Baz Ratner/Reuters
Pro-Russian armed man stand guard outside a regional government building seized by them, in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine, April 22.

Ukraine standoff: For some, Russia’s tactics hark back to Soviet practices

Russia and intelligence experts say the Ukraine conflict – more subterfuge than overt action in its tactics – is aimed at nothing less than reestablishing Russian grandeur and power.

By now the mysterious “green men” who first appeared in late February in Crimea, then more recently in the embattled cities of eastern and southern Ukraine, have settled in as the poster boys of a surreal and covert campaign that has Vladimir Putin and old Soviet practices written all over it.

The tough, watch-capped green men – no identifying insignia on their camo uniforms to clear up confusion over who they are or where they’re from – are just one part of a war that is more psychological than hot, more subterfuge than overt action in its tactics, and that Russia and intelligence experts say is aimed at nothing less than reestablishing Russian grandeur and power.

The almost theatrical, act-by-act production playing out in eastern Ukraine under Russian direction relies on the sponsorship and support of President Putin, a former KGB officer, but it also harks back to Soviet practices, says Nikolas Gvosdev, a specialist in Russian security affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

“What we’re seeing are practices and capabilities that are inherent in the Russian intelligence system, but they have been brought back and reinvigorated with new funding and emphasis by Putin,” Dr. Gvosdev says. “Some of it goes back to Soviet times and Soviet intelligence, when there was a great deal of emphasis placed on how you organize front groups to disguise your intentions. Another important element,” he adds, “is how you always organize things to give yourself ‘plausible deniability.’ ” 

Russian officials have for weeks denied direct involvement in what they prefer to call popular, local – though indeed pro-Russian – uprisings in Crimea and then in a dozen eastern Ukraine cities like Donetsk and Slaviansk.

On Wednesday, the interim government in Kiev announced it would relaunch what it calls an “antiterror” campaign to retake the dozen or so government buildings that have been seized by separatists in as many cities and towns. Russia in turn announced that it reserves the right to intervene in eastern Ukraine if it sees the interests of ethnic Russians threatened by the actions of what it considers the “illegitimate” government in Kiev.

Ukrainian forces claimed to have retaken one town from separatists by the end of Wednesday.

The clever orchestration of special operators and provoking of actions that then seem to justify a response are part of “secret shenanigans” dubbed “Special War” by John Schindler, a former National Security Agency counterintelligence officer who is now a colleague of Gvosdev’s at the Naval War College.

“Ukraine is a realtime laboratory for the whole range of Moscow’s Special War activities, especially provocation,” writes Dr. Schindler on his blog, “The XX Committee,” this week.

What he terms “Special War” is “something important that the Russians excel at across the board [and] we do not,” he says, noting that already in Russia’s first post-Soviet war – in Chechnya in 1994 – the Kremlin sent in soldiers dressed up as pro-Russian Chechens to fight Chechen rebels.

Covert and subversive tactics were in full practice in the Soviet era, says Gvosdev, who notes that the “KGB playbook” for addressing the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s put a premium on operations that pitted different factions of the mujahideen against one another – something he says the Soviets “got very good at.”

But the expertise in “Special War” is coming in particularly handy in Ukraine, which has unparalleled significance to Russia, Gvosdev says. He points out that the Russians have a special term – “blizhnye zarubezhe,” or “near-abroad” – for those areas they consider not quite foreign and where Russia has deep cultural and political ties and natural influence.

Ukraine sits at the top of this “near-abroad,” Gvosdev says, and it is also where Russian authorities see themselves in a battle for influence with an encroaching West under the direction of the United States.

Indeed from the Russian perspective, if anyone is covertly orchestrating illegitimate and inflammatory activities in Ukraine, it’s the US.

“There is no reason not to believe that the Americans are running the show” in Kiev, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday in a televised interview on Russia Today TV. It was in the same interview that Mr. Lavrov warned that Russia would have no choice but to respond as it did in Georgia in 2008 – in other words, with a military intervention taking control of territory – if “the interests of Russians have been attacked directly.”

Lavrov, Gvosdev notes, made his comments about American orchestration a day after Vice President Joe Biden, on a two-day visit to Kiev, pledged to Ukrainians that they would “not be alone” in facing Russian interference and announced $60 million in new aid.

Moreover, the Russians demanded an explanation when it emerged that CIA Director John Brennan visited Kiev earlier this month.

Some might find it laughable that Russian officials would profess (or feign) astonishment that the US has intelligence activities under way in Ukraine or might be sharing intelligence with Ukrainian authorities. But Gvosdev says that the Russians have been seeing the US behind everything they don’t like that has been happening in Kiev since the Maidan revolution that ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February.

All professed surprise aside, Kremlin authorities believe the US is undertaking the same kind of covert operations they are, Gvosdev says.

“The Russians are mirror-imaging,” he says. “They know what they are doing, and they assume the reverse is true” for the US, he says. “In their mind, they are doing in southern and eastern Ukraine more or less what the US has been up to in Kiev.”

Gvosdev says it’s hard to know where this standoff leads, but he believes the next few days will be “pivotal” and will hinge on how Kiev’s “antiterror” campaign pans out.

One problematic scenario for Washington is that a botched or violent move against the separatists prompts Russia to intervene with the justification that it is “reestablishing order” to stave off a civil war – a case that Gvosdev says could find favor with the Germans and others in Europe and divide the West.

One danger he sees is that both the Russians and Americans believe that the other is the master of the forces it is working with, an assumption that shortchanges the surprises that are sure to occur and underestimates the rogue elements that are also at play.

“They assume the Americans have much more control over everything happening in Kiev than we think we do, and we think they are pulling all the strings and control everything going on” in eastern Ukraine,” Gvosdev says. “Neither one is completely true.”

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