Small Wars Journal

Phantom Power: Russia’s Neo-Covert Operations in the 2008 Georgian and 2014 Ukrainian Conflicts

Mon, 02/07/2022 - 9:27pm

Phantom Power:

Russia’s Neo-Covert Operations in the 2008 Georgian and 2014 Ukrainian Conflicts

By Joshua Underwood




In 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) collapsed and created multiple countries throughout Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region. Out of the ashes of the USSR’s collapse emerged three new states: Russian Federation (RF), Georgia, and Ukraine. Since then, Russia has been able to re-establish itself as a power on the global stage, while Ukraine and Georgia have looked for additional assistance from Russia, or western organizations. Specifically, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) offered assistance and membership to Georgia and Ukraine.


Russia sees NATO’s presence in Georgia and Ukraine as a threat to their sovereignty, and therefore, strengthened their sphere of interest in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region by using various forms of power. In this paper, I will argue that Russia used soft, sticky, and instead of using hard power, Russia used what I call “phantom power” in the 2008 Georgia and 2014 Eastern Ukraine Conflicts.


In this article, I begin defining and differentiating between covert operations and the various forms of power. I define the common forms of power while introducing the new form: hard, soft, sticky, and phantom power. Second, I provide an overview of the literature on Russia's engagements against the West. Next, I discuss the forms of power used by Russia in the Georgian and Ukrainian conflicts. Finally, I conclude the forms of power Russia used in both conflicts by identifying soft and sticky, while employing what I call “Phantom Power”.


Literature Review

Covert Operations

The majority of research on covert operations has focused on American Foreign Policy’s implementation of such operations. Covert operations, also known as “Clandestine Operations,” set the goal of achieving “objectives through secret intervention into the affairs of other nations” (Johnson 1989: 81). According to former President Ronald Reagan (1981), covert operations are “activities conducted in support of national foreign policy objectives abroad which are planned and executed so that the role of the (intervener) is not apparent or acknowledged publicly.” Covert operations are activities conducted by foreign governments to achieve their policy objectives in neighboring countries without recognition of their involvement. 


Carson (2016) claims covert operations allow interveners to avoid conflict escalation while engaging in limited war. The goal for covert operations is to keep the interveners hidden from the targeted country. However, if the intervener is discovered, covert operations allow the intervener plausible deniability (Joseph and Poznansky 2018: 322). In sum, covert operations allow adversaries to engage targeted countries without provoking a large-scale conventional war while having the option of plausible deniability.


There are a variety of covert operations that have a specific objective when being utilized. Specifically, Paramilitary covert operations provide support to resistance fighters. As stated by William Carruthers (2018: 130), “Paramilitary covert action includes the training and support to a resistance force, assassination, and, at its highest levels, the operations that use guerrilla forces to try to remove a ruling party by force.”  Moreover, “a further way that states can conduct paramilitary covert action is through directly helping terrorist or guerrilla [organizations] in the hopes that this would [destabilize] the government of the target state.” (Godson 1995: 161-170). Paramilitary covert operations are designed for a foreign country to provide external support to help overthrow or destabilize another country. For this research, we consider the various forms of power used to conduct and execute covert operations in targeted countries.


Forms of Power (Hard and Soft)


In the International Relations field, there are various forms of power. Depending on the type of power, a country (external actor) could apply any form of power to achieve its short- or long-term objectives. The three forms of power used by Russia in the Georgia and Ukraine Conflicts were: sticky, soft, and what I call “phantom power." 


According to Joseph Nye Jr. (2004: 256),


“Soft power is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. When you can get others to want what you want, you do not have to spend as much on sticks and carrots to move them in your direction. Hard power, the ability to coerce, grows out of a country's military and economic might. Soft power arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies. When our policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, our soft power is enhanced.”


Hard power uses coercion to make people do what you want them to do in order to achieve the outcome you want, while soft power uses attraction by appealing and persuading to the population that has a similar culture, ideas, or policies. Furthermore, there are some tools associated with soft power when applying it. As stated by Vladimir Petrovsky (2013: 119), “The classic author of the genre, Joseph Nye lists the following among the official instruments of soft power: “Public diplomacy, broadcasting, exchange programs, development assistance, disaster relief, military-to-military contacts.” Nye’s list shows us the tools countries use to gain an advantage when employing soft power against a targeted country.


Other scholars have reimaged soft power by looking at their resources. As stated by Geun Lee (2009: 210),


In other words, when non-material symbolic ‘soft resources’ are employed to exert influence on others, the final outcome is soft power, while the final outcome is defined as hard power when material ‘hard resources’ are employed. Therefore, within this definition, soft power can be both cooptive and coercive, as can hard power. The difference lies only in the power resources being used.”

Lee’s soft power provides new insight into the utilization of soft power in other regions. We see the combination of soft and hard power can help countries find ways to influence their targets to achieve their desired outcome.


