Small Wars Journal

Putin’s Gordian Knot: The Changing Face of Russian Intervention

Putin’s Gordian Knot: The Changing Face of Russian Intervention

Douglas V. Mastriano and the US Army War College Project 1704 Team

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Russian Landpower

The 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia and its ongoing intervention in Ukraine demonstrates an increasing reliance on the military and security services as instruments of its grand strategy.  The application of the Russian military instrument of power has taken various forms over recent years, demonstrating an adaptability and flexibility hitherto not foreseen.  For instance, the Russian operation in Georgia was largely conventional.  The 2014 Russian operation in Crimea diverged from the strictly conventional approach by manipulating a sympathetic population and using a robust security infrastructure from the Sochi Olympics to capture the region.  Finally, with the subsequent unrest in eastern Ukraine, Moscow inspired and led a separatist movement hidden behind a cloak of ambiguity, backed by the powerful capabilities of its army. 

Despite the differences, these operations, exhibit common features of Russia’s use of military force.  Foremost, Russia depends heavily—almost exclusively—on landpower to achieve its strategic military objectives in its near abroad.  This landpower-centric approach has been part of a broader Russian strategy to roll back the expansion of Western influence (especially NATO and the EU) in the former Soviet republics.  Second, Russia has enabled its ground forces to conduct hybrid, irregular warfare as the primary means of warfare against its smaller neighbors.  Additionally, it has shifted to a less centralized military structure, relying on special operations forces and other unconventional units to achieve its strategic ends. Finally, information operations (IO) and cyber capabilities have emerged as key components of Russian military operations.  IO and cyber operations were used independently against Estonia in 2007.  In contrast, they were integrated as key elements of a coordinated military campaign more recently in both Georgia and Ukraine. 

Russia’s military reforms started shortly before the war with Georgia and accelerated after the conflict exposed critical shortcomings in a number of areas.  Ongoing reform and modernization progress are directed at developing a capability to intervene quickly and decisively in the region.  To do this, it is concentrating resources on a small number of elite units, primarily airborne and special operations forces that make up the core of its emerging Rapid Reaction Force. 

From Putin’s perspective, the West is acting provocatively by turning Russia’s neighbors into potential adversaries.  He blames prodemocracy movements on the United States, and refuses to believe that a people would not want to be under the influence or control of the Kremlin.  Additionally, the loss of traditional influence over what it refers to as the “near abroad” (the neighboring former Soviet Republics) is something that Moscow can long endure.  Expect Putin to act should an opportunity arise to reassert its influence of its neighbors, especially should any future democracy movements threaten the region.

The Emerging Russian Operational Approach

What recent events has demonstrated is that Moscow uses deception and disinformation to prevent a quick response from the West.  Such was the case in Crimea, where, despite evidence to the contrary, Putin denied that the “little green men” were his soldiers until after he had completed annexation of the region.  By doing this, Putin operated inside the decision-making cycle of NATO and thus retained the strategic initiative.  Additionally, this approach exploits fissures between NATO and the E.U.  When Putin believes that employing conventional forces is too risky, he resorts to using unconventional forces, scaled and adapted to the strategic environment.  This “strategy of ambiguity” is being applied with effect in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. 

Putin’s adaptable and long-term approach encompasses two phases and ten parts.  Phase 1 of this emerging operation approach it to create or shape an environment favorable to Russian strategic interests. Phase 2 exploits the advantages or NATO Alliance cleavages created during Phase 1 and seeks to alter the strategic environment through an ambiguous/hybrid landpower intervention in Eastern Europe.

Phase I – Shaping a strategic environment favorable to Russian interests:

  1. Consolidate political power and use nationalism to maintain domestic support.  At the core of the strategy of ambiguity is the maintenance of Putin’s powerbase and his need for popular support.  Putin secures his base by casting the West as the enemy of Russia and thus fuels the engine of nationalism.
  1. Modernize and leverage Russia’s nuclear arsenal to bully neighbors.  The modernization of Russia’s already massive nuclear arsenal is a threat to regional stability.  Yet, a greater concern is the rhetoric coming out of the Kremlin threatening to use nuclear weapons against any European States that it views as a challenge to its national interests.  Such was demonstrated when Moscow threaten Denmark with nuclear targeting should it join NATO’s missile defense shield in March 2015.  The use and threat of nuclear strikes is clearly a part of Russia’s emerging strategic / operational approach. 
  1. Modernization of Russians conventional land forces.  The May Victory Parade in Moscow witnessed the unveiling of Russia’s intent to replace its fleet of armored vehicles with significantly modern systems.  Although facing economic challenges, it seems that at least the Western Military District will benefit from this incredible boost to conventional land force capability and capacity.  
  1. Apply economic incentives and blackmail to pressure neighboring country’s economic well-being. Although this tactic has been successful against Ukraine, the dynamics of doing this against other European nations is a bit more complex.  However, it is unlikely that Germany and other NATO members, who rely on Russian energy, are willing to have their economic well-being put at long-term risk and thus these are vulnerable to coming to some sort of terms with Russian interests in the east.
  1. Capitalize on long-term IO campaign. The tools of the IO campaign include high-quality Russian television, radio programming, hockey clubs, youth camps, and the internet.  They are designed to export Moscow’s strategic messaging across Europe, specifically targeting the Russian diaspora.

