Ukraine: Vladimir Putin's military action reveals a wider plan

By Keir Giles
Conflict Studies Research Centre, Oxford

  • Published
Pro-Russian rebels ride on a tank in the town of Krasnodon, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014. A column of several dozen heavy vehicles, including tanks and at least one rocket launcher, rolling through rebel-held territory on SundayImage source, AP/Sergei Grits
Image caption,
Pro-Russian rebels have taken new territory in south-east Ukraine

Alarm is growing in Kiev and the West over Russia's role in eastern Ukraine. But what is Russian President Vladimir Putin trying to achieve?

The indications are clear that Russia is being more confident and less discreet about the presence of its troops and equipment in eastern Ukraine.

As well as sightings of Russian tanks, and reports of Russian paratroopers not only captured by Ukraine but also killed "while carrying out their duties", statements by separatist leaders have changed too.

After months of calling for assistance from Russia, separatist leaders now say that they can "do without outside help".

All this could indicate that Russian planners felt the military situation of Russian-backed separatists was severe enough to need more direct assistance.

Equally, it could be that Russia is simply less concerned at this stage about discretion and deniability.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Russia has had parliamentary approval to use force against Ukrainian troops since March

During the annexation of Crimea in March, President Vladimir Putin and others denied the "little green men" deployed there were Russian troops - denials they later abandoned.

Raising public awareness

It could be the case that the denials of Russian military involvement in the rest of Ukraine may also soon be seen as having served their purpose, and can be discarded too.

In some respects, the way the news is coming out is similar to the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Then, as now, Russian communities only began to learn of the scale and nature of the conflict when soldiers started arriving home dead or injured.

The news blackout in Russia today is not as complete as in Soviet times, but ordinary Russians are once again seeing an entirely different picture in their own media to what is actually happening in real life.

Now, however, army welfare organisations like the Soldiers' Mothers Committee are in place to raise public awareness far more swiftly.

However, the violence and intimidation against journalists reporting the secret burials of Russian paratroopers suggests that, for the time being, Russia would still like to keep this angle of the story under wraps.

After Russian forces were used in the armed conflict in Georgia in 2008, which was technically illegal even under Russian law at the time, Russia amended its laws to make it easier to deploy troops abroad with less judicial oversight.

Image source, REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
Image caption,
Moscow eventually stopped denying the presence of Russian troops in Crimea

However, there is still a public procedure involving the Russian parliament which must be gone through to authorise any such action.

President Putin received authorisation from parliament to use troops in Ukraine in March.

In June, during one of the periodic easings of tension, he asked for that authorisation to be revoked.

The statements that the Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine are "volunteers" and "on leave" both add a layer of implausible deniability, and get around Russia's own constitutional and legal safeguards against sending servicemen abroad without the proper authority.

Peacekeepers or peacemakers?

Meanwhile, as ever, Russia's next steps in eastern Ukraine are an open question.

One concern is that the more direct involvement of Russian troops may create the conditions for a "humanitarian intervention" by Russia, using "peacekeepers".

Last week it was reported that Russia had "created the formation of a 5,000-strong peacekeeping force", based on units from the Airborne Assault Forces, the same arm of the Russian military to which the paratroopers killed and captured in Ukraine belong.

However, translating the new designation of these front-line troops as "peacekeeping" can be misleading.

The Russian word "mirotvorcheskiy" is closer to the word "peacemaking", quite far from the Western idea of peacekeepers as those who step in once the conflict is effectively over.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Some of Russia's peacekeepers based in Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region were killed when Georgia attacked in August 2008.
Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Protesters have expressed their unhappiness with Russian involvement in Ukraine by recalling the 2008 Georgia war

After all, the Russian incursion into Georgia in 2008 was referred to by Moscow as an "operation to enforce peace on Georgia".

Last week I was discussing the Ukraine conflict on the phone with a general in the Russian army.

His explanation for the sudden emphasis on peacekeepers was telling.

Russia needs peacekeeping troops, he explained, "because that's the only way you can move troops across another country's borders with a band playing and with everybody pleased to see them."

For the time being, that is certainly one of the many options Russia is keeping open.

War in eastern Ukraine: The human cost

  • At least 2,119 people had been killed and 5,043 wounded since mid-April, a UN report on 7 August said
  • 951 civilians have been killed in Donetsk region alone, the official regional authorities said on 20 August
  • Official casualty counts only record certified deaths while in some particularly dangerous parts of the war zone, such as Luhansk region, victims are said to have been buried informally, for instance in gardens
  • Rebels (and some military sources) accuse the government of concealing the true numbers of soldiers killed
  • 155,800 people have fled elsewhere in Ukraine while at least 188,000 have gone to Russia

Keir Giles is an analyst with the Conflict Studies Research Centre in Oxford, and an Associate Fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House in London.