Russian Strategic Methodology in the Ukraine Crisis: Back to the Future

Political warfare is the logical application of Clausewitz’s doctrine in time of peace. In broadest definition, political warfare is the employment of all means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. Such operations are both overt and covert. They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures (sic) (as ERP), and ‘white’ propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of ‘friendly’ foreign elements, ‘black’ psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states. [1]

Reflecting upon recent events in the Ukraine, there appears to be a clear methodology being employed by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. Some observers have stated that we are witnessing a new form of conflict, and some have described this as “special war.” [2] Unfortunately, this is not the case. The form of warfare being employed by Putin has extensive roots in statecraft, military and political strategy combined with traditional intelligence tradecraft. Known as political warfare (POLWAR), it has evolved from the very beginning of the crisis in Ukraine and is defined as an “aggressive use of political means to achieve national objectives” [3] or, more succinctly, a forceful expression of national policy. This strategy draws upon the variety of tools found within the political, military, and intelligence disciplines and, when selected, combined, sequenced, and applied, can create a powerful synergy that can erode the will and capability of a targeted group or nation state, forcing it to submit.

Political Warfare Strategy

POLWAR utilizes a spectrum of politico-military stratagems, including the employment of overt and covert operations, agents of influence, subversion, special operations, propaganda, foreign-policy manipulation, deception, and psychological operations, as well as orchestrating the support of foreign elements to act as proxies. Other methods associated with POLWAR include: sabotage, support for insurgents, and coups d’état. While these strategems are not considered acts of war in comparison to massed military formations, they are, in fact, considered as serious as war. [4] Some strategists argue that POLWAR and its strategems should be considered as war in peacetime.

The art of POLWAR was for the most part forgotten in the wake of the break-up of the Soviet Union. Known by its Soviet/Russian proponents and practitioners as “active measures” [5] (aktivinyye meropriatia), it was employed extensively throughout the Cold War. The Soviet Union employed active measures as a means to change political situations to their advantage by utilizing conspiracy theories, disinformation, and propaganda to discredit and undermine the reputation of their targeted adversary. In some cases, they employed targeted terrorism and violence orchestrated by intelligence agents, saboteurs, and special operators attempting to change world events by using violent means. The more violent means were known as “special actions.” Meanwhile, nonviolent active measures were aimed at discrediting the Soviet’s main threat—the United States. [6] Special actions would be conducted by Russian intelligence officers or the Chasti Spetsial’nogo Naznacheniya, known as Spetsnaz. [7] This unit is similar to the British Special Air Service (SAS) and the American Special Forces (known as Green Berets).

In both peace and war, these units are trained and equipped to carry out sensitive missions, including strategic reconnaissance, sabotage, destruction of targets, assassination, and assisting ostensibly friendly forces. [8] According to one recent report, the Spetsnaz are also assigned to act as agent provocateurs in civilian garb to infiltrate local populations, [9] tasked to exacerbate ethnic or political divisions, and foment discontent in order to destabilize the authority of the targeted government. [10]

The former KGB Major General, Oleg Kalugin, stated that active measures were historically at the forefront of Soviet operations to “conquer world opinion [and] discredit the United States.” [11] In the Soviet, and now Russian context, “it’s a tradition, it’s not something new. That’s important to see the past projected onto the present—and the future.” [12] This is the multi-dimensional strategy that is being employed against Ukraine.

Russian “Active Measures” (a.k.a. Political Warfare)

Russia has a long history of employing active measures as a strategy. In the classic historical study of the Soviet intelligence apparat entitled KGB: The Inside Story, Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky [13] reveal the utility, sophistication, and substantial advantages that were accrued by the Soviet government and their respective military and intelligence services through the application of this strategy. Chapman Pincher, another renowned Soviet analyst, defines Soviet active measures as:

“sophisticated techniques of deception, disinformation, forgery, blackmail, subversion, penetration and manipulation, the insidious use of agents of influence, the organization of mass demonstrations with the promotion of violence and other criminal acts and even military violations.” [14]

Much of these manifestations have been observed over the recent months in the Ukraine.

