The Last Post-Soviet War

18 december 2014

The Military-Political Dimension of the Ukrainian Conflict

Sergei Minasyan has a PhD in Political Science and is Deputy Director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan.

Resume: The Ukrainian crisis in a way resembles wars of late feudalism in Europe, with private armies formed of assorted mercenaries and retired military of most diverse ethnic, ideological and social affiliations.

The career military, historians, conflict specialists, and experts in international relations are yet to scrutinize the circumstances of the Ukrainian crisis. However, it is possible already now to identify its most important military-political and military-technical characteristics and its impact on similar armed conflicts, especially in the post-Soviet space.


“In a matter of months and even days, a trouble-free state can turn into an arena of bitter armed struggle, fall victim to foreign intervention, and plunge into chaos, humanitarian disaster and civil war,” a Russian general has warned. Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, said this in a scientific report to the Academy of Military Sciences in February 2013. In fact, a year before the operation in Crimea and the subsequent events, the Russian military commander had almost prophetically depicted what happened later in Ukraine.

General Gerasimov described future armed conflicts which have turned out to have so much in common with the recent events in Crimea and southeast Ukraine. “Methods used in struggle are increasingly changing in favor of political, economic, information, humanitarian and other non-military means, including the use of the protest potential of the population. This can be complemented with secret military measures, including information wars and secret operations. Often, one resorts to an open use of force under the guise of a peacekeeping or crisis response operation only at some stage, largely to achieve the final success in a conflict.” This quote from Gerasimov’s report can well be an excerpt from the contemporary history of the post-Soviet space or an illustration of the developments in the Middle East.

Before the operation in Crimea began, the report of the Chief of the Russian General Staff had attracted the attention of only a few military experts. After those events however, it was widely quoted, especially in the Western press, as a convenient argument to classify the Ukrainian crisis as the so-called “hybrid war” which combines political, economic, and information/propaganda (formally non-military) measures with dosed and/or secret military actions. The military component of “hybrid wars” is mainly implemented by special forces and elite units or, on the contrary, by irregular, “quasi-state” or private armed groups.

It should be noted, however, that the concept of “hybrid” (“non-linear,” “asymmetric” or “unconventional”) war is not General Gerasimov’s invention or an exclusively Russian military concept. The “hybrid war” concept has been widely discussed in recent years in the West as well, but it is only Russia that has developed it to such an extent.

However, it is hardly probable that the Russian General Staff had really been preparing the seizure of Crimea and, especially, the subsequent events in southeast Ukraine back in February 2013 – even if an envelope titled “Crimea” had really existed in the depths of its Main Operations Directorate, along with a plan of response to a resumption of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh or to a crisis in the Arctic. This is just the way military professionals work. If they are good at their job, they try to adapt to new types and forms of wars and armed conflicts at various theaters of war. However, usually generals prepare for past wars. But this is at best – at worst, they prepare only for parades and budget battles.

For example, if Ukrainian generals had been preparing over the past quarter of a century at least for past wars (what they had been taught at Soviet military schools and academies), then they still would not have been ready for the “hybrid” or asymmetric operations in Crimea or the siege of Slavyansk in the spring of 2014. But the Ukrainian army would have been much better prepared for a large-scale “anti-terrorist operation” (or civil war, depending on one’s political views) against the pro-Russian militias of the Lugansk and Donetsk people’s republics. Indeed, after the anti-terrorist operation was resumed in late June following Poroshenko’s inauguration, it acquired the nature of classic combat actions, which the present Ukrainian generals or colonels had been taught, at least in theory, at Soviet or post-Soviet military schools.

It would be correct to view the Ukrainian crisis as a “hybrid war” only with regard to the first stage of its military phase: the operation in Crimea and the events in Donbass. Later, the scale of hostilities changed. The “hybrid war” was combined with almost routine military operations and a large-scale (even by world standards) use of armored vehicles and artillery, albeit with relatively little use of aircraft.

