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Ukraine and the Art of Limited War

Lawrence Freedman
Published online: 25 Nov 2014.

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To cite this article: Lawrence Freedman (2014) Ukraine and the Art of Limited War, Survival: Global Politics
and Strategy, 56:6, 7-38, DOI: 10.1080/00396338.2014.985432
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Ukraine and the Art of Limited


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Lawrence Freedman

You Cant Always Get What You Want

Rolling Stones, Let it Bleed, 1969

In a piece published in the JuneJuly issue of Survival, I considered

Ukraine and the Art of Crisis Management.1 My aim was to explore
the relevance of the strategic concepts of the Cold War to the unfolding
drama of Ukraine, and in particular the challenge of securing essential
interests without triggering a wider war. I judged the crisis to have been
badly managed by Russia, not particularly well by the West, and with
great difficulty by Ukraine. The consequences of the failure of crisis management lay not so much in expanding the area of conflict but instead in
a sharp deterioration in relations between Russia and the West, and continuing and unsettling violence within Ukraine. The result was that, over
subsequent months, the role of Russian forces within Ukraine became
more direct and overt, as the more irregular separatist forces were unable
to cope. The conflict became less of an externally sponsored insurgency in
eastern Ukraine and more of a limited war between Ukraine and Russia.
The costs were high. According to the United Nations, by 8 October
2014 the conflict had claimed 3,682 lives and wounded 8,871 in eastern
Ukraine. Some 5 million people lived in the area affected by conflict. Some

Lawrence Freedman is Professor of War Studies at Kings College London. His latest book is Strategy: A History
(Oxford University Press, 2013). An earlier version of this article appeared on the web magazine War on the Rocks
on 8 October 2014.
Survival | vol. 56 no. 6 | December 2014January 2015 | pp. 738DOI 10.1080/00396338.2014.985432

8 | Lawrence Freedman

427,000 had fled to neighbouring countries, while a further 402,034 were

internally displaced.2
In this article I do not reprise the material on the origins of the crisis and
the events up to May 2014 contained in the first article, but instead concentrate on the later intensification of the conflict and the aftermath of the
ceasefire of 5 September. I consider what, if any, strategic lessons might be
drawn from this most recent stage in the conflict, looking in particular at the

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concept of hybrid warfare.

On limited and hybrid warfare

The concept of limited war has an even longer history than that of crisis
management. It requires that belligerents choose not to fight at full capacity, in order that a conflict neither gains in intensity nor expands in space
and time. This is different from accepting those natural limits imposed
by resources and geography, and also from circumstances in which a
strong state employs only limited forces to deal with opponents with inferior capabilities. Against inferior opponents complete victories can still
be achieved with limited effort. To be a limited war, the limits must be
accepted by both parties.
As a distinctive concept, limited war depended on a contrast with total
war, a term popularised as a result of the First World War. The Napoleonic
period saw a departure from the inherently limited conflicts of the eighteenth century. The old routines became obsolete with the expectation that
the full resources of states would be pitted against each other in Darwinian
struggles for survival. In total war the parties would push any conflict to
its extremities. Once nuclear weapons were introduced this pointed to an
absurd and tragic result: mutual destruction. If both sides could accept that
whatever was at stake was not worth an all-out confrontation, then any
effort to protect interests through the use of armed force would have to be
governed by some sense of how far they were really prepared to go.
The conundrums this created were first thrown into relief during the
Korean War of 195053. Although this conflict was hardly limited for the
people of Korea in either its effects or stakes, the United States neither
extended the war into China nor used nuclear weapons, and in the end

Ukraine and the Art of Limited War | 9

accepted an outcome that could be characterised as stalemate rather than

victory. A number of the new generation of civilian strategists sought to
explain why this was a good rather than a bad outcome, a compromise that
left one half of Korea under communist rule (where it has remained stuck)
but the world intact.3
If the United States was prepared to fight only total war and lacked a
capacity for limited war, normally understood as strong regular forces, it
would face a dilemma with an incremental Soviet advance. The danger was
of salami tactics, whereby each slice of the salami would appear not to be

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worth a major conflict, although, cumulatively, the successive slices would

eventually turn into the whole.4 Limited war capabilities therefore meant
being able to respond to a challenge in the terms in which it was posed and
so dare the enemy to take the risk of escalating to the next and more dangerous level.
The word escalation entered the lexicon during the 1950s as a warning
about why wars might not stay limited. Once forces of great size and complexity began to clash, a conflict would become increasingly difficult to
manage. Actions might be taken because of confusion, misapprehension,
panic or passion. Once fighting was under way, new issues would affect attitudes to the conflict. As questions of reputation, credibility and pride came
into play, the military effort might be ratcheted up to levels well beyond
those justified by the original dispute. This problem could be aggravated
by the rhetoric necessary to mobilise public opinion behind any operation.
Should a threshold be reached or a deal agreed, then all this would have to
be scaled down. In the end, limited war implied compromise, which would
always be difficult when the enemy had been described in the darkest terms
and the stakes raised to existential levels.
Escalation came to describe this tragic process. The original metaphor
derived from the moving staircase which took one to a place one might
not want to go because one could not get off. The theorists of escalation,
such as Herman Kahn, resisted the idea of a loss of control. Instead, they
suggested that it might be possible to find a level at which a war might be
fought which suited one sides capabilities but not the other, posing for the
opponent the problem of accepting defeat or moving to yet another, more

10 | Lawrence Freedman

dangerous level. This was called escalation dominance.5 So a problem with

limited war was that, despite the natural assumption of some proportionality between limited ends and limited means, not only might the objectives
shift as a result of the fighting, but also military commitments would reflect
the logic of combat. Forces would need to be sized with reference to those of
the enemy, as well as the value of whatever was in dispute.
Lastly, there would need to be some means by which limits could be
recognised, agreed and enforced. This required some sort of shared understandings about thresholds and boundaries. There might be natural lines

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set by geography or types of weaponry or targets but to serve the purposes of limitation they would still often need to be