Some authors believe that Russia combining their resources and soft power is detrimental to their agenda in remerging as a regional power. As stated by Vasile Rotaru (2018: 46), “instead of attracting the former Soviet countries, and convincing their political leaders to want what Moscow wants, Russia, by instrumentalizing its soft power resources, has motivated its neighbors to seek to restrict its influence.” On the other hand, when looking at Russia and their foreign policies, scholars should not come to conclusions when discussing their actions. As stated by Joanna Szostek (2014: 480), “the soft power framework should be applied with caution. Indiscriminate generalizations about the ‘Russian’ media in Ukraine and assumptions that they facilitate Russian foreign policy success are problematic. Rather than soft power, we might use a metaphor of a Soviet-era communal apartment with very thin walls.” For this research, we use Nye’s hard and soft power definitions. Next, we will discuss sticky power and how countries may employ this power. 




Sticky power is similar to hard and soft; however, it focuses on economic and institutional policies. As stated by Mead (2004: 50), “Consider the carnivorous sundew plant, which attracts its prey with a kind of soft power, a pleasing scent that lures insects toward its sap. But once the victim has touched the sap, it is stuck; it can’t get away. That is sticky power; that is how economic power works.” Sticky power's goal is to attract countries to their economic policies or organization to make it difficult to leave. Russia used similar tactics in Georgia and Ukraine to gain an advantage over both. Next, we will discuss what I call “phantom power."




Finally, when discussing Russian involvement in Georgia and Ukraine, we see that hard power does not illustrate the precise form of power that describes their actions. We need to create a new form of power that can accurately identify their actions. The new power that defines Russian actions is what I call “phantom power." Phantom power is the ability to mask their presence and actions while providing resources to a group to achieve their political agenda before any international repercussions. Moreover, it's when an external actor provides support to separatist or resistance groups to help them maintain control of their territory with the hopes of gaining international recognition. Thus, it allows the external actor to deny accountability because they are not present in any official capacity. The goal of the external actor is to use phantom power to establish regional dominance while creating instability in neighboring countries. In sum, Russia used soft and sticky powers in the Georgia and Ukraine Conflicts; and instead of using hard power, Russia used phantom power to achieve its political objectives. 



Difference between Covert Operations and Phantom Power


Covert operations and Phantom power may seem to have similar objectives; however, there are distinctive differences between them. Covert operations are activities conducted by the intervener (external actor) to help resistance fighters overthrow the government without being acknowledged publicly. Phantom power is when the external actor provides resources to help separatist/resistance groups capture and maintain territorial control to achieve independence. Therefore, phantom power distinctly focuses on the external actor providing resources to help groups establish a new independent state, while covert operations only help resistance fighters try to overthrow their central government. Russia’s recent involvement in Georgia and Ukraine best illustrates the difference between the two concepts.


Russia deployed phantom power in the 2008 Georgia and 2014 Ukraine Conflicts to help separatist groups establish territorial control with hopes of achieving independence. The world perceived Russia’s actions as being covert operations; though, that was far from the truth. Russia conducted this new form of power to influence and deter other countries from accepting western organization membership by providing resources to separatists to establish De Facto status with the hopes of international recognition. Although we have explained the difference between Covert Operations and Phantom Power, it is imperative to discuss why Russia has challenged the West in recent years.


Russia vs. the West


Russia and the West’s complicated relationship has intensified recently with the West trying to expand its influence into Eastern Europe and the Caucasus regions. Russia has been able to counter NATO’s influence and re-establish their presences in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region. A struggle between Russia and the West has resulted in revolutions erupting in both regions. Both sides have taken measures to counter each other to ensure they have the power, which has led to the outbreak of revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. As stated by Tristan Landry (2011: 7), “The goal of the Pentagon and European states that supported US foreign policy was to change the political leadership in former communist states where former apparatchiks remained in power by controlling judges, media, police and the army.” The struggle turned into a chess game because the U.S. wanted to change leadership in multiple former Soviet states while integrating them into NATO.


Russia continued to monitor NATO’s activities and created a new strategy to counter their strategy in placing pro-western leaders in former Soviet states. Russia created a youth group, Nashi, to counter the revolutions occurring in these states. As stated by Evgeny Finkel and Yitzhak M. Brudny (2012: 20), “Nashi’s ideology and actions served to protect the regime from the color revolution threat and to counterbalance several key components of successful color revolutions elsewhere, namely the existence of a strong pro-Western civic nationalism and the ability of Western actors to intervene in Russia’s affairs.” Russia used Nashi to cause disruption and confusion among the population, which caused further instability in Georgia and Ukraine. In sum, Russia used strategic tactics to monitor and counter Western activities. Specifically, we will now focus on Russia’s engagement strategy in Georgia and Ukraine.


