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Counterinsurgency Options for Ukraine
Vincent A. Dueñas
The most effective strategy that Ukraine can select against Russian-backed separatists is a population-centric approach; with targeted utilization of their growing special operations units pursue militant separatist leaders in a limited enemy-centric approach. The key point being that the targeting of the separatist leaders should only continue to the extent that it serves political goals in Kiev, since this type of “kingpin” strategy cannot account for extensive degree of Russian involvement in the conflict. If it is not already understood, Kiev should acknowledge that they cannot fight to retake Crimea and that outside support is currently non-existent for such an endeavor. Moscow has made clear that it views the annexation of Crimea as an issue of sovereignty over its territory and the release of audio recordings of Russian presidential advisor, Sergei Glasyev, helps to validate the theory that the justification of the Crimean referendum appears to have been a ruse.[i] The cost-benefit analysis of a Crimean campaign leaves only the possibility of a counterinsurgency strategy for the Donbas.
In assessing the root causes for the Donbas separatist movement and their Russian supporters a short history is useful. From the perspectives of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), the region known as the Donbas, they identify culturally with Russia, as the majority their inhabitants are Russian-speaking. The historical background to the region includes its role as an industrial power base for the Soviet Union. Having been declared independent under the fledgling Ukrainian nation over 23 years ago, it came as a surprise to its inhabitants when they realized they were no longer part of the Soviet Union. From that time forward, corruption and lack of interest in the region saw the Donbas’ oligarch’s take control of the mines and industry that did remain.[ii] The events of the Maidan revolution, followed by the annexation of Crimea set in motion the DNR and LHR’s referendum for independence with Russian support. Today, the region survives on the financial support of Russia, with Russian military leaders continuing to spearhead and fund the organization of the separatist factions.[iii] For the separatists, Russia was their natural ally. Although the people of the Donbas, to include some separatists, understand that to some extent their revolution was for the benefit of Russia, they distrusted Kiev even more. Russian information operations that vilify Kiev as fascist, corrupt oligarchs that have no real connection with the people of the Donbas have been very successful.[iv]
For Russia, it seems that the calculus to participate in the Ukrainian separatist movement was driven by their regional strategy to exert influence over former Soviet territories and intervene against the warming up of Ukraine to the EU.[v] The initial steps taken by Russia to seize Ukraine showed a disposition to exert military force precisely because Ukraine was not a NATO member. Having increased cooperation with NATO and augmented defense spending because of the commodity booms and the price of oil through 2014, Russia was content with its knowledge of the limits and drawbacks to the NATO alliance and chose pursue its own agenda in the region. This first became evident during the Georgian invasion of 2008.[vi] Russian foreign policy most likely views its greatest threat as the continuation of western democracy as a viable form of government. In this vein, Russia has consistently shown that it is willing to use Cold War tactics of subversion and espionage, to now include the application of its cyber capabilities, in order to undermine weak governments and destabilize them for their own benefit. The pursuit of such an aggressive strategy with a NATO member directly is not to Russia’s benefit, however, Ukraine, with its historic cultural ties does not pose as great of a threat. At the same time that Ukraine was experiencing unrest in 2014, Putin was experiencing a drop in ratings, thus Crimea and the Donbas presented an opportunity.
Putin probably made a reasonable assessment that the West would not stop him due to the asymmetry of interests - Ukraine is very important to Russia with minimal value to NATO members. This large interest asymmetry suggested NATO would be unlikely to intervene just as NATO chose to do little when Russia invaded Georgia. Additionally, Putin may have determined he needed an external event to consolidate his hold on power due to a 19 percent decline in his approval ratings from 2008-2013.[vii]
Russia’s further desire to simultaneously engage in Syria, while drawing down major support in the Donbas show that the calculus for its involvement is distinctive to the region. The Donbas is important to Russia because they can more easily influence the area and are able to maintain a veneer of legitimacy because a valid self-organized separatist insurgency.