The Wests
response was
shaped by

confirmed through forms of communication. Some diplomatic activity would be necessary if a conflict was to
be kept limited.
With the end of the EastWest confrontation, the issue
of limited war became less pressing. The wars fought
by Western countries were inherently limited, and only
rarely with another state. There were challenges related
to keeping these conflicts restricted in terms of time

taken and resources expended, but their discretionary nature meant that
if the demands of a campaign exceeded the value of the objective, then an
intervention could be drawn to a close.
This years developments in Ukraine revived the issue of limited war.
The confrontation morphed into an inter-state war with high stakes, and
with one side a nuclear power, but vast armies did not move against each
other, capabilities were held in reserve and diplomatic communications
continued throughout. NATO, of course, was not directly engaged in the
fighting, but it had to consider whether and how it might get involved. This
involved assessing Russian objectives, advising Ukraine on how to respond,
and examining the implications for any conflict that might develop between
Russia and a NATO member in the future.
The Russian intervention has been described as an example of hybrid
warfare. This term gained currency after Israel was said to have been surprised and discomfited during the 2006 Lebanon War by the combination

Ukraine and the Art of Limited War | 11

of guerrilla and conventional tactics adopted by Hizbullah. It is now discussed as an approach that draws upon a number of types of force from
across the full spectrum, including terrorism, insurgency and regular
combat, along with the extensive use of information operations. As with
many similar concepts, such as asymmetric warfare, once adopted as a term
of art it has tended towards a wider definition. Nor does it refer to a new
phenomenon, for there are many examples in military history of the combination of regular and irregular forms of warfare.6 Recently, Frank Hoffman,
in connection with Ukraine, has suggested that hybrid threats involve an

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adversary employing a tailored mix of conventional weapons, irregular

tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior in the same time and battlespace to
obtain their political objectives.7 This suggests a command authority that is
able to choreograph the various operations to achieve the greatest synergy
in pursuit of specified goals.
So, in addition to the general questions raised about limited war the
relationship of political objectives to available military means; the role of
threats to escalate to higher levels of conflict according to changing political
as well as military circumstances; and the identification of a compromise
and durable political outcome that could be agreed without further escalation the Ukrainian case has also raised additional questions about hybrid
war. In particular, to what extent is it possible to tailor such a disparate combination of activities to a developing conflict while continuing to exercise
political control, and how possible is it to integrate information operations
into an overall plan of campaign?
On both these issues, I argue that the advantages of hybrid warfare have
been less evident than often claimed. The complex command arrangements
reduced Russian control over the developing situation on the ground,
while efforts at deception were by and large ineffectual, as the Russian role
became progressively transparent. The exception to this may have been a
relative success in projecting a more menacing image than Russias actual
strength warranted. This supported a limited-war strategy based on boosting Russias position by warning of a readiness to continue escalation. The
Wests response was shaped by an evident reluctance to escalate and anxiety
about moving into a less contained conflict. In the end, however, the case

12 | Lawrence Freedman

of Ukraine confirms the mundane observation that in disputes over territory, the most effective forms of control involve regular armed forces and
superior firepower, but that physical control does not ensure a functioning

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economy and society.

Interpreting Putins plans

Until more is revealed about Russian decision-making during the course of
this crisis, any analysis relies on inferences about Russian President Vladimir
Putins objectives and calculations. This is not straightforward, because the
evidence supports a number of interpretations. The starting point is relatively uncontroversial: Putin viewed the break-up of the Soviet Union as a
retrograde step which created opportunities for Russias adversaries that
they did not hesitate to exploit. Against this backdrop, Moscow came to
consider the overall political orientation of Ukraine, whether it looked to the
East or the West, as a vital interest. This issue came to the fore during the
course of 2013 as Russia put pressure on Ukraine not to sign an association
agreement with the European Union, and so become the latest stage in the
Wests expansion into the former Soviet space. Instead, it urged Ukraine to
join the Russian-led Eurasian Union, loosely modelled on the EU. At first,
Kiev opted for the EU, only to turn instead to the Eurasian Union with the
incentive of a large Russian loan. It has also been suggested by former Polish
Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski that this was combined with a threat to seize
Crimea and possibly personal blackmail, based on evidence of the organised corruption of Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovichs government.
Ukrainian intelligence had been aware of Russian operatives moving into
Crimea earlier in the decade, with the possibility of annexation discussed
from the middle of 2013, which is when the question of EU versus Eurasian
Union was moving up the agenda. According to Sikorski, Polish intelligence
became aware of Russian calculations on what provinces would be profitable to grab. Interestingly, these were the Zaporozhye, Dnepropetrovsk
and Odessa regions, rather than those parts of the Donbas area that came to
be controlled by the separatists.8
Yanukovichs turn to Russia triggered the revolt in Kiev, the overthrow
of the Yanukovich government and, in consequence, an apparently decisive

Ukraine and the Art of Limited War | 13

Western turn in Ukrainian policy. If Moscow had formed a link between

such a hostile turn in Kievs policy and the seizure of Crimea and other
Ukrainian territory, then this might explain the speed with which agitation
soon began in these territories. The effort to generate a counter-revolutionary movement failed, other than in Crimea, where Russia had the benefit of
the Sevastapol base as well as prior preparation. Initially, the Russians may
have hoped to retain annexation as a threat to encourage Kiev to reconsider
its position, although, given the revolutionary enthusiasm in Ukraine, concessions to Moscow were always unlikely. The evident popular support for

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annexation within Russia meant that it was not long delayed. This was a
definitive move that would be very difficult for Moscow to reverse. It introduced a problem into all later attempts to achieve a political settlement. A
view quickly developed within the international community, however, that
it would be extremely difficult to force Russia to hand Crimea back, and so
the focus had to be on preventing it from taking more slices of the salami.
Initially, there were a number of areas of agitation, including Odessa, but
they gained little traction.9 Eventually, Russian efforts concentrated on the
Donbas region and, in particular, the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk
Peoples Republics. Putin described these areas using the historic name of
Novorossiya, expressing his astonishment that they had ever been allowed
to become part of Ukraine in 1922, a ruling he considered to be as perverse
as the transfer of Crimea and Sevastopol to Ukraine in 1956.10
While the loss of these territorial slices directly challenged Ukraines
sovereignty and territorial integrity, unless the whole of the salami was
taken, the rest of Ukraine would be left hostile to Russia and beyond its
influence. This would permit its embrace by the EU, and even NATO, to
continue. This pointed to a fundamental tension in Russian objectives from
the start, between carving out a chunk of Ukraine that would be effectively controlled by Russia or even annexed, and gaining influence over
Ukrainian decisions to prevent moves inimical to Russian interests what
used to be called Finlandisation.11
Moreover, demanding the right to veto unwanted developments in
one sovereign country raised the possibility that the same right could be
demanded of other countries in the Russian near abroad. Putins assertion