Russia’s Engagement Strategy


Russia continued to engage its western counterparts in Georgia and Ukraine. Although the U.S. had success in getting pro-western leaders elected in Post-Soviet states, Russia was able to challenge the West’s involvement and slow the process of pro-Westernization. As stated by Roy Allison (2014: 1290), “If ‘color revolutions’ are presented in this way as a form of aggression, one critical analyst concluded, then annexing Crimea and supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine, in the mentality of the Kremlin, can be viewed as a kind of ‘color counter-revolution.”  Annexing Crimea was designed to challenge the pro-western government that had taken control of Ukraine. As stated by Allison (2014: 1261), “Moscow claims that the intern government in Kiev which assumed authority when President Yanukovych fled the country had no legitimacy since it violently usurped power in a coup d’etat--a consistent theme in Russian discourse.” Russia saw the pro-western government in Ukraine as an illegitimate government and a threat to their border. 


Russia was able to challenge the West by utilizing similar Western methods when intervening in conflicts. As stated by Timothy Thomas (2009: 40), “Moscow officials practiced humanitarian intervention for the first time, using this ‘Western Doctrine’ to their advantage.” Russia was able to strategically claim that they were, for the first time, using similar Western methods, particularly the U.S., to justify their involvement in conflicts. Moreover, Russia was not only using manipulation tactics but re-establishing its dominance in the region. As stated by Güner Ozkan (2012: 58), “The war in August against Georgia then became an opportunity to for Russia to remind that Russia was determined to reassert and maintain its grip on the ‘near abroad’ when or if necessary.” In sum, Russia’s goal was to use the Georgian and Ukrainian conflicts as a signal to the West that Russia was reasserting its influence. Yet, we fail to see the tactics Russia used to successfully engage the West. The next section will provide the methodology and case selection to illustrate the forms of power Russia used.




            Russia’s renewed expansion has made scholars debate Russia’s intentions in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region. According to Ellias Gotz (2017: 248), “scholars should devote more attention to developing multi-causal models that interweave elements of the different approaches--without degenerating into laundry-list explanations--and test these models through multi layered research strategies.” Gotz believes that a multi-causal model could give an in-depth explanation of countries' behavior like Russia. The multi-causal model for this paper is ideational and geopolitics. According to Gotz (2017: 228), “ideational accounts explaining Russia’s near abroad assertion with reference to its national identity and desire for international status and geopolitics accounts highlighting power and security considerations.” Therefore, in explaining Russia’s behavior in Ukraine and Georgia, geopolitics and ideational will illustrate how they used sticky, soft, and phantom power to achieve their geopolitical ambitions.


Case Selection and Limitations


            Most forms of power explain the actions of a specific country, and phantom power is no different. The case study selection for this research focused on the 2008 Georgia and 2014 Ukraine conflicts. Each case illustrates the political implications that phantom power displays when effectively deployed. They provide us with significant insight into how Russia has modernized covert operations to create instability in neighboring countries and challenge western influence. Although this study provides insight into a new form of power, there are limitations. At this time, the theory of Phantom power has only been utilized by Russia in two case studies. Therefore, the next section illustrates the impact of Phantom power in the two case studies.


Case Study: 2008 Georgia War


Georgia- Russia Relations


            Georgia and Russia have a long history of relations; however, the fall of the USSR established a new benchmark for their relations and the emergence of two secessionist wars in Georgia. The wars centered around the secessionist movement of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Republic of Georgia. The South Ossetia war lasted from 1991-1992, with Russia intervening on behalf of the South Ossetian separatist by providing support (Fischer 2016: 45). The 1991-1992 conflict ended with both sides coming to a ceasefire agreement in Sochi and the establishment of the Joint Peace Keeping Force (JPKF), consisting of Georgian/Ossetian/Russian forces (Fischer 2016: 45). Similar events transpired in the Abkhazia War from 1992-1994, with both sides coming to a ceasefire agreement and Russia providing a peace-keeping force (Fischer 2016: 46). The two secessionist wars ended with Russia establishing a peace -keeping force in both regions to help maintain peace. The Russian peace-keeping force continues to place a strain on relations and cause tension between Georgia and Russia. The tensions between both countries heightened with the Rose Revolution erupting.


2003 Rose Revolution


            In November of 2003, the Rose Revolution erupted in Georgia with hopes of removing the past and creating a new future for Georgia. The goal of the revolution was to combat state corruption by a failing regime and replace them with modernized leaders while utilizing western aid to develop the state (Jones 2006). Further, the new Saakashvili regime priority was to resolve a smuggling problem in South Ossetia by implementing security measures with the hope of regaining control of the territory (Welt 2010: 72). In 2004, tensions flared up when Georgian government officials implemented new trade restrictions and deployed hundreds of special forces to the separatist region (Welt 2010: 64-65). The Georgian government’s goal was to “improve state revenue collection, eradicate official involvement in cross-border crime, and to reduce the porosity of state borders” (Welt 2010: 69). Georgia’s government hoped to regain state control over South Ossetia because of the security dilemma of smuggling of contrabands from Russia into Georgia (Welt 2010: 71). The tensions between Georgia, South Ossetia, and Russia continued to intensify because of the political objectives of Georgia and Russia. The Rose Revolution and 2004 flare-up set the stage for the 2008 Five-Day War between Georgia and Russia.


