Presenting a collection of essays by leading Russian and Ukrainian experts, Brothers Armed charts the history of military reform and progress in Ukraine and Russia from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, center, inspects the Ukrainian Army positions close to Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, Friday, Oct.10, 2014. Photo: AP
In March, 2014, as the crisis between Ukraine and Russia deepened, The New York Times ran an article lamenting the “thinning ranks” of experts on Russian affairs in Washington.
In an article on March 6th, the paper cited U.S. analysts who worry that the shift in focus away from Russia since the end of the Cold War created a strategic shortfall in expertise, and left America unprepared to clearly understand and interpret Moscow’s actions.
“Among those experts,” the paper wrote, “there is a belief that a dearth of talent in the field and ineffectual management from the White House have combined to create an unsophisticated and cartoonish view of a former superpower, and potential threat, that refuses to be relegated to the ash heap of history.”
The paper quoted Michael McFaul, President Barack Obama’s former U.S. Amassador to Russia, as saying, simply: “It’s a shorter bench.”
In this context, Brothers Armed: Military Aspects of the Crisis in Ukraine, is a welcome addition to the literature available to western Russia-watchers — some of whom may be cramming to get back up to speed.
The volume consists of nine separate and largely independent essays that together provide a comprehensive, fair, well-organized, and fluently translated treatment of Russia-Ukraine political relations, the history of the two countries’ armed forces, and Russia’s campaign to occupy Crimea earlier this year.
The editing and production of the text was supervised by experts at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), Moscow’s premier nongovernmental defense institution. Its earlier publications include some of the best work in any language on Russian military reform, the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, and the Chinese military industrial complex.
In the first chapter, Vasily Kashin offers a very readable history of the relations between Kiev and Moscow, focusing on the last three decades. Its key insight is that, notwithstanding the rhetorical bombast of some Russian politicians, Russian policy makers under both Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin saw the Crimea primarily in instrumental terms. They were prepared to leave the peninsula under Ukraine’s control, despite its Russian-speaking majority and the treaty-mandated limits on the Russian military presence in the Crimea, as long as Ukraine’s central government accepted the presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol and did not seek to align with the West against Russia.
These conditions largely held until early 2014, when, faced with a decisive reorientation of the Ukrainian foreign policy towards the West following the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovich, the Russian government saw little value, and some risk, in having Crimea remain part of Ukraine.
The chapters reviewing the history and current state of the Ukrainian military are unique in their detail, with comprehensive tables and orders of battle, and their balanced approach. Their key theme is how, while the Ukrainian armed forces looked strong on paper, in practice a lack of funding, training, and structural reforms, an incorrect threat assessment, and other problems made the force increasingly ineffective—something which became apparent in its poor response to the Russian-backed separatist forces in early 2014.
According to the Sergey Denisentsev, “The degradation of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the 22 years since the country’s independence has been completely unprecedented in terms of its speed and scale. It is hard to find any other example in human history of such a strong and capable army of a large state deteriorating so rapidly – and during peacetime no less.” It would be helpful to have a complementary Western analysis of why the extensive U.S. and other NATO assistance programs had so little impact in reforming the Ukrainian military.
Interestingly, despite the improvements in Russia’s nuclear and conventional forces in recent years, the chapters by Aleksey Nikolsky and by Anton Lavrov on the Crimea operation show how the Russian military’s occupation of the peninsular in February and March 2014 relied less on brute force and more on non-kinetic elements such as strategic surprise, tactical deception, and deep collaboration with local allies conducted primarily by Russia’s elite Special Operations Forces (SOF).
“The service personnel who seized those facilities were dressed in standard issue Russian combat fatigues and armed with Russian weapons, but wore no insignia and refused to identify themselves.” Russian government officials, including President Putin, denied they were Russian soldiers. “This created uncertainty as to whether the fighters who had seized the airport were Russian soldiers or local self-defense forces armed and equipped by Russia.” The Ukrainian military units in Crimea were most reluctant to fight fellow Ukrainian citizens.
Russian deception tactics also concealed Moscow’s strategy, which was to annex the Crimea rather than carve out autonomous satellite states as in Georgia. Furthermore, “the annexation was marked by extensive use of Russian ‘soft force,’ which “included constant psychological pressure on Ukrainian troops and the blockading of their bases, as well as propaganda efforts and generous promises made to Ukrainian military commanders and soldiers … to persuade them to defect to the Russian side.”
The SOF units in the Crimea operation—which included the 16th Special Purpose Brigade, the 76th Airborne Assault Division, and the Black Sea Fleet’s 810th Marines Brigade—played a critical role in seizing key targets such as Ukrainian military headquarters. Termed by Russians the “polite people” and by the West as “the little green men,” these SOF soldiers without insignia collaborated with local paramilitary forces to paralyze the Ukrainian military’s 22,000 troops on the peninsula, whose combat capabilities arguably exceeded those of the lightly armed and outnumbered Russian SOF units for at least the first two weeks of the occupation, into surrendering the Crimea without a fight.
“Exhausted after the month-long siege, abandoned by the government in Kiev, and suffering from a severe loyalty crisis, the Ukrainian forces in Crimea collapsed like a house of cards after a relatively gentle Russian nudge.” Many subsequently joined the Russian military rather than withdraw to other parts of Ukraine.
Nikolsky warns against generalizing from the professional behavior and effectiveness of the SOF units in the peaceful Crimean takeover to presume that the entire Russian military would perform as well in a major combat operation, such as a future conventional invasion of Ukraine.
To respond better to further Russian military aggression, Ukrainian academic Vyacheslav Tseluyko thoughtfully recommends in his chapter that the Ukrainian armed forces need to resume conscription, eliminate non-combat billets, better employ paramilitary volunteers, force any Russian invaders to fight in large “fortress cities,” refocus the Navy on coastal defense, and train to fight the Russian military mostly with their existing weapons unless Western countries will provide advanced weapons, of which surface-to-air or surface-to-ground missiles would be most valuable, for free.
Although the Kremlin for now has decided to support a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, it can still manipulate the frozen conflict by threatening to unthaw it whenever Kiev takes some action that irritates Moscow. The current volume provides readers with an excellent overview of the recent Crimea campaign; hopefully CAST will include a few additional essays in a revised edition to cover the more complicated and seemingly less successful Russian operation in eastern Ukraine, where the precise role and achievements of the Russian military remains much disputed but little understood.