14 | Lawrence Freedman

of a special responsibility to protect the position of Russians unfortunate

enough to live outside the borders of the Russian Federation potentially
affected a number of countries. This was already the rationale behind the
frozen conflicts in Moldova and Georgia. It could be used to challenge the
position of the Baltic states, notably Estonia,12 and even Russias notional
partners in the Eurasian Union, Belarus and Kazakhstan. If it was believed
that Russia was capable of moving into a full expansionist mode, then
Poland, Sweden and Finland could come into the frame. If I wanted, Putin
is reported to have told Ukraines new president, Petro Poroshenko, in mid-

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September, in two days I could have Russian troops not only in Kiev, but
also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw, and Bucharest.13
As I shall argue below, the readiness to suggest unlimited ambition and
the ability to project power well beyond its borders fits in with a Russian
strategy geared to intimidation and deterrence. Yet Russias capacity is
limited. It rebuilt its armed forces during recent years of economic growth,
but it would struggle to cope with a multi-front campaign or a prolonged
occupation of a substantial hostile population. Should any action trigger
NATOs Article V commitments, Russian forces would be outnumbered
and face superior air power from the US and other allies. Its GDP is close
to that of Italy and in per capita terms is less than Polands. In no sense is
Russia an economic superpower. It is a great power by virtue of its nuclear
arsenal and permanent membership of the Security Council, but Britain also
has these attributes, plus a stronger economy and many more allies. What
marks Russia out is a regular need to assert its power, reflecting security
problems around its periphery. Putins dreams may be irredentist, but for
the moment, practicalities limit that dream. For all the talk about driving to
Kiev, never mind Warsaw, Putin has not (yet) gone for broke in Ukraine.
The crisis generated by the intervention was not confined to Ukraine.
It was geared to strengthening Russias overall strategic position vis--vis
NATO and the EU while encouraging others to take its interests and concerns more seriously. It had implications for the wider European economy
and energy networks. The shooting down of a civilian airliner in July affected
many countries. Nonetheless, the geographical scope of the Russian effort
remained limited to areas bordering Russia, including Crimea.

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Ukraine and the Art of Limited War | 15

Tactical evolution
The tactics adopted by Russia in Ukraine have many antecedents, but an
early 2013 speech by Valery Gerasimov, newly appointed chief of Russias
general staff, highlighted how appropriate they might be in contemporary conflict. Reflecting some of the Western debate on hybrid warfare, he
described how in Middle Eastern conflicts there had been a progressive
erosion of the distinctions between war and peace and between uniformed
personnel and covert operatives. Wars were not declared but simply begin,
so that a completely well-off and stable country could be transformed into
an arena of the most intense armed conflict in a matter of months or even
days. In these circumstances, military means became more effective when
combined with non-military means, including political, economic, information, humanitarian and other measures. These could be supplemented by
covert and thus deniable military measures, as well as offers of peace-keeping assistance as a means to strategic ends. New information technologies
would play an important role. As a result, frontal clashes of major military
formations are gradually receding into the past. They now involve the
broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian and other
non-military measures. All of this, he said, could be supplemented by firing
up the local populace as a fifth column and by concealed armed forces.14
It was evident in Crimea that preparations had been made for this contingency for some time. Here was seen the first use of professional soldiers
in uniforms without markings (the so-called little green men). They were
deployed again in numbers in April, as Russian agents acted with indigenous separatists to seize administrative buildings and other facilities in the
Donbas area. At first these operations were successful, in part because the
local response by Ukrainian security forces was lame. Yet, although there
was evidence of intimidation by the separatists and substantial support
from Russia, the rebellion struggled to establish itself because of a lack of
popular backing. Referendums held in support of separatism had little credibility and were not taken seriously internationally.15
After the election of President Poroshenko at the end of May, the
Ukrainian military effort against the separatists was stepped up, under
the heading of an anti-terrorist operation. The separatist forces struggled

16 | Lawrence Freedman

to cope. They lacked coherence, combining local agitators, militants who

had learnt their trade in Chechnya and Georgia, and some Russian special
forces. Coordination was often poor, and political leadership at times eccentric. Their methods alienated local people, and they used the sophisticated
equipment with which they were provided recklessly. With Ukrainian
forces becoming better organised, and prepared to deploy firepower more
ruthlessly, they gave ground. In a significant battle on 26 May government
forces, using aircraft and helicopters, took Donetsk airport. Ill-prepared
separatist fighters suffered many casualties, a number apparently as a result

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of friendly fire.16
This particular episode may be one reason why Russia began sending
more advanced equipment to the separatists, including anti-aircraft
weapons and GRAD rockets. Surface-to-air missiles made the skies more
dangerous for Ukrainian military aircraft. They also caused an international
scandal when a Malaysia Airlines flight was downed on 17 July by a missile
fired from a Russian BUK system, causing the deaths of 281 passengers and
crew. The furore that followed added to Russias isolation, not helped by a
refusal to accept any responsibility. Western sanctions, first introduced after
the annexation of Crimea, were intensified. These events may also have distracted the separatists attention from the defence of their positions. Slowly
but surely, Ukrainian forces pushed the rebels back to about half of their
original holdings. It looked likely that they would be pushed out of first
Donetsk and then Luhansk.
At this point, a decision seems to have been taken in Moscow to get a
grip on the situation. One move, which may have added to rather than
reduced Moscows problems, was to replace the leadership of the rebellion with Ukrainians rather than the Russian citizens who had initially
taken charge.17 In late August, Russian armed forces became involved in
a much more overt way. The starting point was an argument over a socalled humanitarian convoy to deliver assistance to the areas under siege.18
Soon, there were reports of 15,000 troops on the border, with at least 1,000
operating inside Ukraine.19 In a long battle for Ilovaisk, a town between
Donetsk and the Russian border that had been retaken from separatists
on 19 August, Ukrainian troops were surrounded. As many as 300 soldiers

Ukraine and the Art of Limited War | 17

may have been killed in the battle. Luhansk airport was retaken. Ukrainian
forces buckled under the new onslaught. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy
Yatsenyuk observed that it was easy to deal with Russian-led guerrillas and
the Russian-led terrorists. But its too difficult for us to fight against welltrained and well-equipped Russian military.20 As ground was lost in the
Donbas, the government had to suspend the anti-terrorist operation to concentrate on defence. By now some 65% of Ukraines military equipment had
been lost, while the armour left in storage was described by Poroshenko as
being as good as tins cans.21 More of Ukraine appeared to be at risk. Russia

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seized the border town of Novoazovsk and threatened the port of Mariupol,
and raised the possibility of a land corridor to Crimea which, with only sea
links, was proving a challenge for Moscow to keep adequately supplied.