2008 Five-Day War


            The 2008 conflict between Georgia, Russia, and South Ossetian separatists has been under extreme scrutiny as to who started the war. On August 7th, 2008 at 11:35 PM GMT, Georgian government forces began the Tskhinvali offensive to regain control over the region (Matsuzato 2009: 232-233).  The Russian government would eventually respond sixteen hours later on August 8th by deploying their Fifty-Eighth Army through the Roki tunnel to Tskhinvali to repel Georgian government forces (Matsuzato 2009: 233). The speculation around which side started accuses Russia of sending in their military forces before the Georgian offensive; however, evidence indicates that Georgia started the war without provocation from Russia. For this research, it should be noted that although Russia did not start the war, we should consider the role that the Russian peace-keeping force played throughout this period. It is imperative to consider the various powers that Russia has used against the Republic of Georgia since the 1991-1992 conflict.


Sticky Power


            As stated above, sticky power focuses on economic and institutional policies. Sticky power allowed Russia to establish economic dominance within the Caucasus region. As stated by Ozkan (2012: 245), “It can be said that Russia’s harsh response to Georgia over South Ossetia was, also indeed, provoked by the fact that Russia has wanted to strengthen its grip on energy pipelines and used related issues, such as energy prices and transportation fees, to extract more geopolitical benefits in the ‘near abroad.” Russia is using its economic power to establish geopolitical dominance over Georgia.


Russia utilized energy pipelines to gain leverage over Georgia which relies on Russia’s resources. According to Ivars Indans (2007:133),


“In January Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, doubled prices for Georgia to $110 a thousand cubic metres and proposes a further rise to $230 at the start of 2007 - the highest for the former Soviet Union Republics. Meanwhile, Russia has banned imports of Georgian mineral water, and wine. The reasoning being Gazprom says the price increases are commercial, and Russian officials say the wine and mineral water restrictions are health-related.” 


 Russia exerted its influence by increasing gas prices, which continues to trap Georgia by these prices, dictating how much Georgia should pay each year. In sum, Russia was able to attract Georgia to their economic market by their resources and then trap them with their gas prices, causing Georgia to accumulate debt. It is imperative to discuss the second form of power Russia used against Georgia, soft power.


Soft Power     


            Soft power differentiates from sticky power by focusing on culture and political ideas. We see the Russian military use the media to justify their response to Georgia’s aggression in South Ossetia. As stated by Timothy L. Thomas (2009: 64), “the Russian press utilized the words of people outside their own country to buttress their accusations that Georgia initiated the conflict. In particular, authoritative figures were used.” The Russian media used broadcasting, a soft power tool, to claim that Georgia was responsible for initiating the conflict. In sum, Russia used soft power to blame Georgia for starting the conflict and provided an opportunity for Russia to initiate phantom power.


Phantom Power


            The international perception of Russia’s actions in Georgia is that they used hard power. Yet, the concept of hard power does not accurately describe the Russian actions during the Georgian Conflict. Therefore, I will utilize the concept of “phantom power” to provide new insight into Russia’s actions in Georgia. We see that Russia’s peacekeeping force was more than a peacekeeping force that provided arms to help the South Ossetian separatists, which allowed Russia to achieve its ambition of regional influence.  


The intention for the Russian peacekeeping force mandate was to help maintain peace and security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian forces had regularly “supported the South Ossetian separatists by providing military equipment” (Allison 2009: 181). Furthermore, the arrival of the 58th Army and other units in South Ossetia was seen as reinforcement forces for the Russian peacekeeping force currently stationed in South Ossetia (Allison 2009: 180). Russia continued to cover up its operations under the mandate by continuing to provide arms and placing military intelligence officials from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) in the South Ossetian government (Allison 2009: 181; Welt 2010: 77). Moreover, Russia utilized the peacekeeping force by transforming them into regular forces once they recognized South Ossetia (Allison 2009: 182). In sum, Russia’s peacekeeping force was never peaceful. Their ulterior motives were to provide arms and intelligence to help the South Ossetian separatists. Their support was motivated by their goal of achieving an ambitious political objective of expanding their regional influence.


Russian support for the South Ossetian separatists was overshadowed by their aspiration of achieving regional influence. According to Tracey German (2016: 164),

“The evolution of the relationship between South Ossetia and Moscow is indicative of the Russian approach to sub-state actors across the post-Soviet space: Moscow confers statehood with one hand, using the language and discourse of statehood, but takes it away with the other, manipulating its relations with these actors to achieve broader foreign policy objectives, notably the retention of its influence across the post-Soviet space. Russia’s decision to assist Georgia’s separatist regions and build up a strong military presence there, reflects the Kremlin’s wider efforts to retain its influence over the post-Soviet space, in this case by manipulating existing fault lines and using separatist conflicts as foreign policy instruments.”


Russia established support to South Ossetian separatists by giving them arms and intelligence, which allowed them to mask their true intentions. South Ossetia is currently maintaining its territory because of Russia’s support. Russia achieved its political objective of regional influence by establishing a new alliance with South Ossetian separatists.


