As the crisis in Ukraine unfolds and shows signs of escalation, Western media circles and policymakers appear to be underestimating a number of mysterious elements in Russian security thinking and its military planning and actions. These issues stem from the prolonged silence from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin since the Maidan Revolution ousted the Viktor Yanukovych regime in Kyiv, Putin’s decision to order “snap inspections” of the Armed Forces in Western and Central Military Districts (MD), as well as the implementation of steps to protect Russian interests in Crimea (Interfax, February 26–March 3).
Clearly, the crisis in Ukraine came as a surprise to the Russian political-military elite, but no one should pretend that there is no place for this in Russian security thinking. Maidan, despite its relatively recent phenomenon, was already on the minds of the Russian security elite. A clear illustration of this came in early December 2013, in an article by the country’s foremost military theorist Makhmut Gareev (https://www.vpk-news.ru/articles/18404). Gareev argued that the use of “soft power” could be harnessed as a type of “controlled chaos,” capable of unseating governments and changing regimes. Though he ultimately characterized such activities as presenting a real threat to Russian security.
Putin’s studied silence in public over the Ukraine crisis no doubt fueled speculation on Moscow’s position and its political intentions. However, this silence was accompanied by action. Indeed, the uncharacteristic silence of the Russian president seems to indicate two important points: the Kremlin was caught by surprise concerning the rapidly moving events in Kyiv and required time to analyze, assess, and then to formulate its response. Equally, the precise chronology of the actions that constituted that response suggests no pre-planning by the Kremlin.
The first actual move in this process, no doubt linked to the intelligence assessment, was marked on February 26 by Putin ordering the snap inspection of units in Western and Central MDs; regularly held since early 2013. Contrary to some misinterpretations of this action, the inspection exercises were almost certainly pre-planned prior to the Maidan Revolution. Addressing foreign diplomats in Moscow, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov stressed that the defense ministry saw no reason to postpone the exercises due to the crisis. Nonetheless, the precise nature of the exercises may have been adjusted. According to senior Russian defense officials, the snap inspection was divided into two parts: bringing the units to a higher level of combat readiness within two days, followed by “operational-tactical” exercises of these forces scheduled to conclude by March 7. The reported participation of up to 150,000 personnel involved in the snap inspection is likely an exaggeration. In July 2013, the defense ministry claimed that 160,000 troops participated in a snap inspection exercise in the Russian Far East; in reality the figure was considerably lower (ITAR-TASS, Interfax, RIA Novosti, February 26).
Units involved in the snap inspection were drawn from the 2nd, 6th and 20th Armies, with the commands of the Aerospace Defense Forces and the Airborne Forces participating along with Air Force units and the Northern and Baltic Fleets. Whatever the Russian intelligence assessment of the crisis may have been at this point, and advice offered to Putin, it does not appear that he had committed to the use of military force (RIA Novosti, February 26). But the types of forces involved in the inspection exercises were part of a signal to Kyiv and the West that some form of action was being considered: the question is what changed between February 26 and Putin’s request to the Federation Council on March 1 to authorize the use of Russian troops in Ukraine?
Although the Russian media quickly became saturated with official or semi-official propaganda, an approximation of that above assessment may be deduced from the reported telephone interchanges between Putin and Western leaders alongside a number of indications of how the Kremlin read the crisis. Putin seems convinced that the Russian troop movements from the Black Sea Fleet’s base in Crimea to de facto control over the peninsula were justified as a prophylactic defense of its base and the perceived threat to Russian nationals. In fact, the chasm between Western and Russian media coverage of the events in Maidan could not be wider. Far from viewing the Maidan Revolution as linked to democracy building and freedom of choice for the Ukrainian people, Russian media and its government officials interpret the deposing of Yanukovych as illegal and the interim Ukrainian government as lacking legitimacy—labeling its leaders and followers as “fascists.” In this context, a tipping point for the Kremlin was the vote in the Rada in Kyiv to change existing legislation promoting the Russian language. This was portrayed in media sources as a direct product of “ultra-nationalism” (Kommersant, Veomosti, Interfax, March 3).
With this quite different assessment of the revolution in mind, mounting concern over the potential for further instability within Ukraine, combined with a reading of the situation that links such instability with threats to Russian security, Putin broke his silence and sent his request to the Federation Council. By that stage, the authorization to use troops inside Ukraine was merely reflecting what had happened on the ground; troop movements within Crimea from the BSF base and low-scale reinforcements effectively cut off the peninsula and left Russia as the occupying power. Putin gambled on escalating the crisis (kremlin.ru, March 2).
Russia’s long-term strategic objectives in Ukraine remain unclear. According to some commentators, the model of the intervention is similar to the Russia-Georgia War in 2008, with appeals to protect Russians abroad, promoting separatism, or other features. But the crisis that still influences Putin’s decision making to a great extent is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) bombing of Belgrade in 1999, while he was a member of the Russian Security Council. It galvanized his deep suspicions about Western security policy and resulted in greater reliance upon nuclear deterrence in security thinking (see EDM, June 4, 2013).
The foregoing analysis seeks to shed light on the process and calculations that prompted Putin in favor of conflict escalation by breaching the 1994 Budapest treaty which guaranteed Ukraine’s sovereignty. Putin has not questioned Ukraine’s sovereignty, but he has used force to breach it; further escalation may yet lead to further weakening the Ukrainian state. Readings and misreading on all sides contributed to an escalating crisis, but Putin knew when he authorized the use of Russian troops in Crimea that he risked Russia being portrayed as an international pariah. Still, he possibly assumed that, even after Russia cut off the Crimean peninsula, the interim government in Kyiv would avoid mobilizing the Ukrainian Army and escalating the crisis further. Whatever the cost-benefit calculation was in Putin’s thinking, his silence and subsequent actions will have long-term ramifications for European security, US/NATO-Russia relations and ultimately the people of Ukraine. The NATO Summit in Wales in June 2014 will undoubtedly witness renewed calls for a tougher stance on Russia.