Reason for caution

Despite the growing ascendancy of Russian-backed forces, on 5 September
an agreement on a ceasefire was reached at Minsk, signed by representatives of Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Co-operation
in Europe (OSCE), as well as the leaders of the Donetsk and Luhansk
Peoples Republics. It is evident why Poroshenko wanted a ceasefire: to
provide Ukrainian forces with a respite and to move forward with economic
and political reform. Moreover, the agreement was largely based on a plan
originally proposed by Poroshenko in June and offered a degree of decentralisation of power and protection of Russian language; political and economic
reconstruction in the affected areas; liberation of hostages and amnesties;
withdrawal of illegal armed formations; and a buffer zone on the border.
The September agreement gave the OSCE a substantial role in monitoring
the provisions. A further agreement of 19 September required that heavy
weaponry be pulled back 15 kilometres from the line of contact, banned
offensive operations and flights by combat aircraft over the security zone,
and called for the withdrawal of foreign mercenaries and an OSCE monitoring mission.22 On 24 September, NATO reported a significant, although
not complete, withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. At the start of
November, there were believed to be 250300 Russian soldiers still in the
country. These troops were said to be not for fighting but specialist training

18 | Lawrence Freedman

and equipping of the separatist forces. There were reports that these forces
were being reinforced with more weaponry at the time of the separatist elections in early November. Russian forces on the border were down from the
18 battalions of August to some seven, still enough to unnerve Kiev.23
In principle, by accepting Ukrainian sovereignty, this agreement
favoured Kiev more than Moscow. Why then was it agreed, given the prevailing balance of power in the region? One explanation for Russian caution
was the added risks associated with further intervention, including getting
bogged down in an occupation against a hostile population. It was one thing

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to shell Ukrainian positions, and another to move in numbers against those

positions; one thing to occupy territory with superior force, but another to
administer and reconstruct, as the United States and its allies had learned in
Iraq and Afghanistan. There were also reports of significant Russian casualties, ranging from the hundreds to the thousands.24 These were causing
consternation in Russia, especially because of the lengths the authorities
went to deny that the deaths had occurred in Ukraine or to insist that, if
they did, this was because the casualties had temporarily left the army and
volunteered to help the separatists.25
A second reason for caution might lie in Western economic sanctions,
which were steadily ratcheted up, including after the Minsk agreement.
These measures affected investment in future exploration for the oil and
gas industry. The easing of sanctions (or their potential intensification) was
linked explicitly to the implementation of the agreement. According to US
Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken, there was a need to make
sure that Russian personnel and equipment leave Ukraine, that the border
is appropriately back under the control of Ukrainian forces and the Ukraine
government, that its monitored appropriately, and that there are buffer
zones on both sides.26 Under other circumstances Russia might have found
it possible to disregard sanctions, but the economy was already slowing
down prior to the crisis and also had to cope with a significant decline in the
oil price. The sanctions therefore aggravated an already difficult situation.
Some Russian responses, notably the banning of some agricultural products
from the EU, added to the costs and reduced the choices for Russian consumers. The prospect was one of squeezed living standards as the country

Ukraine and the Art of Limited War | 19

faced a declining currency, along with recession and rising prices, especially for foodstuffs.27 In addition, although Russia meets about a quarter
of Europes demand for gas,28 the pressure on revenues limited the countrys ability to threaten to cut supplies, and there were even some moves to
resolve the vexing issue of Russian supplies to Ukraine.29
The positions held by separatists undoubtedly created a serious problem
for Ukraine. Yet the territory held at the time of the ceasefire could not
ensure that Russia would achieve its main aims. There was no land corridor to Crimea, and the territory controlled by the separatists was too small

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to make much sense as a stand-alone entity, incoherent both economically

and politically, yet large enough to require a substantial subsidy if it was not to collapse internally.
Russia was already struggling with Crimea,30 and
none of its other frozen territories were exactly economic success stories. It was unlikely that those
displaced by the conflict would return while fight-

aggravated a
difficult situation

ing continued. If these territories did secede, there

would be continuing tension on their border with the rest of Ukraine, and
so a need for high levels of military mobilisation, and a likely deterioration in economic and social conditions. Industrial production had collapsed,
pensions were not being paid and provisions would be necessary for the
winter. Meanwhile, Ukraine would be bound to work even more closely
with Western Europe. As was expected, the more pro-Russian parties faltered in the 27 October parliamentary elections. Of more significance, in
terms of the propaganda claim that neo-Nazis were at the heart of the new
order in Ukraine, was the weakness of the right-wing Svoboda party. The
main victors were the more moderate pro-Western parties. Of perhaps most
importance for Russia was the fact that the party of the more hawkish Prime
Minister Yatsenyuk did slightly better than that of the more conciliatory
President Poroshenko.31
While some sort of deal might have made sense for Russia, whose role
was reduced after Minsk, the provisions of the agreement made little sense
to the separatists. For this reason the fighting did not actually stop as they
sought to extend their area of control, resulting in many more casualties. At

20 | Lawrence Freedman

best this was more de-escalation than ceasefire. The separatists made little
progress, at least in two crucial areas. Against Mariupol they appeared
to give up quite quickly, except for occasional shelling, because of the
entrenched position of Ukrainian forces. Against Donetsk airport assaults
were regularly rebuffed. By then, the airport had acquired a certain symbolism. It had been taken early on by the separatists. Its recapture in May
by Ukrainian forces had been a demoralising blow. Although the actual
airport was left destroyed, it remained in Ukrainian hands. This separatist
failure left many casualties and undermined claims of separatist control

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over the region.