One of the peculiarities of the Ukrainian conflict is its unprecedentedly rapid escalation. Within weeks a special operation of Russian troops in Crimea evolved, through acts of civil disobedience in southeast Ukraine, into a local semi-regular operation in the northwest of Donbass (the siege of Slavyansk and its suburbs). Then, the armed conflict developed into large-scale fighting between the regular Ukrainian army and semi-guerrilla armed groups of the Lugansk and Donetsk people’s republics. Finally, mid-August saw a virtually open involvement of regular Russian troops in the conflict. Several Russian mechanized infantry and airborne battalion task groups encircled the southern Ukrainian force in Donbass, with catastrophic consequences for the Ukrainian Armed Forces (the Ilovaisk trap). And this is something more than a “hybrid war.”

In many respects, the Ukrainian crisis had the specific and conceptual features of previous post-Soviet conflicts of the 1990s and 2000s. However, considering the large-scale military-technical involvement of the Russian army, it became an event of global significance and triggered a new (or quasi) Cold War.

The footage of battlefields near Lugansk or urban combat in Donbass gives the impression of a time machine as they remind one of the late-Soviet and early post-Soviet political processes at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. A quarter of a century later, in Ukraine, on both sides of the frontline there again emerged the image of a volunteer fighter, known from most post-Soviet ethnic/political conflicts, who often combined a high degree of ideologized and nationalist motivation with a not quite impeccable biography and undisguised business interests. The phenomenon of Dnepropetrovsk Governor Igor Kolomoisky, believed to have funded the creation of several Ukrainian volunteer battalions, or Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev, who actually paid for the April raid by Strelkov-Girkin’s armed groups to Slavyansk, are only the most vivid examples.

Moreover, the Ukrainian crisis in a way resembles wars of late feudalism in Europe, with private armies formed of assorted mercenaries and retired military of most diverse ethnic, ideological and social affiliations. Like in those times, the military logic of the Ukrainian conflict is sometimes replaced with political, reputational and propaganda considerations, turning into some sort of “asphalt war” for roads and cities, or into armchair war games on maps. One example of that was the desire of the Ukrainian troops in June-July to encircle Donbass and Lugansk in a giant pincer movement along the Russian-Ukrainian border, and to cut off local armed groups from Russian arms and ammunition supplies. This campaign was initiated not so much by the Ukrainian General Staff which was aware of the army’s military and resource limitations for carrying out such a large-scale operation, as by the political vision of the new Ukrainian government. The operation resulted in a double encirclement of the Ukrainian troops along the border with Russia and the formation of the “southern trap” near Amvrosiyevka. Thus, Ukraine repeated the mistake made by Georgia in August 2008, when the military expediency of bypassing Tskhinvali and making a rapid breakthrough to the north to block the Roki tunnel was sacrificed to political considerations and Mikhail Saakashvili’s desire to raise the Georgian flag in the capital of South Ossetia.

In the absence of a continuous frontline and clear understanding of the local population’s (dis)loyalty , it was more important for the conflicting parties not so much to defeat the enemy as to raise their flag in a particular “key” town or village. This usually happened after a long and bloody siege, for example, of Slavyansk, or after attacks on Lugansk and Ilovaisk, or long attempts to seize the Donetsk airport by pro-Russian groups. And then the troops that took part in the anti-terrorist operation often had to leave the captured territory to avoid being encircled as they had been near Ilovaisk in late August.

The “late feudal” style, where irregular volunteer groups of romantics/nationalists or groups hired by oligarchs or gang leaders are the most battleworthy forces, is not a special feature of the Ukrainian conflict. Girkin, Kolomoisky and Malofeyev had forerunners in the post-Soviet space, such as well-known Georgian gang leader Jaba Ioseliani. He founded and led Mkhedrioni, a heavily armed paramilitary group which was a major actor in the 1991-1992 civil war in Georgia and the 1992-1993 Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, and was one of the most important political figures in Georgia in the early 1990s until Eduard Shevardnadze took control over the country. Another example is former prime minister of Azerbaijan Suret Huseynov. Before the Karabakh conflict, he was director of a wool factory, but when the hostilities began, he funded the creation of a mechanized infantry regiment and even became the commander of a corps at the initial stage of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Yet, the Ukrainian crisis has one important distinction – initially, the ethnic/political aspect did not prevail in it, although already in the spring of 2014 there was an obvious ideological confrontation between anti- and pro-Russian people in western and central Ukraine, on the one hand, and the Russian-speaking Donbass region, on the other. Euromaidan served as fertile ground for the emergence of a rebel movement in the east in the political and ideological, rather than ethnocultural, senses. The main factors behind it were the fragmentation of the state and law enforcement agencies, the forced change of regime, the feelings of fear and frustration caused by the loss of control over traditional levers in Kiev and the whole of Ukraine by politicians from the east, and depressed social conditions. Simultaneously, for similar reasons, the new Ukrainian authorities began to form armed volunteer groups (mainly because of the paralysis of the former security agencies), which were later reorganized into National Guard battalions.