            In conclusion, the Russian government successfully deployed phantom power in the Georgian Conflict by disguising its peacekeepers to establish a military presence in South Ossetia, which allowed them to provide the resources to help the separatist maintain control of their territory. The presence of their military force and recognition of South Ossetia further Russia’s political objective by expanding its regional influence. Phantom powers success further emboldened Russia to continue expanding its influence into neighboring countries with Ukraine as the targeted country.


Case Study: 2014 Eastern Ukraine Conflict


Ukraine-Russia Relations


            Ukraine and Russia have a long history of relations; however, the fall of the USSR established a new benchmark for their relations with the Ukrainian independence on 1 December 1991. The Ukrainian population overwhelming voted in favor by 90.32% for independence (Blaj 2013: 169). The collapse of the USSR led to independence movements by former USSR states. The massive stockpile of nuclear weapons left behind in former soviet states caused great concern to major powers, including Russia. Russia and Ukraine established diplomatic ties by signing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) on 23 March 1992 and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of nuclear weapons (Blaj 2013: 174). The danger of Ukraine’s nuclear weapons posed a threat to Russia, which created an opportunity for cooperation through partnerships and treaties. Russia’s Ukrainian policy focused on re-establishing its control of strategic positions and relations with leaders in the Ukrainian government. Russian influence in Ukrainian politics sparked outrage throughout the country and led to the Orange Revolution.


2004 Orange Revolution


            The 2004 Ukraine election had the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych against the pro-Western candidate Viktor Yuschenko. The election results saw pro-Russian candidate Yanukovych winning the Ukrainian presidency, which was followed by public demonstrations. The opposition argued the election was fraudulent and was successfully upheld in the Ukrainian Supreme Court and declared a new run-off election (Popova 2014: 65). Yushchenko successfully won the second-round run-off and became Ukrainian President in January 2005 (Markus 2016: 416).  Yushchenko’s presidency was plagued with failures, ranging from inexperienced lower state officials to political infighting within the Orange Coalition (Markus 2016). Yushenko’s political failures led to the election of Yanukovych and the Euromaidan revolution in 2014.


2014 Euromaidan


            The Euromaidan was a critical turning point in relations between Russia and Ukraine. Yanukovych's deals and close relation to Vladimir Putin fueled the Euromaidan demonstrations. The demonstrations were supported by the United States of America (USA). The US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland confirmed that the US spent over $5 Billion to support the pro-western government and transition of power (Karabulut and Oğuz 2018: 86). Furthermore, Yanukovych reversed Yushchenko’s pro-Western policies and resorted to authoritarian rule (Diuk 2014: 11). The new authoritarian rule and reversal of pro-western policies lead to massive protests that demanded “signing an agreement with European Union (EU), resignation of government, and ending of police brutality against the protesters” (Popova 2014: 65).  Also, the protests resulted from Yanukovych agreeing to a deal that allowed Russia to buy $15 billion in bonds and reduce natural gas prices (Diuk 2014: 9-10).  Protests forced Yanukovych from office and fled the country with the aid of Russia (BBC News 2014). Yanukovych's removal from office, Russia's focus turned to Crimea because of the strategic port and the geopolitical implications that the territory holds.


Crimean Invasion


            The Crimean Peninsula was signed over to Ukraine in 1954 by the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev. A common consensus among Russian officials is that Crimea is Russian territory and has been a topic of discussion among Russian elites since 1991 when the USSR Supreme Council restored autonomy to Crimea (Blaj 2013: 175). The fall of the USSR stripped Crimea of its autonomy and saw the rise of nationalists grouped by the Republican Movement of Crimea (RDK) coming to power in 1991 (Blaj 2013: 175). An ACT agreement on divisional powers between Crimean and Ukrainian authorities was based on two conditions. First, Crimea could establish their own foreign policy, and second, no territory could be transferred to an external actor without agreement between both sides (Blaj 2013: 176). Tensions soon elevated over concerns about Crimea, the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and the port city of Sevastopol. In June 1995, Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement allowing the Russian fleet to be based in Sevastopol. On April 21, 2010, the military base in Sevastopol was leased to Russia until 2042 (Blaj 2013: 177-178).


In 2014, after the removal of Yanukovych, Russia’s naval infantry took control of the Crimean parliament (Pond 2017: 144). Russia declares it did not violate any international norms and supported the aspirations of the population. Russian President, Vladimir Putin, stated: “Russia’s annexation of Crimea was fulfilling Crimea’s right to self-determination” (BBC News 2014). In the end, Russia was successful in annexing Crimea and shifted its focus to Donbass in Eastern Ukraine.