Phase II – “Invade” a neighboring nation through a hybrid mix of irregulars, augmented by Russian intelligence and special forces, supported, when the conditions are right, by a gradual introduction of conventional forces.

  1. Use subversive activity to create instability in ethnic Russian areas.  With a continuous IO campaign brewing in the background, the groundwork is laid to manipulate disgruntled ethnic Russians in any region Putin chooses.  As in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, these movements start as peaceful protests, but ultimately lead to taking over government buildings and inciting armed insurrections.  Once engaged in low-level combat, the Russian rebels proclaim their right to self-determination and eventually appeal to Moscow for aid.  However convenient, the Kremlin does not need popular support in the Russian diaspora to achieve its strategic ends.  Should the local populace in a contested region not support an uprising, Moscow can simply export a separatist movement from Russia to provide the pretext for an intervention.
  1. Move a large conventional force along the borders to dissuade action against the subversives. As in eastern Ukraine, Moscow responded to the instability by deploying a large conventional force along the border under the guise of aiding refugees and containing unrest.  The real reason, however, was to intimidate Ukraine, which hesitated out of fear of provoking a response from Moscow. 
  1. Leverage ambiguity to maintain strategic flexibility.  Deception and disinformation are the key ingredients of the Russian approach, and Putin uses these tools to sow ambiguity and thus obscure his strategy.  As a result, Putin remains a step ahead of NATO’s decision-making process, and quickly adapts his actions to keep the Alliance off balance.
  1. Violate international borders and support the pro-Russian insurgents. As the Ukrainian Army launched its offensive to subdue the rebels in eastern Ukraine, the Russian Army was poised to provide support to their comrades.  These “volunteer” soldiers provided armor, artillery, and air defense assets that blunted Ukrainian offensive action.  Meanwhile, the Kremlin equivocated about its intentions and denied involvement in the conflict.  Had there been a determined international response against Moscow, Putin could have withdrawn support from the separatists, denied complicity in the violence, and waited for a more opportune time to try again. 
  1. Seize an area to achieve a limited strategic end. When the security of a targeted region collapses, the international response is mired in debate, and a humanitarian crisis ensues, the conditions are set for Russian forces to intervene.  Despite characterizing the intervention as a temporary salve to an unacceptable human crisis, Putin would deploy forces for as long as needed to achieve a security environment favorable to Moscow.  With such an approach, Russia can attain limited strategic objectives with minimal risk.  The ultimate goal of this methodology would be, in the long term, to discredit NATO and thereby undermine the security of any NATO member.  In the short to midterm, such an approach could easily be used against Moldova or other area outside of NATO to expand Russian influence.

The challenge facing the United States and NATO is how to respond quickly to ambiguous and nontraditional military threats emanating from Russia.  Although the strategy of ambiguity has proven effective in Ukraine, it is vulnerable to political resolve and military deterrence.   NATO should therefore craft a clear policy and implement an unambiguous strategy to deter further Russian aggression in Europe. 

The West should take concerted action to counter the growing threat that Russia poses to regional stability.  The remedy should also be a whole of government application of the “DIME.”

Diplomatically, NATO should change the strategic calculus in Scandinavia by openly engaging Sweden and Finland to join NATO.  Although these nations are active participants in many NATO events and activities, a formal entry into NATO would have far-reaching effects in deterring Russian aggression in the region.  Should this prove too bold a step for Sweden or Finland, then some sort of formal “Bi-lateral” agreement between NATO and Finland/Sweden adopted to respond together with the Alliance in the face of any sort of Moscow inspired instability in the region.  This should have all the language of Article V of the Washington Treaty.

Informationally, NATO should adopt an aggressive counter to the sustain Moscow propaganda being broadcasted to the Russian diaspora.  Information campaigns take time, and it is too late to engage this area successfully after Russia moves to Phase II.  NATO should introduce, now, high quality Russia language alterative to the successful propaganda being directed from the Kremlin.