The crisis in Ukraine turned into a “hybrid war” (or “asymmetric conflict,” depending on terminology one prefers to use) not only and not so much because of a combination of hidden forms of warfare – the use of Russian army special forces or elite units, supported by volunteers and irregular groups formed by the loyal local population and former law enforcement officers against Ukrainian volunteer battalions and the regular Ukrainian army. The dynamics of the conflict from the very beginning showed resource and status asymmetry of the conflicting parties: the West and Ukraine against Russia; the new central government of Ukraine against the authorities of the Lugansk and Donetsk people’s republics, both accusing each other of illegitimacy, etc. Status and resource asymmetry is a common feature of all post-Soviet conflicts.

Finally, if we view the Ukrainian crisis in military-political terms on a global scale (or from the standpoint of the public at large), this is not so much a “hybrid” war as a proxy or peripheral war between geopolitical centers. In this sense, the Ukrainian crisis, in the best Cold War traditions, is a field of global confrontation between the nuclear superpowers – Russia and the United States. Considering the factor of mutual nuclear deterrence, which prevents the two powers from entering into a direct military confrontation with each other, the current conflict may well go down in history as another peripheral war, like the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. It should be noted, though, that in the case of the Ukrainian crisis Russia’s motivation for involvement in the conflict is much higher than that of the U.S. or the EU, as Moscow views Ukraine as a sphere of its vital interests.


The nature and methods of the hostilities make the Ukrainian conflict “hybrid” conceptually and militarily, including the military-technical aspect. The achievements of defense technologies of the last two decades – drones, digital communication, target designation, control systems, and modern compact antitank and anti-aircraft missile systems – coexisted with cumbersome armor and mechanized units, heavily equipped with artillery systems of various kinds and calibers (just like during the confrontation between the Warsaw Pact and NATO in the late 1980s).

This is quite explainable: when the Soviet Union broke up, the strategic armaments that were deployed in Ukraine at the time made it the world’s third nuclear power (after the United States and Russia) and the world’s fourth power in terms of conventional military capabilities (after the U.S., Russia and China). The three former Soviet military districts in Ukraine had about 6,500 tanks, tens of thousands of infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers and artillery systems, and 1,100 combat aircraft. Even twenty years later, after a massive sale by Ukraine of its military equipment to countries around the world, its amount was still impressive. Compared with many other post-Soviet conflicts, the opposing sides were better equipped with armor and artillery.

The military equipment used by Ukraine in the fighting had, at best, been produced in the early 1990s. Mostly, it included equipment of former Soviet troops deployed in Eastern Europe and partly moved to Ukraine after the Warsaw Pact was disbanded. Artyomovsk in the Donetsk region was one such location. In the early 1990s it hosted a motorized rifle division withdrawn from Hungary, which had over 220 tanks and hundreds of infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers and artillery systems. Also fighting on the side of the Ukrainian army were outdated BRDM-2 armored patrol cars, BTR-60PB armored personnel carriers, D-30 and D-20 artillery systems, and other equipment produced in the 1960s and even the 1950s.

One small exception was military equipment designed or produced at Ukrainian defense industry plants in the post-Soviet time (BTR-3 and BTR-4 armored personnel carriers, T-64BM Bulat and T-84U Oplot tanks, and some types of small arms, antitank missile systems, and grenade launchers) as modernized versions of Soviet models. It was only by the end of the summer that the Ukrainian army and National Guard began to use, along with improvised domestically-made armored vehicles, modern drones, communications, electronic warfare and target designation systems, as well as Western-made small arms and light weapons.