Moscows interests were therefore not necessarily the same as the separatists, although ultimately the separatists could not survive without
Russian support. This explains the tensions between the two, as Russia
did not endorse full independence for or annexation of Novorussyia, but
only the compromise position that the region would stay part of Ukraine
but with a significant amount of autonomy. The obvious questions were:
how much autonomy, and would regional representatives be in a position
to block the eventual accession of Ukraine to the EU or vote for combination with Russia? The separatists showed no interest in these issues or any
compromise along these lines. Igor Plotnitsky, head of the Luhansk Peoples
Republic, observed that sooner or later, we will become part of the Russian
Federation.32 His fellow signatory to the Minsk agreement, Alexander
Zakharchenko of the Donetsk Peoples Republic, claimed that he was forced
to sign, and that this was an act of betrayal. One of his deputies explicitly rejected the agreement to return control of the border to Ukraine.33 On
20 October Zakharchenko announced the ceasefire over. There were soon
demands that Ukraine cede more territory or else it would be taken by
force.34 Elections were conducted separately in Donetsk and Luhansk on 2
November, in contravention of the Minsk agreement as they did not follow
Ukrainian law, and produced results that were unsurprising given the
limited choice allowed.35 Poroshenko described the elections as a farce at
gunpoint, and questioned whether there was much point continuing with
the Minsk agreement, ordering more troops to move to the east to prepare
defences against any new separatist push.36

Ukraine and the Art of Limited War | 21

Putin dared not abandon the separatists, yet he was unable to get them
to meet their obligations. His unwillingness to force them to do so was one
reason for the lack of progress at a meeting in Milan on 17 October involving Putin, Poroshenko and EU leaders.37 For its part, Ukraine, severely
weakened by the events of 2014, with its economy undermined and key
territories out of its control, had a clear interest in a negotiated solution,
although there were growing elements in the country pushing for tougher
action.38 The conflict encouraged nationalist sentiment in Ukraine as well
as Russia. Thus, while Poroshenko accepted the need for compromise in

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terms of more autonomy for the troubled regions and respect for Russian
concerns, he could not abandon closer relations with the EU as a goal.
All this made it less likely that Russia would be able to meet its original objective of restraining Kievs policy in relation to the EU. Following
Minsk, Russia continued to demand that Ukraine not get closer to the EU.
It had some success at a trilateral EURussianUkrainian meeting on 12
September, at which the parties agreed to postpone the implementation of
the EUs Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with Ukraine from
November 2014 to the end of 2015.39 Russia threatened tariffs for Ukrainian
exports to Russia should implementation take place. The conciliatory stance
adopted by Kiev led to the resignation of Ukraines deputy foreign minister.
Nonetheless, the line from Brussels was that the European Union will not
allow Russia to dictate conditions for the EUs relations with Ukraine. Nor
did the trilateral agreement prevent ratification of the treaty. This apparently surprised Moscow: the day after ratification by both the Ukrainian and
European parliaments, Putin wrote to European Commission President Jos
Manuel Barroso, demanding that the treaty be changed before implementation and threatening immediate and appropriate retaliatory measures
against Kiev if implementation went ahead.40

Alternate reality
Because territory has been taken from Ukraine, the Russian intervention was
still widely seen as successful, even though the conflict was unresolved and
Russia had yet to achieve its main objectives. Russian success was attributed
to its skilful adoption of the techniques of hybrid war. This was reflected in

22 | Lawrence Freedman

the use of a range of force types. Initially, the main requirement was sufficient force to take over administrative buildings and intimidate local police
forces. Over time the demands increased, to the point where local agitators had to be supplemented with Russian fighters with combat experience,
apparently often Chechen. Eventually, regular forces had to become directly
involved. Throughout there was a deceptive intent, recalling the old Soviet
concept of maskirovka (masking) or even Potemkin villages.41 The aim was
to sustain the pretence that the fighting force was wholly indigenous, supplemented by no more than some friendly volunteers from over the border.

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Thus, the Washington Post editorialised:

Some have called the new approach hybrid war, a conflict waged by
commandos without insignia, armored columns slipping across the
international border at night, volleys of misleading propaganda, floods
of disinformation and sneaky invasions like the one into Crimea. In this
hybrid war, a civilian airliner was shot down by surface-to-air missiles,
but the triggerman or supplier of the missile was never identified; artillery
shells are fired but no one can say from where; Russian military material
and equipment appears suddenly in the villages and fields of eastern
Ukraine. While people are being killed, as in any war, and while Ukraine
has mustered its forces admirably to push back, this hybrid war features
an aggressor whose moves are shrouded in deception.42

Russian strategists were said to judge information operations to be

important as a means of challenging the claims made by their opponents
and of shoring up support at home.43 A constant challenge was mounted to
the claims made by Ukrainian and Western opponents of Russian action,
and a competing narrative was developed, based on the supposedly illegal
and fascistic nature of the Kiev government, its sole responsibility for the
existence of a conflict and for particular tragedies (such as the shooting
down of the Malaysian airliner), and the shelling of civilian areas. This was
combined with a larger narrative about the greatness, exceptional quality
and legitimate interests of Russia.44 Economic sacrifices and the risks being
run in Ukraine were justified as enabling a shift away from dependence on

Ukraine and the Art of Limited War | 23

trade with Western Europe to intensified links with Asia. The increasing
control over national media and Internet providers, along with intimidation of dissenters, made it possible to shape Russian opinion. For example,
after the Committee of Soldiers Mothers in St Petersburg expressed concern
about Russian casualties in Ukraine, the Ministry of Justice declared the
non-governmental organisation to be a foreign agent. Enormous efforts
were made to harass perceived opponents of Russia, including the deployment of an army of trolls with a mission to contradict and abuse those taking
anti-Russian positions on social media,45 and the use of Russia Today (RT), a

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Russian-controlled news network.46

As deception operations, these efforts were largely unsuccessful: few
were deceived. Although the starting point for Russian operations was plausible denial, after a while it seemed as though Moscow no longer cared.47 The
claims about a lack of direct Russian involvement in the fighting became
progressively implausible and eventually incredible. Ukrainians did not
rally en masse to the separatist cause. Russian positions taken in a series of
awkward Security Council sessions were widely disregarded and derided,
and the countrys standing fell internationally.
As much of the campaign was conducted through social media, Russian
efforts were hampered by the role played by independent analysts who used
considerable forensic skills to evaluate claims being made by both sides. This
was particularly effective after the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane.
In addition to denying that BUK surface-to-air missiles could have been in
the area, Moscow attempted to suggest that the airliner had been attacked
from behind by a Ukrainian Su-25. There were obvious reasons (such as altitude) to doubt the story, but what was notable in this case were the captured
tweets and Facebook entries from before the separatists realised what they
had done; demonstrations that a BUK had been in the appropriate place; the
analysis of the debris, which showed damage consistent with a BUK; and
the comprehensive debunking of the Su-25 theory.48
The challenges to Russian claims made little difference in Russia. Here,
the information campaign was effective, reflected in a surge in Putins
popularity.49 The president rode a wave of nationalist sentiment, particularly with regard to the annexation of Crimea. While consolidating power

