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22-04-2014
With actions in Ukraine, Russians display new military prowess
Secretary of State John Kerry has accused Russia of behaving in a "19th century fashion" because of its annexation of Crimea.
But Western experts who have followed the success of Russian forces in carrying out President Vladimir V. Putin's policy in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have come to a different conclusion about Russian military strategy. They see a military disparaged for its decline since the fall of the Soviet Union skillfully employing 21st century tactics that combine cyberwarfare, an energetic information campaign and the use of highly trained special operation troops to seize the initiative from the West.
"It is a significant shift in how Russian ground forces approach a problem," said James G. Stavridis, a retired admiral and former NATO commander. "They have played their hand of cards with finesse."
The abilities the Russian military have displayed are not only important to the high-stakes drama in Ukraine, they also have implications for the security of Moldova, Georgia, Central Asian nations and even the Central Europe nations that are members of NATO.
The dexterity with which the Russians have operated in Ukraine is a far cry from the bludgeoning artillery, airstrikes and surface-to-surface missiles used to retake Grozny, the Chechen capital, from Chechen separatists in 2000. In that conflict, the notion of avoiding collateral damage to civilians and civilian infrastructure appeared to be alien.
Since then Russia has sought to develop more effective ways of projecting power in the "near abroad," the non-Russian nations that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has tried to upgrade its military, giving priority to its special forces, airborne and naval infantry - "rapid reaction" abilities that were "road tested" in Crimea, according to Roger McDermott, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.
But the speedy success Russia had in Crimea does not mean that the overall quality of the Russia's army, made up mainly of conscripts and no match for the high-tech U.S. military, has been transformed.
"The operation reveals very little about the current condition of the Russian armed forces," McDermott said. "Its real strength lay in covert action combined with sound intelligence concerning the weakness of the Kiev government and their will to respond militarily."
Russia's operations in Ukraine have been a swift meshing of hard and soft power. The Obama administration, which once held out hope that Putin would seek an "off ramp" from the pursuit of Crimea, has repeatedly been forced to play catch-up after the Kremlin changed what was happening on the ground.
"It is much more sophisticated, and it reflects the evolution of the Russian military and of Russian training and thinking about operations and strategy over the years," said Stephen J. Blank, a former expert on the Russian military at the U.S. Army War College who is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.
For its intervention in Crimea, the Russians used a "snap" military exercise to distract attention and hide their preparations. Then specially trained troops, without identifying patches, moved quickly to secure key installations. Once the operation was underway, the Russian force cut telephone cables, jammed communications and used cyberwarfare to cut off the Ukrainian military forces on the peninsula.
"They disconnected the Ukrainian forces in Crimea from their command and control," the NATO commander, Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, said in a recent interview.
As it cemented control, the Kremlin has employed an unrelenting media campaign to reinforce its narrative that a Russian-abetted intervention had been needed to rescue the Russian-speaking population from right-wing extremists and chaos.
No sooner had the Obama administration demanded that Russian pull back from Crimea than the Kremlin raised the stakes by massing some 40,000 troops near Ukraine's eastern frontier.
Soon, the Russians were sending small well-equipped teams across the Ukrainian border to seize government buildings that could be turned over to sympathizers and local militias. Police stations and Interior Ministry buildings, which stored arms that could be turned over to local supporters, were targeted, U.S. officials said.
"Because they have some local support they can keep leveraging a very small cadre of very good fighters and move forward," said Daniel Goure, an expert on the Russian military at the Lexington Institute, a policy research group.
While the Kremlin retains the option of mounting a large-scale intervention in eastern Ukraine, the immediate purposes of the air and ground forces massed near Ukraine appears to be to deter the Ukrainian military from cracking down in the east and to dissuade the United States from providing substantial military support.
The Kremlin has used its military deployment to buttress its diplomatic strategy of insisting on an extensive degree of federalism in Ukraine, one in which the eastern provinces would be largely autonomous and under Moscow's influence.
And as Russians have flexed their muscles the White House appears to have relaxed its demands. Crimea barely figured in the Thursday talks in Geneva that involved Kerry and his counterparts from Russia, Ukraine and the European Union.
The Obama administration's urgent goal is to persuade the Kremlin to relinquish control over the government buildings in eastern Ukraine that the U.S. officials insist are held by Russian troops or the pro-Russian separatists under Moscow's influence. Despite the focus on the combustible situation in eastern Ukraine, the joint statement the diplomats issued in Geneva did not even mention the presence of Russia's 40,000 troops the border.
Military experts say that the sort of strategy the Kremlin has employed in Ukraine is likely to work best in areas in which there are pockets of ethnic Russians to provide local support. The strategy is also easier to implement if it is carried out close to Russian territory, where a large and intimidating force can be assembled and the Russian military can easily supply special forces.
"It can be used in the whole former Soviet space" said Chris Donnelly, a former top adviser at NATO, who added that Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Central Asia states were "very vulnerable."
"The Baltic States are much less vulnerable, but there will still be pressure on them and on Poland and on Central Europe," Donnelly added.
Stavridis agreed that Russia's strategy would be most effective when employed against a nation with a large number of sympathizers. But he said Russia's deft use of cyberwarfare, special forces and conventional troops was a development that NATO needed to study and factor into its planning.
"In all of those areas they have raised their game, and they have integrated them quite capably," he said. "And I think that has utility no matter where they are operating."

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