The military reform has worked, and Moscow’s foreign and security policy has begun to practice pre-emption.

There are few studies done by Russian authors, particularly designed for global audiences that take stock of the changes wrought in the Russian military organization, and also analyze the operation of the Russian forces in the current crisis in Ukraine. A book by the younger authors from the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) does that. Brothers Armed: Military Aspects of the Crisis in Ukraine, edited by CAST’s director Ruslan Pukhov and Colby Howard and published in 2014 by East View Press, Minneapolis, is the latest addition to the CAST series which previously included works on the war in Georgia, the Russian military reform, and China’s defense industry.

Dmitri Trenin
Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has been with the center since its inception. He also chairs the research council and the Foreign and Security Policy Program.
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The book starts with a background story of Crimea, written by one of CAST’s leading analysts, Vasiliy Kashin. Having meticulously described Crimea’s status within the Russian empire, the Soviet Union and finally within Ukraine, he concludes that “(t)he annexation of Crimea in February and March 2014 clearly was not the result of any lengthy legal, diplomatic, or political preparations.” Instead, “Russia was acting on the basis of the extraordinary nature of the situation,” with Ukraine “essentially lacking a central government,” and the people of Crimea were “clearly” of an opinion—although he does not spell it out—to rejoin Russia.

It would have made sense, particularly in a book of military analyses, to discuss the strategic rationale for Putin’s decision first to secure Crimea militarily, and then to incorporate it to Russia politically. The Crimea operation obviously did not ensue from “lengthy legal, diplomatic, or political preparations.” It was, however, well prepared from military and intelligence angles, and brilliantly executed. Vladimir Putin himself, and early on, said that Russia’s move in Crimea was meant to prevent Sevastopol turning into a NATO naval base as a result of the coup in Kiev. Given Moscow’s strong concern about Ukraine’s drift toward NATO even during Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency (2005-10), contingency plans must have existed for years. The success of the Maidan in February 2014 activated them.

The Ukrainian army did not fire a shot in an attempt to defend Crimea. It then fared very poorly in Donbas. Yet, when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Ukraine inherited, nominally, the second most powerful armed forces in Europe, after Russia. As Sergey Denisentsev argues in his chapter, “(t)he degradation of the Ukrainian Armed Forces… has been completely unprecedented in terms of its speed and scale”. Anton Lavrov and Alexey Nikolsky then elaborate on the “neglect and rot” of the Ukrainian military, and conclude that President Putin would have hardly authorized the operation in Crimea had he not been sure that he would succeed “with minimal bloodshed.” In reality, not a shot was fired.

By contrast, Russia was able to stop its own “neglect and rot” of the military in the late 2000s. Mikhail Barabanov provides a detailed account of Russia’s several false starts with reform prior to the Georgia war, and then of the sustained reform effort after it. Despite the change in top reformers after the dismissal in 2012 of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and the departure of the Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov, the reforms that sought to give the Russian Army a “New Look” have not been reversed. The Russian military are better staffed, trained, equipped and provided for than ever before since the end of the Soviet Union. They have also gained valuable experience in the Caucasus. The Russian military’s performance in Crimea, a test of the reform which Anton Lavrov later describes, caught many outside observers by surprise. During the subsequent conflict in eastern Ukraine, the Russian military proved to be a highly usable political instrument in the hands of the Commander-in-Chief in the Kremlin.

Barabanov, however, is critical of the lingering deficiencies in the Russian military organization. Many units, he notes, are still below their assigned strength, and this was felt in Crimea operation as well. Crucially, Russia is still to find a solution to the issue of military reserves—a key condition to having a military that can engage in limited conflicts and replenish its losses. There is also a lot of old baggage which the reformers have not been able to clear, and a lot of anti-reform inertia which makes sure that each big step forward is followed by two small steps back. Yet, Russia is definitely back as a conventional military power.

The hallmark of the Russian military operation in Crimea has been the action of the Russian Special Operations Forces (SOF): “little green men,” as they were called in Ukraine and in the Western media, or “polite people,” as they were proudly referred to in Russia itself. Nikolsky gives a brief account of the SOF history, organization and mission. Given Russia’s geopolitical and strategic environment, SOF are likely to be one of the more usable elements of the Russian military in the various contingencies from Eastern Europe to the Caucasus to Central Asia and beyond.

The Black Sea Fleet, which now reigns supreme in Sevastopol and has reestablished itself as a major force in the region, is covered in Dmitry Boltenkov’s piece. With Moldova and Transnistria to the west, Abkhazia and Georgia to the south-east, and Ukraine to the north, Crimea is being transformed into a major Russian military base. The power balance in the Black Sea has shifted again, this time in Russia’s favor. Geopolitically, while the gulf has widened and deepened between Russia and Europe, the relationship between Moscow and Ankara, particularly in the energy sector, has actually grown stronger, ushering in a new reality.

The book ends with a rather sober analysis of the Ukrainian armed forces by Vyacheslav Tseluyko. Essentially, he paints a military for which its political masters saw no need for over two decades. In 2014, however, Ukraine lost Crimea, but gained an adversary. This discovery will from now on guide the development of the Ukrainian military. Reforming Ukraine’s dysfunctional military organization will require a huge effort, particularly in the dire economic situation in which Ukraine now finds itself. In this effort, Ukraine is already receiving assistance from NATO countries, but it cannot count on NATO membership.

All in all, Brothers Armed is a very useful and timely compendium of facts and analyses related to Europe’s most serious security crisis since the end of the Cold War, and one which has opened a new period of confrontation between Russia and the West. Despite its title, it squarely—and correctly in this case—focuses on the Russian, not the Ukrainian military. The one big thing the book obviously lacks is a strategic overview of the political rationale for the use of the Russian military throughout the Ukraine crisis, which could have been done by the editor, Ruslan Pukhov. A comparison between the two crises—in Ukraine 2014 and in Georgia in 2008—would have been more than appropriate. Another thing very much worth the attention—when more hard facts come online—is the Russian actions in support of the Donetsk and Lugansk rebels, undertaken in the mode of “plausible deniability.” The Ukraine crisis has unveiled a new look not only of the Russian military, but also of the country’s foreign and security policy.

  • Dmitri Trenin