At the initial stage of the conflict, pro-Russian armed groups were also armed mostly with Soviet-made weapons from military garrisons of the Ukrainian army located in the southeast of the country or with weapons supplied from Russian military depots. It is noteworthy that until the middle of the summer for obvious reasons Russia had supplied largely the kinds of weapons and military equipment that were in service with the Ukrainian army (for example, Ukraine’s T-64 main battle tanks which have long been withdrawn from service in the Russian army and stored at its depots). However, as the conflict escalated, pro-Russian armed groups began to use modern Russian weapons, such as antitank and anti-aircraft missile systems, grenade launchers, and armored vehicles. Due to the subsequent involvement of Russian troops in the conflict, modernized Russian T-72B3 and even T-90S tanks, Smerch and Tornado-G multiple rocket launchers, BTR-82A armored personnel carriers, Tigr infantry mobility vehicles, and some other types of weapons and military equipment were used in the hostilities in Ukraine for the first time.

The protection and mobility of Soviet-made armor (and its modernized analogues), intended for mass combat operations during NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation in the Central European theater, proved to be ineffective against modern antitank weapons. According to preliminary estimates, Ukraine has lost more than 100 tanks and 200 infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers and other armored fighting vehicles, as well as 80 pieces of artillery and multiple rocket launchers. Two-thirds of these losses were irrecoverable. The losses of armor and artillery sustained by the pro-Russian armed groups and Russian troops that supported them were just as serious.

In view of this, the issue of logistics and supply, especially the overhaul of military equipment, became crucial for Ukraine. Although Ukraine had large capacities (inherited from Soviet times) for making and upgrading almost all kinds of military equipment, the state of its defense industry in early 2014 was no different from the state of its army. It was not before the truce was concluded in the autumn that the Ukrainian defense industry could not only repair and restore military hardware but also produce new equipment in small amounts. The pro-Russian groups had only one problem with supply – the political one. The frequency and amount of supplies from the so-called “voyentorg” (“local military shop”) completely depended on Moscow’s political approach to the situation in the southeast. But when military equipment was supplied to Donbass, it was supplied in amounts sufficient for countering the Ukrainian army and National Guard troops.

Although the Ukrainian crisis excelled the majority of other post-Soviet conflicts (in particular, the conflicts in Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria) in the number of aircraft used, it was far behind NATO’s operation in Kosovo in 1999 and Russia’s use of aviation in the two Chechen wars and in the August 2008 conflict with Georgia. This is primarily explained by the low level of combat readiness and material status of the Ukrainian Air Force and its significant losses. By the beginning of 2014, the Ukrainian Air Force had 170 to 180 combat aircraft (and almost as many were stored or mothballed).

Starting with the fighting near Slavyansk, in late April-early May, up to eight Mi-24 attack helicopters of various designs and about as many Mi-8 transport helicopters were shot down. A large number of MANPADS and small-caliber anti-aircraft artillery systems used by the pro-Russian groups led to large aircraft losses for Ukraine. In the second half of the summer, Ukrainian Mi-24s almost did not take part in hostilities, which came as confirmation of the high vulnerability of helicopters of this family in local conflicts.

The Ukrainian crisis, like other local conflicts of recent decades, proves the limited effectiveness of combat aircraft (even if they have absolute air superiority) against semi-regular armed groups equipped with MANPADS and anti-aircraft artillery systems. One good example is the Israeli operation in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. The Israeli Air Force, the strongest in the Middle East and armed with state-of-the-art combat aircraft with precision weapons systems, was unable to suppress the resistance of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters equipped with MANPADS. However, in mid-July 2014 pro-Russian armed groups in southeast Ukraine began to use not only MANPADS but also short-range surface-to-air (Strela-10 and Osa) and even medium-range missile systems (such as Buk-M1 known for the accident with the Malaysian Boeing).

Unlike U.S. and NATO air operations in the Middle East and the Balkans, no high-tech weapons have been used in the Ukrainian crisis. These weapons are almost absent in the Ukrainian Armed Forces and only a small amount of them is in service with the Russian army. In previous cases, high-tech armies fought against technically backward and politically isolated enemies, and the so-called “remote control” wars with the use of high-tech weapons achieved their goals quickly and effectively. However, the hostilities in southeastern Ukraine are waged by enemies of similar technological levels, whose military organizations differ only in size, the degree of their combat readiness, and the effectiveness of their weapons, which rules out any talk of a “remote control” or “contact-free” war.