The situation on the ground is essentially a stalemate, as the Minsk II agreement notes there is a ceasefire that most importantly requires the removal of heavy weapons from the frontline. This however, has not occurred due to disagreements over the timing of the removal and agreements by Kiev to undertake political legislation aimed at reducing corruption. Fighting still occurs daily, but one report indicates a possibility that a number of young men that currently fight for the separatists’ movement only do so because of money.[viii] The Donbas ideologues that organize and fight aggressively are a core group that needs to be targeted. The majority of effective fighting forces are Russian, which currently number approximately 8,000 personnel, while the rest of the separatist fight force numbers approximately 35,000 personnel.[ix]
From a Kiev’s view, the promise of more integration with the EU is fading fast, with the Dutch, most recently seeking to limit the promises of integration for the Ukraine.[x] This development signals the hard reality that for the foreseeable future, Kiev will only be able to seek minimal political and diplomatic support for their conflict, as opposed to concrete military commitments. The various dimensions of the population-centric strategy must take on the characteristics of political, military, economic and development efforts, as well the continued expansion of outside great power support. This strategy must account for the root causes that drive support for both the separatist movement primarily, and acknowledge that Russia’s great power support must be targeted as well in order to stand any chance of eventually retaking the territory. This population-centric strategy would most likely have to take place over a minimum 5-year timeline in order to make the necessary changes across the different dimensions and exhaust Russian involvement and support.
The political effort on the part of Kiev, must enforce the Minsk II agreement. Due to Ukraine’s relative weakness against Russia, adherence to the Minsk II agreement would buy it political will from the EU in order to increase its support for key military reforms and operations it wants to undertake. The removal of heavy weapons should be accompanied by simultaneous increases in information operations that will be explained later in the essay. Kiev must also pass more robust anti-corruption laws which include requesting the support of a UN or EU anti-corruption body. This reform will be one of the lynchpins of the government to show international and Donbas populations their commitment to reform. Robust information operations will be key to this reform having the necessary effect and giving it an enduring character. Finally, the Kiev government must hold talks with the “Opposition Bloc” to discuss ways for the government to maintain ongoing dialogues over the discussion of some form of federalization for the region. The government must consider that in order to end this conflict, some form of autonomy for the region will likely have to be conceded in order for there to be a peaceful reintegration of the population and reduce a Russian preponderance to interfere. This autonomy however, will have to include physical government presence back within the region in order to reconnect the population with the government and extinguish the separatist argument that Kiev is detached. The political case must be made for the Donbas population that the responsibility for violence must be placed squarely on the shoulders of separatist leaders and furthermore, show that Russian interference would only serve to make the populations’ plight worse.
The military effort must encompass an enemy-centric component and seek to target separatist leaders from the trenches. An aggressive push for Ukrainian Special Operations Forces (SOF) to increase attacks against high-value targets should accompany an aggressive political front. Adhering to the Minsk II agreements to remove heavy weapons will leave the frontline forces exposed, so aggressive targeting should be undertaken to also take out key heavy-weapons sites. Sabotage and subversion by Ukrainian SOF must also be undertaken to reduce separatist organization and capacity. A minimal footprint, but with expanded authority to engage the enemy along the front will provide opportunities for SOF to hone their skills and sow discord among the separatist and Russian ranks. Accompanying this effort, will be the rebuilding of government radio stations in order broadcast psychological messaging about Russian falsehoods. The information operations dimension of this strategy should be undertaken by the military with intelligence services support. Messaging that conveys the manipulation of Donbas populations at the hands of Russia must be aggressively undertaken, specifically, the airing of the audio recordings of Glasyev planning the annexation of Crimea. Other messaging must include the successes of the Ukrainian government in negotiating peace terms and undertaking key corruption reforms. Stories and interviews from defectors and key government figures that emphasize solidarity and shared history with the region should be shared to undermine separatist messaging. Progress on key economic reforms should also be conveyed, along with recordings of EU support and solidarity for the region.