2014 Donbass War (Eastern Ukraine)


            In 2014, Russia faced a slightly different situation in Ukraine than in Georgia. Mass population protests challenged the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who refused to sign an agreement with pro-western organizations and created closer relations with Russia. The removal of President Yanukovych sparked pro-Russian separatists in Donbass to take action. According to Andrey Kurkov (2014), “Nationalist forces inside the Russian Federation, groomed by Russian media for years and flushed with the annexation, took it upon themselves to free the east of Ukraine from the rest of the country. Behind them came Russian military hardware and soldiers, although the Kremlin insists, they were not on official army service.” The anti-government forces captured administrative buildings in Luhansk and Donetsk region while calling for a “people’s republic” (Pankevych and Slovska 2020: 206). The Russian government claims they are not responsible for the events involving separatists; however, evidence suggests otherwise. In the end, Russia has continued to support separatists in Eastern Ukraine and has utilized various forms of power that have caused instability in the region since 2014.


Sticky Power


            As in Georgia, Russia used its economic power over Ukraine. As stated by Rilka Dragneva and Kataryna Wolczuk (2016: 690),


“One of his first steps was to sign the ‘Kharkiv Accords’ in April 2010 which extended the lease of the Sevastopol naval base to the Russian Black Sea Fleet in exchange for a 30% discount on the 2009 pricing formula for gas. Despite the agreement Ukraine could still hardly afford to pay the price, which reached about $425 per thousand cubic metres (tcm) by 2013, an eight-fold increase since 2005.”


President Yanukovych decided to help Ukraine’s economy by agreeing to receive Russian gas resources. Ukraine received a discount on gas prices, but over time saw its debt increase. Russia used its resources to gain an economic advantage over Ukraine and trapped them by increasing gas prices. Russia utilized the accords to extend their lease settlement on the Sevastopol by establishing their presence. The use of sticky power allowed Russia to take control of the port in 2014. 


Furthermore, Russia established power in Ukraine by controlling its relations with other countries. A stated by Hanna Shelest (2015: 198),


“Russia does not necessarily need to seize more territory, but its aim seems to be preventing Ukraine from stabilizing. By freezing the conflict – and maintaining the potential for it to reignite quickly – Russia can ensure that investors shun Ukraine, that the government is distracted from other [endeavors] and that informal military forces retain their strength at the expense of the Ukrainian state (D’Anieri 2015: 239). Destabilization is thus attempted in several spheres – economic, energy, security and social.”


Russia used the conflict to control the investors in the economic markets and energy sector. It made it difficult for Ukraine to find investors. In sum, Russia has successfully deployed sticky power by using its resources to trap Ukraine and the conflict to deter any potential investors. Next, we will discuss how Russia used soft power.


Soft power


            Russia used the media to discuss how territories, like Crimea, are culturally central to Russia. President Putin made numerous speeches during the Crimea conflict, justifying the annexation. As stated by Yuri Teper (2016: 385),


“While making Russia’s case on the Crimea, Putin first stressed Crimea’s predominantly Russkiy population and its Ukrainian-Russophone community. He then described Crimea as ‘native russkiy soil,’ and Sevastopol’ as a ‘native russkiy city.’ Later in the speech, Putin claimed ‘Russian-speaking Crimea’ had asked Russia for protection from the new Kiev regime, which purportedly was led by ‘nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites.’ Putin maintained that Russia was ‘standing on an edge from which it could not retreat,’ characterizing inaction as ‘betrayal.’ He further solidified Russia’s role as an extra-territorial champion and protector of ethnic Russians by promising that ‘Russia will always protect … the Russkiy people … and the Russian-speaking citizens’ residing in Ukraine.”


Russia used media broadcasting, a soft power tool, to argue how Crimea was culturally a part of Russia. The broadcast allowed Russia to use soft power to justify the annexation of Crimea and declare their intentions for other territories that were of interest to Russia. 


In addition, Russia has offered development assistance to Ukraine in multiple areas. As stated by Anderi Tsygankov (2015: 290),


“A certain inertia prevailed in Russia–Ukraine relations by excluding, for the time being, any radical actions on the part of the Kremlin. Rather than coercing and applying pressures, Russia initially planned to co-opt Yushchenko by mobilizing Russia’s soft power and the two nations’ economic, cultural, and institutional interdependence.”


Russia strategically offered assistance to improve Ukraine’s economic and institutional systems while making a historical-cultural connection between both countries. In sum, Russia used soft power to exert its influence within Ukraine. Ultimately, these efforts empowered Russia to use “phantom power”.


Phantom Power


            The most important power Russia used in Donbass was “phantom power.” As in South Ossetia, Russia supported separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine by providing resources and support. Russia claims they have no forces in the area and therefore, has no official presence. As stated by Allison (2014: 1257-1258),


“In respect of eastern Ukraine, blanket denials by Putin that any Russian forces were involved— ‘there are no armed forces, no Russian instructors in southeastern Ukraine and there never were any—were replaced in early summer by an admission that Russian mercenaries were taking part in the fighting. Moscow continued to deny that regular forces were involved, but the scale of the Russian military intervention in August and September was such that Russian denials convinced very few states. A low level of force was employed in Crimea, and the Russian emphasis in eastern Ukraine was on the use of military intelligence, arms deliveries, and the transfer of relatively small groups of armed men from Russia until at least August. Moscow also proved to be remarkably effective in the use of non-military instruments of influence and diplomacy, which emphasized in particular a more or less plausible deniability in an effort to disable international responses and bolster domestic Russian support.”