Militarily, NATO needs to get “skin in the game.”  Nothing sends a stronger signal than forward deploying soldiers of member nations to those areas most threatened by Moscow’s aggressive posture.  The NATO members facing a clear and present danger to Russian aggression is Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.  A true multinational contingent should be forward deployed in these nations in the form of a small and capable force comprised of a brigade, with one battalion in each nation.  Should Moscow do the unthinkable, then it will face the wrath from the nations whose sons and daughters fell in battle.  Thus the strategic calculus changes from “If Estonia is worth New York,” to “Is Moscow worth Estonia.”  Additionally, the United States must make European peace and stability a priority by both stopping the shrinking of its forward stationed troops in the region and instead, increase its force posture with at least an armored and aviation brigade.  These easy actions removes any doubt of resolve and dismantles Putin’s ambiguity by bringing clarity of purpose and steadfastness.   

Economically, the NATO members who are reliant on Russian energy supplies must take decisive and concerted actions to wean their nations off of this potentially destabilizing influence that Moscow can leverage over them.  The search for alternative means will take time, yet it is not daunting.  Until the larger NATO members, such as Germany, are not subject to economic blackmail, the Alliance will find it difficult to act in unity against any Putin inspired Phase II action         

The advantage for Russia of this emerging operational approach is the ability to exploit geography, combined with the significant Russian diaspora residing in NATO member countries, who may be susceptible or used to legitimize Moscow’s attack.  Additionally, the Phase I portion of this plan of shaping the strategic environment to Moscow’s advantage demonstrates a “whole of government” methodology that encompasses all aspects of the “D.I.M.E.” (Diplomatic, Informational, Military and Economic).  A further advantage that Moscow enjoys with this emerging approach is the “streamlined” decision making.  Putin, and his small circle of advisors operate both within and outside of NATO member nation’s decision making cycle; they can decide and act faster than the Alliance.  A decision to counter either a Phase I or Phase II Russian action will take the twenty eight member NATO Alliance considerable time.  By the time a decision is implemented, Putin can quickly flex to another course of action, or even step back should the international response be decisive.  This strategic flexibility offered by such a broad approach is a threat to European security and stability.

Yet, despite the “brilliance” and flexibility inherent in Putin’s two phase and multi-faceted options to impose his influence in the region, concerted action now can preserve European security.  The only way to do this, however, is through decisive and comprehensive action as delineated above.  The aggressive tone, its history of intervention, bolstered by an antagonistic land power and nuclear force modernization is something that must be taken seriously.  These have the real potential to wholly alter the strategic environment in Europe and the world.  The unpatrolled peace that most of Europe has enjoyed since the end of the Second World War is an anomaly in the continent’s history.  This peace came at a high price.  Moscow’s emerging operational approach is a threat to this security and if not countered, could alter the way of life of people around the world.

About the Author(s)

Colonel Douglas Mastriano was commissioned in the United States Army in 1986. He began his career on the Iron Curtain with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, where he served along the East German and Czechoslovakian borders. Here, he witnessed the end of the Cold War and deployed to Iraq for Operation Desert Storm where his regiment led the main attack against Saddam's Republican Guards. Having survived several close calls by God's grace, he went on to serve in the Pentagon, the 3rd Infantry Division "Rock of the Marne," and US Army Europe (USAREUR). He also served four years in NATO Land Headquarters, from where he deployed three times to Afghanistan, commanding soldiers from eighteen nations. Colonel Douglas Mastriano has a PhD in history from University of New Brunswick and is a faculty member at the US Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.


An intriguing analysis on an evolving Eurocentric geopolitics and Russian/Putin's ambition. The bias towards military means to achieve national objectives is apparent and further confirms the notion ‘the return of geopolitics’ as espoused by Walter Russell Mead in his essay ‘The Revenge of the Revisionist Powers’, in the Foreign Affairs. The ‘easy actions’ (i.e. stopping the shrinking of US troops in Europe, increase force posture by deploying addl armored and avn bde) as suggested by the author aptly ties up as a solution against Putin’s posturing and removing any doubt of US resolve to the security of Europe. However, linking Russian diasporas in NATO countries to Putin’s strategic ambition is interesting at a time when Europe is increasingly becoming less-tolerant to the immigrants -- particularly those coming from the fragile and conflict affected countries. If these diasporas are seen as a strategic lever to the (presumed) Russian strategic calculus, the EU countries may have to rethink their immigration policy not just for the people from the other part of the world but also from within the continent.Overall a good read.