Economic reforms will need to include the approval of a new pension law and the design and approval of a funding package to resurge Donbas industry. Currently the price of food is less expensive on the Ukrainian side than on the Donbas side and work is limited in the Donbas, so the immediate resurgence of support to region should be a point of leverage for the Kiev government.
Development reform must include the government’s push to successfully staff and fund the Agency for the Restoration of Donbas. This agency should spearhead the efforts to rebuild in the region. Kiev should also seek to increase international aid, while the quality of the local government officials must improve. This dimension is arguably the most important during the initial stages of the counterinsurgency strategy after the military has successfully targeted and reduced the military capacity of the separatists along the border. The relative speed with which development projects can be instituted will provide the first tangible evidence of involvement on the part of the government that will color what the local population believes that the government will commit to. Rapid initiation of development projects will provide a starting point for the civilian population to interact with government officials to humanize the involvement of Kiev in their communities.
In terms of seeking outside support, the Ukraine will need to continue pursuing increased diplomatic support with the hope of materializing more concrete commitments in the future. Existing support comes in the form of NATO-member countries and US military trainers that are working to improve the professionalization of the Ukrainian military forces, but are not involved in combat operations.[xi] Although limited in scope of involvement in the conflict, the extent of support is not insignificant and signals NATO’s and the US’ desire to provide a stopgap to Russian involvement. For NATO’s part they have committed to the Comprehensive Assistance Package (CAP), which offers the following:
1 - Advisory support: Resident and nonresident NATO and allied advisers are assisting Ukraine in a broad range of defense issues, including logistics and strategic-level reform.
2 - Defense reform: Key assistance includes capacity and institution building, professional development of civilian employees, and strategic communications.
3 - Defense education: Allied experts are cooperating with eight defense education institutions, three training centers, and the Diplomatic Academy in Ukraine to improve staff skills and develop curricula that meet Western standards.
4 - Countering Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) and demining: NATO is conducting humanitarian demining operations and will implement a project to increase Ukraine’s capabilities to counter IEDs.
5 - Explosive ordnance disposal: Allies are supporting Ukraine in disposing of obsolete small arms/light weapons, ammunition, and anti-personnel mines.[xii]
US assistance to date has also been substantial, focusing on non-lethal aid that enhances the operational and technological capabilities of the Ukrainian military:
1 - Training: 350 U.S. personnel training up to five battalions of Ukrainian conventional forces and one battalion of special operations forces, while developing a long-term institutional training capacity.
2 - Equipment: including counter-artillery and counter-mortar radars, secure communications, training aids, logistics infrastructure and IT systems, tactical UAVs, and medical equipment.
3 - Advisers: advancing implementation of key defense reforms, such as promoting civilian oversight, greater efficiency and transparency, and combatting corruption.[xiii]
While this aid is not lethal combat power that translates to the fighting, it is nonetheless an important commitment that NATO and the US is making to the second-largest land army in Europe after Russia.[xiv] It therefore should be top priority for Kiev to increase participation in NATO military exercises and encourage NATO military presence and participation within its borders. An increase in military forces by NATO members is sorely needed to help adjust Russia’s calculus on the extent to which it desires to expand the war in Ukraine. Ukraine needs more weapons and equipment as it attempts to modernize in the middle of fighting a war. Additionally, Ukraine should seek to undermine Russian support to the separatists by gathering as much hard evidence of the Russian involvement and its toll on Russian soldiers to show to the media in order to undermine Russian public support.