Russia denies any involvement in Ukraine. Yet, Russia has provided arms, soldiers, and assistance to separatist forces. Russia utilized phantom power by denying any accountability of its involvement while achieving its political objectives. Further analysis proves that Russia was heavily involved in the strategic planning and support for the separatists. 


The Ukrainian military successes in July 2014 against pro-Russian separatist forces prompted retaliation from Russia. Russia began to launch large-scale operations of Russian forces in 2014 through reconnaissance and special operation units while having close to 10,000 troops involved (Sutyagin 2015: 1-4). Furthermore, evidence shows that GRU organized protests and coordinated rebel armed forces while special forces (Spetsnaz) troops and secret service officials supported Donbass criminals and Russian nationalists intending to gain power (Wilson 2016: 647).  These units and officials provided resources to help separatists gain and maintain control of their territory. In sum, Russia successfully used phantom power in supporting separatists in Eastern Ukraine without claiming any official responsibility.


In conclusion, Russia used phantom power by sending in special operation units and troops to support separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine. The presence of these forces provided an advantage against the Ukrainian government forces and helped them maintain control of their territory. It allowed Russia to achieve its overall political objective in keeping Ukraine from becoming closer to the West.



            In this paper, I have argued that Russia had used sticky, soft, and what I call “phantom power.” Russia used Phantom power to support separatist groups because of their territorial significance and political importance. Furthermore, Russia used sticky, soft, and phantom power to disrupt Georgia’s and Ukraine’s NATO membership. Russia used sticky power to attract Georgia and Ukraine to its economic markets and trapped them by debt. Moreover, Russia used the soft power tool, broadcasting, in Georgia and Ukraine to influence the population through propaganda. After civilian unrest, Russia used phantom power to support separatists in South Ossetia and Eastern Ukraine, which allowed them to mask their intentions to achieve their political agenda. The concept of phantom power creates a new level of international politics.


The concept of phantom power offers a unique insight into an old strategy of the Cold War. Phantom power provides an opportunity to infringe on a targeted countries sovereignty by funneling supplies to rebelling minority or separatist groups. At this time, phantom power is uniquely Russian; however, that does not mean other countries may take advantage of the blueprint set forth by Russia. Phantom power gives countries complete deniability and an opportunity to create alliances with potential new actors.


Phantom power supports separatist/resistance groups to maintain control of their territory to achieve independence. Russian support for the separatist groups in Georgia and Ukraine allows them to reassert their dominance in the region and provides an opportunity to re-establish themselves as a ‘Regional Power’ on the international stage. The premise of phantom power, if executed effectively, could have implications for international politics. The other forms of power are more transparent in their actions while Phantom power masks their actions so that the country can achieve its political objectives. Therefore, phantom power could dramatically change international politics and set a dangerous precedent.



The author would like to thank Dr. Morrissette for his critical insight to this work.






Allison, Roy. 2009. “The Russian case for military intervention in Georgia: international law, norms and political calculation.” European Security 18 (2): 173-200.  


---------------. 2014. "Russian 'deniable' intervention in Ukraine: how and why Russia broke the

            rules." International Affairs 90, no. 6 (November): 1255-1297.


BBC News. 2014. “Putin: Russia Helped Yanukovych to Flee Ukraine.”



Blaj, Laura. 2013. “Ukraine’s Independence and Its Geostrategic Impact in Eastern

            Europe.” Debatte: Review of Contemporary German Affairs 21 (2/3): 165–81.


Carruthers, W. 2018. “Covert Action and Cyber Offensive Operations: Revisiting Traditional

            Approaches in Light of New Technology,” January: 1-254.


Carson, Austin. 2016. “Facing Off and Saving Face: Covert Intervention and Escalation   Management in the Korean War.” International Organization 70 (1): 103–31.


Diuk, Nadia. 2014. “Euromaidan.” World Affairs 176 (6): 9–16. 


Dragneva, Rilka, and Kataryna Wolczuk. 2016. "Between Dependence and Integration:

            Ukraine’s Relations With Russia." Europe-Asia Studies 68, no. 4 (June 2016): 678-698.


Finkel, Evgeny, and Yitzhak M. Brudny. 2012. "Russia and the colour revolutions."

            Democratization 19, no. 1 (February): 15-36.


German, Tracey. 2016. "Russia and South Ossetia: conferring statehood or creeping

            annexation?" Journal Of Southeast European & Black Sea Studies 16, no. 1 (March):   



Geun Lee. 2009. “A Theory of Soft Power and Korea’s Soft Power Strategy.” Korean Journal of

            Defense Analysis 21 (2): 205–18.