Experts have mixed views even about the effectiveness of the Tochka-U tactical missile system used by Ukrainian troops, although this system has a high level of accuracy and a range of up to 120 kilometers. The experience of using Tochka-U by Russian troops in Chechnya and against Georgia in August 2008, as well as its use during the civil war in Yemen, or the use of Scud tactical missiles (with a longer range but lower accuracy) in the Middle East have shown that these missile systems are rather a military-political means of containment than a real instrument of “remote control war.”

The Ukrainian conflict has confirmed the importance of traditional artillery systems (especially self-propelled ones) and multiple rocket launchers, which are the main weapons used in these hostilities. The parties have suffered their greatest losses from artillery fire. Artillery has been especially effective against marching columns of military equipment or enemy field camps. At the same time, unlike other post-Soviet conflicts, the conflict in Ukraine is marked by active use of modern reconnaissance and target designation digital systems, as well as drones under real-time human control, for guiding and adjusting artillery fire. Also highly effective are Smerch and Uragan large-caliber multiple rocket launcher systems, as well as the 122-mm Grad MRLS which has long become one of the symbols of local conflicts in the post-Soviet space.


Despite the relative brevity of the hostilities in the southeast of Ukraine, both parties have suffered heavy casualties. According to various estimates, regular army and irregular armed groups have lost tens of thousands of their men killed, wounded and missing. As a result, the Ukrainian army has been faced with a serious problem of replacing manpower losses, aggravated by the lack of trained reservists and a mobilization system.

The Ukrainian crisis has borne out the tendency towards increasing professionalization of military art, and the importance of good combat and physical training. The continuous sophistication of weapons and military equipment requires greater involvement of military experts who cannot be replaced with military conscripts. On the other hand, the growing power, accuracy and range of small arms and light weapons enable even small units of special forces (especially if they are well-equipped and motivated) to accomplish combat tasks that previously were assigned to large military units. The importance of light and mobile special-purpose units is growing too, especially in the so-called low-intensity conflicts. Naturally, like in any “hybrid war,” special forces and high-readiness elite units played a very important role in Crimea and in the fighting in Donbass (on Russia’s side).

On the other hand, the Ukrainian crisis (just as the Russian-Georgian war of 2008) has demonstrated the importance of finding the right balance between regular high-readiness units and the call-out of reservists and mass conscription during modern local wars marked by brevity and a high degree of escalation. This was one of the most difficult problems faced by the Ukrainian government, which was never solved until the truce despite several rounds of mobilization. This tendency is typical of the current stage of military art. As the chief of the Russian General Staff said in the aforementioned report, the changing nature of modern warfare causes conflicting parties to rely on “forces and high-readiness units created in peacetime.”

The new nature of warfare imparts a new role to the land forces which are more adapted to operation both in low-intensity conflicts and local wars, and in large-scale “classical wars” with massive use of armor and artillery. The Ukrainian crisis has made even Americans admit this, although they traditionally rely on high-tech combat aircraft, which are highly effective when they use precision weapons, and, recently, drones. The military phase of the Ukrainian crisis was not over yet when U.S. Abrams main battle tanks returned to the European contingent for a NATO exercise, a couple of years after they had been withdrawn from Germany following the dissolution of the last “heavy” unit of U.S. forces stationed in Europe.

Other military-strategic lessons include the strategic surprise achieved by Russian troops in Crimea. Military historians may debate what factor was more important in the success of the Crimean operation: the collapse of the Ukrainian army in the absence of military reforms in the post-Soviet period, or the effectiveness of the latest military reform in Russia, launched by former defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov. Yet it is obvious that it was the strategic surprise that was the key factor of the success. It was achieved not so much through cohesion or operational security which made it possible to secretly move mobile elite units to Crimea. In the age of satellites and electronic intelligence it would have been impossible to conceal such a massive movement of special-purpose troops and airborne forces, especially over a distance of thousands of miles from Siberia to Crimea, even under the pretext of large-scale exercises. The surprise was achieved in the strategic thinking of both the probable enemy (in this case the new Ukrainian authorities) and external actors that could, at least theoretically, have prevented the implementation of this operation. Russia’s military-political leadership achieved a shock effect as no one could believe until the very last moment that Moscow would do what it did in Crimea.