In another classic Cold War study on Soviet intelligence operations, Jeffrey Richelson notes that:

“‘active measures’ encompasses a variety of tactics designed to influence foreign events in favour of the Soviet Union. Included among these tactics are forgeries, propaganda, agents of influence, paramilitary operations and assassinations.” [15]

From the onset of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was committed to active measures to support Soviet domestic and foreign policy. [16] The use of targeted violence in the forms of assassination and special operations were also an integral part of this strategy aiming to strike fear, create confusion, and exacerbate existing strains in international political relations. It was the belief that the mass production of active measures stratagems would have a cumulative impact. As with any effective active measures, the Soviets targeted traditional suspicions, prejudices, and utilized disinformation that would be consistent with the views of the targeted audience. The Soviet Union, saw political warfare as the real war being waged on a continuing basis under the guise of peacetime. In accordance with Sun Tzu, the strategic intent was to psychologically disorient and disarm the target audience by attacking and eroding the moral, political, and economic infrastructure of a targeted state, thereby facilitating victory without the necessity of utilizing military force. [17]

Georgia 2008—A Look Back

To garner a better appreciation of recent events in Ukraine, one must take into account what happened in Georgia in 2008. One of Putin’s greatest successes was the “soft annexation” [18] of Georgia’s breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The notion of “soft annexation” has been expressed in various forms over the years but in itself represents traditional active measures in that Russia “is pulling political, economic, and military levers—to exploit ethnic conflicts in countries that used to be in its orbit.” [19] The aim is to take advantage of these tensions, influence former Soviet states, and prevent them from moving closer to the West. [20] Abkhazia and South Ossetia each have an ethnic Russian minority. To protect them, the Russian government sent “peacekeepers” to these territories. When Georgia tried to reclaim South Ossetia by force of arms, Russia subsequently dispatched troops to protect the peacekeepers. This led to a conflict that lasted five days and left Russia in control of both territories.

The soft annexation of these two provinces was facilitated by the distribution of Russian passports—a process known as passportization [21] —and the subsequent installation of Russian officials into government posts. Putin’s stratagem is to provide Russian passports to Ukrainians of Russian origin, as he would then be “obligated” to step in to protect Russian citizens, as well as ethnic Russians, in his perceived role as a protector of all Russians. This could facilitate the annexation of those areas deemed to have Russians while providing Putin a propaganda cover. This distribution of Russian passports bolsters the notion that minority ethnics want to be under the protection of Russia. The Russian consulate in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, recently abetted the annexation by providing Crimea’s ethnic Russians with access to Russian passports.

By accepting a Russian passport, the receiver is legally included in the Russian body politic, with all the rights of a Russian citizen. By the time the five day Russo-Georgian conflict commenced, 90% of the population of the two provinces were documented Russians; [22] however, the territory belonged to Georgia. This issue of Russian citizenship provided an excuse for Russia’s intervention and annexation of Georgia. Importantly, this incident was foretelling the event in Crimea [23] and possibly the future of eastern Ukraine.

Targeting Ukraine

Agent provocateurs are used to provoke separatist rumblings and foment violence in a number of key cities and border areas containing ethnic Russians. A substantial number of unidentified military personnel, likely Spetsnaz [24] (Russian special forces), have been assigned to assist local militias, further underlining the perception that ethnic Russians want a separation from Ukraine. This is done by either seeking a federation, overt separation, or annexation with mother Russia. In the meantime, these Russian-supported armed militias, likely comprising former conscript soldiers, [25] provide the means to physically and psychologically intimidate the local inhabitants, ensuring non-interference and local compliance.[26]

The perception of ethnic Russian self-determination helps to solidify the efficacy of this type of strategy when properly planned and executed. Furthermore, the attempted assassination of a number of high-profile individuals, including Kharkiv mayor, Gennady Kernes, and politician Volodymyr Rybak, both of whom supported the central government of Ukraine, [27] has instilled a sense of fear, terror, and angst in the general public. These attacks project a sense of terror while also repressing overt challenges to Russian and Russian supporter’s ambitions.

To date, a direct challenge confronts an intimidated and psychologically dislocated Kiev government whose towns, villages, and inhabitants are being cowed into submission. Ukraine’s new leader President, Petro Poroshenko, has a number of serious challenges ahead of him. Russian troops are probing Ukraine’s eastern border, Russian-backed militias are seeded with agent provocateurs, and there is worry over a reportedly vulnerable and “oppressed” Russian minority. [28]

Putin has represented himself as the protector of vulnerable ethnic Russians, standing up against a Nazi-infiltrated new Ukrainian leadership and Western imperialism. In concert with strategic active measures, Putin will continue to organize ethnic Russian resistance through funding and military support. This is likely done with bribery by providing pensions, passports, and monies. Military support would provide ethnic militias with covert military advisers, equipment, intelligence personnel, and agent provocateurs. These Russian initiatives, in conjunction with anti-Kiev government propaganda, have proven effective.