Godson. Roy. 1995. Dirty tricks or trump cards: US covert action and counterintelligence.

            Washington, D.C. Brassey’s.


Gotz, Ellias. 2017. "Putin, the State, and War: The Causes of Russia's Near Abroad Assertion

            Revisited." International Studies Review 19, no. 2 (June): 228-253.


Indans, Ivars. 2007. "Relations of Russia and Georgia: Developments and Future Prospects."

            Baltic Security & Defence Review 9, (January): 131-149.


Jones, Stephen F. 2006. “The Rose Revolution: A Revolution without

            Revolutionaries?” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 19 (1): 33–48.


Joseph, Michael F., and Michael Poznansky. 2018. “Media Technology, Covert Action, and the   Politics of Exposure.” Journal of Peace Research 55 (3): 320–35.


Karabulut, B , Oğuz, Ş . 2018. "Proxy Warfare in Ukraine". Savunma Bilimleri Dergisi 17:



Kurkov, Andrey. 2014. “Ukraine's revolution: Making sense of a year of chaos.” BBC NEWS.


Russett, Bruce, 1990. 'Politics and Alternative Secur- ity: Toward a More Democratic, Therefore

            More Peaceful, World', pp. 107-136 in Burns Weston, ed., Alternative Security: Living    Without Nuclear Deter- rence. Boulder, CO: Westview


Landry, Tristan. 2011."The Colour Revolutions in the Rearview Mirror: Closer Than They

            Appear." Canadian Slavonic Papers 53, no. 1 (March): 1-24.


Markus, Stanislav. 2016. “Sovereign Commitment and Property Rights: The Case of Ukraine’s

            Orange Revolution.” Studies in Comparative International Development 51 (4): 411–33.


Matsuzato, Kimitaka. 2009. “The Five-Day War and Transnational Politics.” 

            Demokratizatsiya 17 (3): 228–50.


Mead, Walter Russell. 2004. "America's STICKY Power." Foreign Policy no. 141 (March):



Nye Jr., Joseph S. 2004. “Soft Power and American Foreign Policy.” Political Science     Quarterly 119 (2): 255–70.


Ozkan, Güner. 2012. "Spoils of a War: Impact of Georgia-Russia War on Russian Foreign and

            Security Policies in the 'Near Abroad'." Journal of Gazi Academic View 6, no. 11

            (December): 35-64.


Pankevych, Ivan, and Iryna Slovska. 2020. “Military Conflict in Ukraine: Ukraine’s and World’s

            Challenges.” Balkan Social Science Review 16 (June): 197–211.


Petrovsky, V. 2013. "Soft Power, Russian Style: In Search of a Fulcrum." International Affairs:

            A Russian Journal Of World Politics, Diplomacy & International Relations 59, no. 5

            (September): 118-129.


Pond, Elizabeth. 2017. “War in Ukraine: Is This the Way It Ends?” Survival (00396338) 59 (6):




Popova, Maria. 2014. “Why the Orange Revolution Was Short and Peaceful and Euromaidan

            Long and Violent.” Problems of Post-Communism 61 (6): 64–70.


Reagan, Ronald. 1981. Executive Order 12333—United States Intelligence Activities. Federal     Register.



Rotaru, Vasile. 2018. "Forced Attraction? How Russia is Instrumentalizing Its Soft Power

            Sources in the "Near Abroad." Problems Of Post-Communism 65, no. 1 (January): 37-48.


Sutyagin, Igor. 2015. “Russian Forces in Ukraine.” Royal United Services Insitute, (March):



Teper, Yuri. 2016. "Official Russian identity discourse in light of the annexation of Crimea:

            national or imperial?" Post-Soviet Affairs 32, no. 4 (July): 378-396.


Thomas, Timothy L. 2009. "The Bear Went Through the Mountain: Russia Appraises its

            Five-Day War in South Ossetia." Journal Of Slavic Military Studies 22, no. 1   

            (January): 31-67.


Tsygankov, Andrei. 2015. "Vladimir Putin's last stand: the sources of Russia's Ukraine policy."

            Post-Soviet Affairs 31, no. 4 (July): 279-303.


Shelest, Hanna. 2015. "After the Ukrainian crisis: Is there a place for Russia?" Journal Of

            Southeast European & Black Sea Studies 15, no. 2 (June): 191-201.


Welt, Cory. 2010. “The Thawing of a Frozen Conflict: The Internal Security Dilemma and the

            2004 Prelude to the Russo-Georgian War.” Europe-Asia Studies 62 (1): 63–97.


Wilson, Andrew. 2016. “The Donbas in 2014: Explaining Civil Conflict Perhaps, but not Civil

            War.” Europe-Asia Studies 68, no.4 (June): 631–652.








About the Author(s)

Joshua Underwood holds undergraduate degrees in Political Science, History, and Psychology from Marshall University, and an M.A. in Interntional and Comparative Politics with a focus in Peace and Security from Wright State University. 

Facebook - Josh Underwood
Twitter - @jcunderwood89
Permanent email -