The global scale of the Ukrainian crisis has highlighted the importance of the information, psychological and propaganda dimensions of warfare. The significance of information and propaganda wars, including cyber operations as an integral part of armed conflicts, is no longer questioned. The Ukrainian crisis has not marked a new stage in the development of information and propaganda wars, and its significance is not as great as that of the Gulf War in 1991, dubbed “CNN war.” On the other hand, the information support did not have such a negative psychological impact on the course of hostilities as did the pictures of dead American commandos in the streets of Mogadishu, which caused the United States to stop its operation in Somalia in 1993. In general, the Ukrainian crisis has confirmed that information and propaganda wars now play an increasingly important role as communications and digital technologies are becoming more sophisticated.

Sometimes, however, the Ukrainian crisis gave the impression that the information war was becoming an end in itself, an attempt to produce a propaganda effect out of context with the real military-political goals. That led to serious consequences, for example, the above-mentioned attempts by Ukrainian troops to take control of the border with Russia and seize key cities, or the siege by pro-Russian armed groups of the Donetsk and Lugansk airports. On the other hand, successful operations were always accompanied by a kind of information multiplier, as was the case with Strelkov-Girkin’s operations in Slavyansk.

The Ukrainian crisis has rekindled interest in the “good old” deterrence policy in the context of Russian-U.S. confrontation. This means a return not only to the traditional mutual nuclear deterrence but also to conventional deterrence in which the importance of precision weapons will increase. The interest in the phenomenon of deterrence, even nuclear deterrence, is now shifting from the global level to the regional one. For example, the confrontation with Russia has triggered active discussions in Ukraine about the country’s return to the possession of nuclear weapons.

The very terminology of the military-strategic discourse is changing. The renaissance of NATO and the confrontation with Russia cause Brussels to increasingly often use terms and concepts reminiscent of the Cold War times. For example, some propose that the alliance should return to the “flexible deterrence” policy (as a response to Russia’s “hybrid war” in the post-Soviet region) or draw analogies with the “forward deployment” concept. These ideas accompany military exercises conducted by the U.S. and its allies on the territories of NATO’s new East European members.

Finally, the Ukrainian crisis may result in Ukraine’s withdrawal from the post-Soviet arms market. Throughout its post-Soviet period, Ukraine was one of the main arms suppliers to countries in the South Caucasus (especially Azerbaijan and Georgia). Kiev supplied Baku and Tbilisi with hundreds of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, artillery systems (including large-caliber Smerch MRLS and Tochka-U tactical missile systems), dozens of combat aircraft and attack helicopters, and large amounts of small arms and ammunition. In fact, for a quarter of a century Ukraine had been selling weapons which it later lacked during the hostilities in its southeastern regions. In the summer of 2014 there appeared reports that Georgia could sell six Su-25 attack aircraft to Ukraine. In fact, the post-Soviet arms market is witnessing a realignment of exporters. For example, Russia is increasingly replacing Ukraine in arms supplies to Azerbaijan (according to SIPRI estimates, in 2007-2011 Russia accounted for 55 percent of Azerbaijan’s military-technical cooperation with other countries and Ukraine accounted for 34 percent, whereas by 2013 Russia’s share had exceeded 80 percent).

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The Ukrainian crisis has made it possible to try new methods and forms of warfare and assess the relevance of traditional ones. The parties used approaches that were typical of conflicts in the post-Soviet space of more than a quarter of a century ago, and completely new military-political or military-technical elements. The Ukrainian crisis has not brought about a revolution in the military-strategic or military-technical spheres; rather it has highlighted an evolution of means and methods of warfare of the last few decades, thus partially reviving some military-strategic concepts of the Cold War times.

At the same time, conceptually the Ukrainian crisis has perhaps become the last post-Soviet armed conflict. After Ukraine, all future wars in the former Soviet Union will be different.

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