Crimea: Russia’s Paramilitary Strategy and NATO’s Conundrum

With the referendum on Crimea having come and gone with a overwhelming margin for Russian Incorporation, the Ukraine Crisis has reached a definitive moment. As Russia moves for annexation, the world stands at the edge of a great dilemma. Will the unity of the Russian ethnics of Crimea and Transdnester with Russia proper bring back the familiar whiff of Prussian grapeshot to European politics? What will be the political fate of the pro-Ukrainian minority and the Crimean Tatars? If the west fails to act to guarantee the borders of Ukraine against separatism and annexation, are we staring a reborn Cold War in the face? Where is the line drawn that reads “This far, and no farther”?


I have previously cautioned against making weighty historical judgement on Putin’s policies, but one does have to wonder if words like appeasement and credibility do not have a place in the dialogue on Ukraine. A few considerations strike the casual observer. If the referendum can be trusted as a democratic exercise, then the will of the people of Crimea for self-determination and attachment to Russia cannot be invalidated simply because we do not trust the Russian Government or Putin further than we can sanction them. What we view through the eyes of Anschluss and the Sudetenland the Russians may view as East and West Germany, and if democracy speaks then the West is, under the UN Charter’s belief in Self-Determinism, able to stand by the decision to some regard.  But that does not make it any less credible to hold the former view either, especially given the willingness to expand Russian rule demonstrated by Moscow’s speedy acceptance the referendum and vote of preliminary annexation in so short a duration. It is possible to perceive this as an act of Russian aggression, especially following the referendum’s aftermath and what he have witnessed thus far militarily.

The division in the Crimea, which has dragged on since Yanukovych’s flight, has not witnessed what was truly feared (cue the Red Army Choir), a full-scale Russian incursion into Ukraine. That would be very hard to misinterpret, but the 150,000 Russian Reservists on the Ukrainian Border haven’t driven for the Dnieper like its 1943 all over again. We would likely be having a very different conversation if that had happened. Instead it appears that the Russians, who already held a warm water port at Sevastopol in the Crimea, took a far better strategy out of the Milosevic playbook; use paramilitary forces to set the stage for conventional military operations.

Paramilitaries, self-defense forces, militias, and irregular forces represent a bit of a wicked problem for world politicians, because as actors they represent divisions within states as opposed to overt aggression between them. In the aftermath of the Second World War, as the prospect of major atomic war made the human race seem pretty flimsy as a species, increasingly wars have gone “in-state” as modern conflicts now primarily arise within countries between relatively low-technology forces representing ‘government’ or ‘rebel’ typecasting. It is no secret that throughout the Cold War, with decolonization occurring over the formerly European-dominated Third World, the struggles over the future of countries whose borders were drawn to reflect influence politics as opposed to national or ethnic coalitions were funded extensively and sometimes supported outright by NATO and the Warsaw Pact. If indeed the world was a battleground between liberal capitalism and soviet communism, the battles were fought primarily between rebel groups and the armies (sometimes little better than) of the respective states buoyed by their ideological donors. In Cuba, Gen. Batista’s forces were the USA’s favorite horse, in Afghanistan the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan were the Soviet’s.

The post-Soviet dissolution has been remarkably peaceful in comparison to European decolonization in Africa and Asia. The countries have managed to use the residual structures of the Soviet Government to prevent whole-scale collapse of these states, as local party or military authorities have usually been able to furnish a strong leadership to prevent the countries from going under (no matter how corrupt). Russia throughout the 1990s had a host of other problems and did not put the stick about outside of Chechnya, where it theoretically continued to rule in federation.

Unfortunately, as the issue of Georgia, Chechnya, Moldova, and now Ukraine demonstrate, the ties of the self-identifying Russian populations in these countries have resisted the nationalistic aspirations of the majority populations, which are in many cases part of an effort to move away from the previous economic and political structures of Soviet Incorporation and Russian partnership. This is further complicated by a resurgent Moscow under Putin, unafraid to flex military might in the face of the West. Ukraine’s nationalists represent a challenge to economies and lifestyles that the Russian-identified Crimean majority apparently cannot abide. In defense of that culturally, economically, and politically ‘Russian’ lifestyle, they have taken to forming paramilitary wings in cooperation with Russian personnel in the Crimea. This is not unusual in a time of upheaval, as similar nationalist ones walked the streets of Kiev during the protests this winter, but the pro-Russian ‘Self Defense Forces’ present a challenge to Ukraine’s options in the Crimea and give Russia a way to move without overtly declaring war.

If the Russians were to move armed and identified Russian military structures into Crimea, this would be seen as an act of aggression, and, at least in theory, subject to some form of western retaliation. But the use of paramilitaries, the ‘weekend warriors’, is a far more organic strategy for Putin to employ. By doing so he gains local military power in Crimea without risking overt war, and provides a convenient loophole to act against Ukraine if it attempts to put down the paramilitaries and wrest control of Crimea back by force.