24 | Lawrence Freedman

in Moscow may not have been the prime objective of the campaign, Putin
certainly took advantage of the situation to do so, with those worried about
the economy losing out to those seeking to strengthen the state along traditional lines.50 Yet a government which insists on fictional descriptions of
situations can get caught out, in what Jeffrey Michaels has identified as a
discourse trap, whereby maintaining consistency with the fiction means
that it must be upheld even when the result is to push counterproductive
policies.51 This had already created risks for the government. Nationalists
were unnerved by possible betrayals of the separatists (a factor which may

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have encouraged Putin in the more overt interven-

created a sense
of danger

tion), allegations which were sure to re-surface if the

separate territories were in any way re-integrated
into Ukraine. There were diplomatic costs as well.
When an interlocutor insists on an alternative reality
it becomes hard to engage or to trust, making diplomatic intercourse more difficult. This was one reason

for the poor relations between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and
President Putin.
There was, however, one important sense in which the Russian propaganda effort was successful. This was in creating a sense of danger that
probably had an effect, albeit one that is hard to measure, in deterring the
West from supporting Ukraine as much as it might otherwise have done.
This effort involved rhetorical threats, such as regular reminders of Russias
nuclear strength. Russias partners, Putin was reported saying in August
as his forces were moving into Ukraine, should understand its best not
to mess with us. He added a reminder that Russia is one of the leading
nuclear powers.52 Exaggerated claims were made about the speed with
which Russian nuclear forces could be modernised and replaced.53 There
were suggestions of a new Russian doctrine that would re-establish NATO
as Russias primary threat and effectively set Russias defence policy toward
combating it.54 There were also staged incidents, such as the kidnapping
of an Estonian officer and regular violations of Western airspace.55 By way
of contrast to Russian bluster and braggadocio, Western commentary often
accepted the foundations of this self-promotion at face value instead of

Ukraine and the Art of Limited War | 25

mounting a challenge. Russian boldness was often compared unfavourably with the feebleness of Western support.56 While the hawks exaggerated
Russian power, the doves showed sympathy for its stance, accepting that
the origins of the crisis lay in Western expansionism rather than Ukrainian
The price Russia paid for the deterrence value of this additional menace
was a restructuring of the European security debate. More attention began
to be paid by NATO to tangible forms of reassurance to the Baltic states,
while neutrals such as Sweden and Finland got closer to the alliance. NATO

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adopted a Readiness Action Plan to establish military bases in Eastern

Europe and a rapid-response force to protect its members from Russian
incursions. It also committed financial and material support to Ukraine
and promised to hold regular military exercises on its territory. If nothing
else, NATO was provided with an answer to the question of what it needed
to worry about as it left Afghanistan. Energy-security issues were also on
the agenda. There were claims that, in response, Russia would reduce its
dependence on Western markets by looking to Asia.58 But China was largely
taking advantage of Russian weakness to achieve attractive deals on oil supplies, while Japan had also imposed sanctions.59 Over time, Russia would
need to re-engage with the EU. The Russian foreign minister even floated
the idea of a new reset with the United States.60
In the run-up to NATOs Wales summit of early September 2014, which
took place at the same time as the ceasefire negotiations in Minsk, US President
Barack Obamas proposition that there could not be a military solution to the
Ukraine crisis was adopted as something of a mantra.61 The effect was to signal
to both domestic audiences and Ukraine that NATO members were not going
to get militarily involved. Although Poroshenko had made an urgent appeal
when he spoke to the US Congress in September for more military support,
the limited $53m package he was offered, including radar, vehicles and body
armour, stopped short of providing weapons or other lethal aid. Despite pressure from Congress and within government, the White House was anxious to
avoid a proxy war with Moscow.62 Combined with heavy combat losses, this
may well have convinced Poroshenko not to continue to push back militarily
against Russia and the separatists, and to accept a ceasefire.

26 | Lawrence Freedman

This mantra about there being no military solution was true, but also
missed the point. Wars are political struggles and therefore any solution
will be marked by a political settlement. The military situation on the
ground, however, will hardly be irrelevant. Thus, Russias more forceful
intervention meant that when areas of control were supposedly frozen
under the Minsk agreement they were far more advantageous to the separatists than they would have been just a couple of weeks earlier. It did not,
however, ensure a political solution that met Russias objectives. Limited
wars can only conclude if both sides accept a new reality as preferable to

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the risks involved in trying to achieve an even better reality. There must be
a degree of compromise. Both must convince themselves that they can live
with the outcome. After Minsk, Western capitals began to take the view that
the worst of the crisis was over. This was too complacent. This limited war
had not been transformed into a frozen conflict along the lines of those in
Moldova and Georgia.
The situation remained unstable. Russia had damaged, but not defeated,
Ukraine. By sticking to economic rather than military sanctions, NATO and
the EU had damaged, but not defeated, Russia. The crisis was not over,
because the future of Ukraine remained uncertain. This was largely because
the separatists could not accept the political logic of the Minsk agreement,
which meant in practice that they would have to agree that they could not
actually stay separate. Even if Russia held on to Crimea, recognised de facto
if not de jure, Putin was left with the dilemma of accusations of betrayal if
Donetsk and Luhansk were re-integrated into Ukraine and of loss of influence
over Ukraine if they were effectively to become part of Russia. The logic of the
situation was that the separatists would be sustained, and even push further
into Ukraine, but without regular Russian units taking too prominent a role.
This indicates an important problem with hybrid warfare. Definitions
which assume unified political control overlook the most challenging aspect
of trying to bring together irregular forces, representing one set of political interests, and regular forces, representing another. It can be challenging
enough to meld together different units of the same army for example,
special forces and infantry battalions but even more difficult where the
forces coming together not only have different military tasks and methods

Ukraine and the Art of Limited War | 27

but also distinct command structures and diverging political interests. Even
among the militia groups in Donetsk and Luhansk there were differences.
As conditions became harsher within those areas these differences were
likely to grow. Lines were already becoming blurred between politics and
criminality.63 At the same time, Ukrainian forces had also seen awkward
combinations of militias and regular forces.64
Russia sustained a weak position and boosted its bargaining position
by conveying a readiness to escalate. This was a constant of Russian rhetoric, including reference, on occasion, to nuclear capabilities. From the start