The final crucial component to the outside support dimension is the expansion of cyber warfare operations. Where the Ukraine is a region that does not hold great significance to the EU and the US, it does offer a battlefield on which to test cyber capabilities with relative impunity. Specifically, Ukraine needs more expertise on capabilities that would enable it to disable or disrupt command and control systems and logistics systems of the Russian military and the Donbas writ large, in order to undermine the perception that Russia can protect and provide for the people of the Donbas. That Russia does not openly acknowledge the participation of its forces in the Donbas, it can also not cry foul for actions taken against its units in the region. Kiev should look to increase the involvement and utilization of NATO country cyber capabilities to subvert all forms of financing, operations and organization that the separatists and Russians undertake as part of their daily routine. Increasing the cost of conducting operations in the Ukraine for Russia is a key way to reduce their calculus on their involvement in the region. While currently heavily engaged in Syria, the war in Donbas can serve as a proving ground for NATO countries to engage in open cyber warfare to reduce operating capacity of the separatists and Russia.
Ukraine faces an exceptionally difficult counterinsurgency, primarily because of the extensive great power support the Donbas insurgents enjoy from Russia. The separatists’ grievances are legitimate and still plague the region today. Militarily, Ukraine is not enough of a match for Russia and they do not currently enjoy the hard support of Europe’s militaries to risk engaging in a direct confrontation with Russia. Even by fighting a successful population-centric counterinsurgency, they still run the risk of inciting Russia to action if they do not feel they can claim victory.
Ultimately, however, there is no other solution for the Ukraine. Any attempts by Ukraine at this time to use direct force on the separatists and the population through exclusively enemy-centric or punishment counterinsurgency strategies will play right into the psychological warfare trap that paints Kiev as corrupt neo-Nazis that are running a fascist state and will subjugate the population once they regain control.
A population-centric counterinsurgency offers the best opportunity to undermine Russian involvement, end separatist control and negotiate an enduring agreement. The realities that the Ukraine faces external to the country include the realization that integration into the EU will be minimal at best and that NATO membership is not possible in the foreseeable future. However, Ukraine’s capacity to wage an effective COIN campaign and effectively suppress the separatist movement, while simultaneously making key reforms in their government and against corruption, greatly increases the future possibility of integration with western society. The Donbas itself is not clearly with one side or another, but if the results of modernization do not benefit the Donbas, there is no incentive for them to side with Kiev.
[i] Melkozerova, Veronika. "Two years too late, Lutsenko releases audio of Russian plan that Ukrainians already suspected." www.kyivpost.com. August 27, 2016. Web. <https://www.kyivpost.com/article/content/ukraine-politics/ukrainian-prosecutors-release-alleged-audio-evidence-of-russias-control-over-crime-annexation-and-civil-unrest-in-eastern-ukraine-421786.html>.
[ii] Antony Butts. Who was Pulling the Strings when Ukraine Unraveled? Reuters "War College", 2016. Itunes Podcast.
[v] Finnery, Nathan K., and Benjamin J. Fernandes. "The Myth of Russian Aggression and NATO Expansion." www.thestrategybridge.org. December 16, 2016. Web. <http://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2016/12/16/the-myth-of-russian-aggression-and-nato-expansion>.
[viii] Ukraine: The Line. International Crisis Group, 2016. Social Science Premium Collection. 8.
[ix] Ibid. 8.
[x] Baczynska, Gabriela, and Toby Sterling. "EU leaders to endorse Dutch demands on Ukraine: sources." www.reuters.com. December 14, 2016. Web. <http://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-crisis-eu-dutch-idUSKBN14326Q?feedType=RSS&feedName=worldNews&utm_source=Twitter&utm_medium=Social&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Reuters%2FworldNews+%28Reuters+World+News%29>.
[xi] Morelli, Vincent L. Ukraine: Current Issues and U.S. Policy. Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2016. 30.
[xii] Ibid. 37.
[xiii] Ibid. 32.
[xiv] Peterson, Nolan. "The 2 Largest Land Armies in Europe Tiptoe to the Edge of War and Back." www.dailysignal.com. December 9, 2016. Web. <http://dailysignal.com/2016/12/09/eastern-europe-is-a-powder-keg-ready-to-explode/>.