Russian propaganda also leverages social media as a strategic tool with two distinct purposes: deception and the mobilisation of public opinion in both Ukraine and Russia. The report and depiction of fake crowds and spontaneous uprisings can easily become pretext for agent provocateurs to spark increased violence to which the Ukrainian government must react. Examples of this include the reported recent crossing of Ukraine’s eastern border by Russian tanks and armoured vehicles. [29] Such propagandistic psychological operations are in themselves very destabilizing. Accurate and timely media reports are vital to avoid increasing tensions. [30] Meanwhile, neutral or pro-Ukrainian citizens are effectively passive participants because of the violence-prone Russian-supported militias. The photos and media reporting of “ethnic Russian protesters” sporting balaclavas and carrying the latest military weapons make us wonder: who are the people behind the masks? Should substantial evidence come to light that they are officially members of the Russian Armed Forces, it would strongly indicate that the Putin government was in violation of international laws and a number of signed agreements. This, however, does not appear to be a major concern to Putin who, after denying Russian military complicity in the events in Crimea, stated that Russian military personnel were involved. [31] In a recent report, journalist Matthew Fisher confirmed the origins of the members of the ethnic militias and demonstrators. He noted:

“many in those mobs are Russian citizens, not Ukrainians, as was revealed earlier this week when separatists in Donetsk acknowledged that the bodies of 33 of the 50 or so fighters who died in a battle at the airport were being sent back to Russia for burial.” [32]

Energy and Economics as Strategems in Active Measures

Putin continues to put economic pressure on the Ukraine by burdening their already troubled economy. All Russian gas, which Ukraine uses, has to be paid for prior to delivery, as of 1 June 2014. [33] Concomitantly, Putin is gambling that both the EU and NATO may not be as powerful or influential as they once were. Russia now has established important and extensive economic ties with numerous global corporations as Exxon, Mercedes, British Petroleum, [34] and other important business interests. In fact, many Western financial institutions have welcomed Russian investments, much of which comes from criminal and other suspicious activities. [35] According to the report by Peter Pomerantsev:

“It is better to understand the Kremlin’s view of globalization as a kind of ‘corporate raiding’–namely, the ultra-violent, post Soviet version of corporate takeovers. ‘Raiding’ involves buying a minority share in a company, and then using any means at your disposal (false arrests, mafia threats, kidnapping, disinformation, blackmail) to acquire control.” [36]

Such substantial investments and powerful businesses contacts may guarantee that Putin’s territorial ambitions and initiatives are not subject to serious economic and political consequences. [37]

Putin has observed the ambiguous economic position the EU and NATO have with Russia because of their dependence on Russia’s gas and oil supply. In particular, Italy, Greece, Germany, and others have experience with serious social, political, and economic implications because of this relationship with Russian. Any punitive measures have a potentially drastic impact, wherein, “deep trade ties with Russia and widespread dependence on its energy reserves mute any EU enthusiasm to tighten sanctions.” [38] To date, the EU has imposed only limited measures to 61 people in Russia and Ukraine by freezing assets and imposing travel bans. [39] Also included are two former Ukraine-owned energy companies taken over by Russian interests earlier this year. [40] A recent meeting of the EU focused on other initiatives that include an oil and gas ban, and the importation of goods, however, there has been little movement or consensus. [41]


As a strategy, active measures operate in a multi-dimensional mode, which poses a serious challenge for targeted nations to mount effective counter-measures. [42]

The Ukrainian situation poses serious challenges, and military options appear to be off the table. Both President Obama and Chancellor Merkel have argued for negotiations; however, as Ukraine is not a signatory to NATO, there is little that NATO members who may be nervous about Russian threats can do.

Western nations are presented with a strategic political and military dilemma because of Russia’s use of active measures in Ukraine over the past year. Understanding the strategy and its application is the first step to develop an effective counter. As events have revealed, Russia, under the guidance of Putin, has cleverly applied traditional active measures to terrorize, subvert, propagandize, and psychologically dislocate segments of the population of Ukraine. Meanwhile, through the disciplined application of assassination, terror, economic means, misinformation, sabotage, and intimidation, Putin has created the most advantageous conditions to satiate his political, economic, and territorial ambitions vis-à-vis Ukraine. He has essentially stalled any further attempts to join the EU and NATO, as well as crippled Ukraine politically. Moreover, he has annexed Crimea while exposing NATO’s inability to effectively react to political upheaval [43] while concomitantly surfacing serious political divisions amongst NATO members.