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there were menacing deployments of Russian forces along the border. The
menace was validated to a degree by the invasion of Ukrainian territory.
The threat of escalation certainly had an effect
on Ukrainian calculations, reinforced by Kievs
awareness of its own limited ability to escalate.
While the Russian threats were not quite Potemkin
villages (in that they had real substance), they

Putin offered no
long-term vision

were still exaggerated. Similarly, rather than complain about sanctions Russians decried them as being against international
rules, but of little consequence. This dismissal of sanctions, as with claims
that Russia could march with ease to Kiev, or turn off gas supplies without
a thought for the consequences, or pivot to China, could be challenged on
the basis of the underlying economic realities of its position. The gloomy
prognostications by many Western commentators about how Putin was
determined to take on all neighbouring states in some ways boosted this
aspect of Russian strategy, making the country appear more powerful
than was actually the case.
Putins power play in Ukraine was impulsive and improvised, without
any clear sense of the desired end state. In a wide-ranging speech in October
at Sochi, which was largely devoted to explaining how the US had been
engaged in a foolish quest to dominate the world by breaking all international rules, Putin offered no long-term vision for Ukraine. He re-asserted
the case for self-determination for Crimea, but also claimed to support
Ukraines territorial integrity and to be ready to make every effort to
ensure the implementation of the Minsk agreements. He also blamed the

28 | Lawrence Freedman

Ukrainian authorities for the violence, warned against using force to resolve
the deadlock and told them to understand that there is no sense in holding
on to some village or other this is pointless. Yet by the time of this speech
the separatists had denounced the Minsk agreements. Putin was stuck with
boosting them both militarily and politically, perhaps hoping that Kiev
would eventually accept that it must negotiate on their terms.65 It would
serve neither Ukraine nor Russia if Donetsk and Luhansk fell into disrepair
and disarray, adrift in some separatist limbo, but it was not clear that either
had the capacity to provide a viable future. The separatists would not allow

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these territories to be re-integrated into Ukraine, while Russia could not

afford to annex them. Militarily, Russia could help the separatists expand
their area of control and use this to coerce and unsettle Ukraine. Politically
and economically, it had few good options.
There was therefore still a risk of serious escalation. The Minsk agreement was not being implemented. The border between the separatist areas
and Russia was left open and unmonitored, while those with Ukraine
lacked any particular geographical or political logic that might allow them
to be frozen and the fighting to be contained. The military clashes could
become more intense. While the economic situation might push Moscow to
look for a deal, the sense of continuing crisis and the nationalism it engendered played to Putins domestic political agenda. But, if the conflict was
not resolved, economic sanctions would become embedded and there was
a chance that Washington would have to reconsider its refusal to supply
Ukraine with lethal equipment.
For its part, Ukraine was left struggling with a dire economic situation,
aggravated by the costs of war, stuck with a demanding and unresolved
military conflict, and divided internally, with a disaffected minority still
looking more to the east than the west. It would be dependent on the EU
for regular financial support. Not much of a start had been made on dealing
with problems of chronic corruption and incompetence left over from the
old regime. If Ukraine could not be strengthened economically, politically
and militarily, which would require substantial contributions from the
West, the situation could return to the one before 2014, when it was hard to
imagine the country ever being in a fit state to join the EU.66

Ukraine and the Art of Limited War | 29

The first stage of this crisis demonstrated poor crisis management. The
second stage proved that in a struggle over territory, superior force makes
a difference. However, without popular support, along with economic and
administrative capacity, Russia would struggle to transform seized territory
into a viable political entity. After many months of effort, Russia had achieved
limited gains, but at high cost. The situation had yet to stabilise. In limited war
you dont always get what you want. Nor do you get much satisfaction.


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Lawrence Freedman, Ukraine and

the Art of Crisis Management,
Survival, vol. 56, no. 3, JuneJuly 2014,
2 United Nations Office for the
Coordination of Humanitarian
Affairs, Ukraine: Situation Report
No. 15 as of 10 October 2014,
ukraine-situation-report-no15-10-october-2014. These numbers
include 298 casualties from Malaysia
Airlines Flight MH17. They depend
on reports from official sources and
medical establishments and are
likely to be underestimates. Another
report attributes civilian deaths to
indiscriminate shelling of residential
areas by both pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian armed forces.
See Office of the United Nations
High Commissioner for Human
Rights, Report on the Human Rights
Situation in Ukraine, 16 September
2014, p. 3,

See, for example, Robert Endicott

Osgood, Limited War: The Challenge
to American Strategy (Chicago, IL:
University of Chicago Press, 1957).
4 This term was first coined in the late
1940s by the Hungarian communist
leader Matyas Rakosi to explain the
political process by which the Soviet
Union gained control of Eastern
Europe. The communists first organised anti-fascist governments that
would then shut down the parties to
the right of them one by one, cutting
them off like slices of salami, until
only the end-piece of the Communist
Party was left. It was therefore about
the progressive exclusion of opponents. Later in the Cold War the term
tended to be used to refer to progressive but incremental victories. There
is, however, one continuity here with
the current Ukrainian crisis in the
liberal use of the fascist label to delegitimise all other parties.
5 Herman Kahn, On Escalation:
Metaphors and Scenarios (New York:
Praeger, 1965).
6 Frank G. Hoffman, Hybrid Warfare
and Challenges, Joint Forces Quarterly,
no. 52, 2009, pp. 349. For historical

30 | Lawrence Freedman

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examples see Williamson Murray

and Peter R. Mansoor (eds), Hybrid
Warfare: Fighting Complex Opponents
from the Ancient World to the Present
(New York: Cambridge University
Press, 2012).
Frank Hoffman, On Not-So-New
Warfare: Political Warfare vs Hybrid
Threats, War on the Rocks, 28 July 2014,
This is according to an interview
with former Polish Foreign Minister
Radek Sikorski. Ben Judah, Putins
Coup: How the Russian Leader Used
the Ukraine Crisis to Consolidate his
Dictatorship, Politico Magazine, 19
October 2014, http://www.politico.
Odessa was of obvious importance
as a regional capital. On 2 May there
was a tragic incident in the city. After
violent clashes between pro-Russian
demonstrators and pro-unity supporters, the separatists were overwhelmed
and retreated to a trade-union building, which was set on fire, possibly
as a result of petrol bombs originally
used by those inside the building.
Thirty-two people died as a result.
The incident aggravated already tense
relations in southeastern Ukraine.
Novorossiya was originally a far
larger area than that currently occupied by the separatists. It included
what had been Ottoman territory
conquered by Catherine the Great,
including Odessa.
This was another term associated
with the Cold War. It referred to the

