Putin's Strategy Of Covert War In Eastern Ukraine May Be Blowing Up In His Face

Vladmir putinREUTERS/Nacho DoceRussia’s President Vladimir Putin looks on during the 6th BRICS Summit in Fortaleza July 15, 2014.

The missile that may have brought down a Malaysian Airlines plane was likely fired from inside Ukrainian territory, possibly by militants affiliated with the Donetsk People’s Republic. But the militia’s force composition, and the likely provenance of the weaponry that may have brought down the plane, both point elsewhere.

For the past several months, the rebellion in eastern Ukraine has resembled the Russian doctrine of
tainaya voina or “mysterious war” — the practice of using a combination of proxies, covert agents, and misinformation to achieve strategic objectives without the use of conventional force.

If it turns out that pro-Russian militants shot down MH17, the incident could trigger significant blowback from from a strategy that Moscow has pursued in eastern Ukraine for months.

In early June, the Vostok Battalion, a Russian intelligence-linked paramilitary group founded in the restive autonomous republic of Chechnya, became a major player in eastern Ukraine. The professional and battle-hardened force attempted to impose discipline on pro-Moscow Ukrainian irregulars, leading to brief bouts of infighting within the rebel ranks. Vostok was likely sent by Russian intelligence to organise and focus the pro-Moscow rebellion in a number of flashpoint cities, including Donetsk.

As Mark Galeotti of New York University told Business Insider in June, Vostok “[wasn’t] there to replace the militias in eastern Ukraine. They’re there to be the force that essentially controls them in Moscow’s name.”

The leader of the Donestk People’s Republic is a Russian military intelligence agent who holds Russian citizenship. But within the Donestk People’s Republic, the rank and file might have been more foreign in character than has previously been assumed. In a long interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, an Armenian volunteer for the DPR estimated that 80% of the fighters in Eastern Ukraine were from outside of the country.

This is anecdotal, but the low estimate is still around 20%, according to RFE/RL — which means that at best, a fifth of anti-Kiev militants in eastern Ukraine were allowed to transit through Russian territory.

Russia’s provided more than just bodies and leadership. Earlier this week, conventional-grade grad rocket batteries fired into Ukraine from Russian territory. And during a speech to the United Nations Security Council on Friday morning, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power stated that Moscow has “recently transported Soviet-era tanks and artillery to the separatists.”

On July 14, three days before MH17 was likely shot down, the U.S. State Department spokesperson offered what now reads like an ominous preview of the plane’s destruction. Without going into specific detail, State claimed that Russia had established a large staging area for the transport of heavy weaponry — including anti-aircraft systems — to its Ukrainian proxies:

Russia continues to accumulate significant amounts of equipment at a deployment site in southwest Russia. This equipment includes tanks of a type no longer used by the Russian military, as well as armoured vehicles, multiple rocket launchers, artillery, and air defence systems. Russia has roughly doubled the number of tanks, armoured vehicles, and rocket launchers at this site. More advanced air defence systems have also arrived at this site.

This is of a piece with Russian strategic doctrine. Through supporting irregular forces, sending in its intelligence agents and skilled proxies, and spreading misinformation, Russia has been able to remove its conventional forces from the Ukrainian border and maintain just enough deniability to be able to continue supporting separatists in the region without provoking an escalation it didn’t want.

But now, a foreign airliner has been destroyed and hundreds of foreign citizens are dead. And this is exactly the kind of blowback
tainaya voina is designed to prevent.

Whatever strategic insulation Putin thought he was getting from his policies in Ukraine could be rapidly slipping away.

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