The significance of where these “Self-Defense Forces” get their weapons, leadership, and supplies is also not important, even while it is so blatantly Russian. In terms of narrative they are more or less bulletproof. While their cadre leaders may indeed be Russian soldiers or Russian citizens who have been implanted in Crimea, the mobilization of local peoples turns them organically into ‘native’ militias, who view themselves as one and the same as their Russian cadre leaders and foreign volunteers. Likewise, wearing no insignia and balaclavas, there is plausible deniability of who they truly are, as Russian small arms and uniforms are also fairly ubiquitous in the Crimea and Ukraine. They are also accompanied by unarmed men waving signs of Russian allegiance, and together they occupied Ukrainian ministry buildings and engaged in harassment of pro-Ukranian actors before the referendum, and are currently actually besieging bases across Crimea. In the last 24 hours this has resulted in the death of one Ukrainian soldier and mortal injury of another.

Obviously this is provocative, and it appears from the videos of confrontations between the two sides that the Ukrainian soldiers believe that their assailants and their besiegers are definitely Russian military personnel, despite the reluctance of the paramilitaries to identify who and what they are. This is further complicated by the wide variety of terms employed and their inconsistent use in newspapers (a Russian Crimean does call himself a Russian after all). There is a reluctance among the Ukrainian soldiers to challenge them, even though Kiev has now ordered it. This may have to do with the soldiers and their senior officers, many of whom transferred allegiances to the newly independent Ukraine after serving in the Soviet Armed forces and who view the Russian soldiers as brothers in arms. But, certainly, they will and have opened fire before, as evidenced by the two men killed yesterday. What it may really show is that the Ukrainians themselves are unwilling to act because the consequences are very hard to determine, and none look good.

The confrontation between Ukrainian soldier and pro-Russian gunmen at Birbeck Airport. The Ukrainian commander (center right) called Russia 'a brother nation'.

The confrontation between Ukrainian soldier and pro-Russian gunmen at Belbek Airport. The Ukrainian commander (center right) called Russia ‘a brother nation’ and sported a Soviet-era Regimental Flag

If the Ukrainians move to reoccupy their Crimean bases and move against the ‘Self-Defense’ forces, they may simply kill militiamen, armed or unarmed. In this case, they will be seen as killing citizens attempting to free themselves, and the Russians will present them this way. This will provide Moscow justification to strengthen its presence in the Crimea and potentially force the Ukrainians out in a limited war to ‘liberate’ the ‘oppressed’ peoples. If Russian troops keeping the peace or supporting the annexation are fired upon, then the gloves could certainly come off.

If the Ukrainians do not open fire, the salami tactics of the Russian-backed paramilitaries will like force them out. The Ukrainian troops in the Crimea, even if they hold their positions and do fight back, will simply be surrounded. The Yugoslavian National Army found this to be true in Slovenia in 1991, and withdrew because of the desire to not use the army to contest Slovenian separatism. Crimea will likely be lost to Russia, and already National Geographic has made it so. But the question will be how quickly Russian troops, with Russian insignia, will be deployed into the Crimea to effect the annexation with hard power. If Ukraine chooses to stay and fight, the consequences for the region and the whole world will be very great.

The employment of paramilitaries in this way was very common in Serbian Bosnia, where Serbs wishing to assist in the creation of a Greater Serbia led the early efforts at resisting the Sarajevo government, and also led the early campaign of ethnic cleansing. Paramilitaries and militant group can accomplish the hard power objectives of states without leveraging conventional military power and the attendant international consequences, and thus are a favorite tool of countries with regional claims or waging proxy wars. Pakistan has used them in Kashmir, Uganda and Rwanda in the Congo, and the United States throughout Latin America.

If this is indeed Russia’s ultimate strategy, the ball is in NATO’s court. Is Crimea the battle we want to fight? Many are talking of comparisons to the Rhineland or Czechoslovakia, where in hindsight it is possible to say that a convincing show of force may have prevented the entire occupation (in the Rhineland, the German Generals were told to make a complete withdrawal immediately if the Allied forces put up any resistance) and showed Hitler that he could not make overt acts of aggression and achieve success. The West has so far ruled out any question of military intervention, and moving against the paramilitaries in support of Ukraine would likely look very bad, given the potential validity of the referendum. Unless a compelling information counter-offensive against the Russians is commenced, the Crimean annexation is already being understood as a fait accompli, and that could end up putting NATO on the wrong side of history.

It is dangerous to lean too heavily on historical parallels, but it is definitely time to have a discussion on NATO’s credibility against an aggressive Russia. It may not be the Cold War Redux, but NATO needs to be seen as having the ability to carry out the mission that it theoretically was founded for in the first place. However, if the Russians are able to use irregular warfare effectively, it will require a nuanced and balanced strategy, combined with a broad-minded policy approach. If principle is going to be trampled in Ukraine, it needs to a least provide a better result than standing and fighting over the Crimea would.

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