post-war deal with the Soviet Union

whereby Finland was able to adopt a
democratic system and a market economy in return for remaining friendly
to the Soviet Union in its foreign
policy. It became a term of abuse, initially in Germany, employed against
those who seemed to be ready to give
Moscow a veto over foreign policy
in return for a quiet life. Richard
Milne, Finlandisation Makes a
Polarising Comeback in Finland,
Financial Times, 24 September 2014,
12 Anna Dolgov, Russia Sees Need
to Protect Russian Speakers in
NATO Baltic States, Moscow
Times, 16 September 2014, http://
13 Justin Huggler, Putin Privately
Threatened to Invade Poland,
Romania and the Baltic States,
Daily Telegraph, 19 September 2014,
14 This was a speech of late January 2013
to the annual general meeting of the
Russian Academy of Military Sciences
on The Role of the General Staff in
the Organization of the Defense of
the Country in Correspondence with
the New Statute about the General
Staff Confirmed by the President of
the Russian Federation. See Sam
Jones, Ukraine: Russias New Art

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Ukraine and the Art of Limited War | 31

of War, Financial Times, 28 August

html#axzz3GsEd4ube; and Paul Goble,
Putins Actions in Ukraine Following
Script by Russian General Staff a Year
Ago, Interpreter, 20 June 2014, http://
15 The referendums were held on 11
May 2014. They took place after
Putin had asked that they be postponed. It was claimed that 2,252,867
had voted in favour of self-rule,
with 256,040 against, on a turnout of
nearly 75%. The 89% yes vote was
in line with what had apparently
been suggested in an intercepted call
with the organisers and a Russian
politician, but out of line with recent
opinion polling in the region. See
Ukraine Rebels Hold Referendums
in Donetsk and Luhansk, BBC, 11
May 2014,
news/world-europe-27360146; SBU
Audio Links Donetsk Republic to
Russian Involvement, Ukrainian
16 For a vivid account see Mumin
Shakirovs interview with Artur
Gasparyan, an Armenian fighting for the
separatists: I was a Separatist Fighter
in Ukraine, Guardian, 15 July 2014, http://
jul/15/separatist-fighter-russia-eastern-ukraine-interview. According
to Gasparyan, only some 20% of the
separatist militia were Ukrainian.
17 Andrew E. Kramer, Plenty of Room
at the Top of Ukraines Fading

Rebellion, New York Times, 19

August 2014, http://www.nytimes.
18 One allegation was that a purpose
of the convoy was to extract from
Ukraine material from defence plants
necessary for Russian defence production. See Reuben Johnson, Russian
Aid Convoy Committed Wide-scale
Looting, Says Ukraine, IHS Janes
Defence Weekly, 27 August 2014,
19 Adrian Croft, More Than 1,000
Russian Troops Operating in
Ukraine: NATO, Reuters, 28 August
The prime minister of the Donetsk
Peoples Republic, Alexander
Zakharchenko, reported before
Russian troops engaged fully that
1,200 fighters had trained in Russia
for four months, had crossed into
Ukraine and were ready to fight, supported by 30 tanks and 120 armoured
vehicles. He later retracted this
statement. (Roman Olearchyk and
Courtney Weaver, Separatist Leader
Boasts of Fresh Tanks and Trained
Troops from Russia, Financial Times,
16 August 2014,
He told Russian media in late August
that among the 3,0004,000 Russian
citizens fighting with the separatists were fighting serving soldiers,
who would rather take their vacation

32 | Lawrence Freedman

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not on a beach but with us, among

brothers. Serving Russian Soldiers
On Leave Fighting Ukrainian Troops
Alongside Rebels, Pro-Russian
Separatist Leader Says, Telegraph, 28
August 2014, http://www.telegraph.
Ukrainian Prime Minister
Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Ukraines
Challenges, Council on Foreign
Relations, 24 September 2014,
Lucian Kim, Ukraines Slow Descent
into Madness, Slate, 23 October
Ukraine Deal with Pro-Russian
Rebels at Minsk Talks, BBC, 20
September 2014,
Ukraine Crisis: Nato Sees
Significant Russian Troop
Pullback, BBC, 24 September
world-europe-29342463; Adrian
Croft, Russia Still Has Troops in
Ukraine, NATO Says, Reuters, 24
October 2014,
Michael R. Gordon and Andrew E.
Kramer, Russia Continues to Train
and Equip Ukraine Rebels, NATO





Official Says, New York Times, 3

November 2014, http://www.nytimes.
Ukraine Says 2,000 Russian
Servicemen Killed in Ukraine
Conflict, Reuters, 5 September
2014, http://uk.reuters.
uk-ukraine-crisis-russia-casualtiesidUKKBN0H00VY20140905. This
seems too high. There are, for obvious reasons, no authoritative Russian
Terrence McCoy, What Does
Russia Tell the Mothers of Soldiers
Killed in Ukraine? Not Much,
Washington Post, 29 August 2014,
Russian Sanctions Could Be
Eased Soon if Ukraine Progress
Made: U.S. Adviser, Reuters, 10
October 2014,
The link with Crimea was less clear.
Russia Risks Recession After
Economic Sanctions Over
Ukraine Crisis, International
Business Times, 26 September
Paul Roderick Gregory, Western
Sanctions And Rising Debts Are
Already Strangling the Russian
Economy, Forbes, 28 August 2014,

Ukraine and the Art of Limited War | 33


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For data on the dependence of
individual European countries on
Russian energy, see this New York
Times chart, updated on 2 September
The EU brokered a temporary deal
between Russia and Ukraine at the
end of October 2014. Edward C.
Chow, RussiaUkraine Gas Deal
Another Last-Minute Special, Center
for Strategic and International Studies,
31 October 2014,
Crimea Seeks Billions From Moscow
to Aid Investment Projects, Moscow
Times, 15 September 2014, http://www.
Ukraines Election: Good
Voters, Not Such Good Guys,
Economist, 1 November 2014,
europe/21629375-poll-resultswere-promising-future-ukrainedauntingly-difficult-goodvoters?zid=307&ah=5e80419d1bc9821ebe173f4f0f060a07. It is
notable that turnout was lower
in the east compared with the
west (only 32% in the Ukrainiancontrolled areas of the Donbas).
Fight Club, Economist, 11
October 2014, http://www.

Roland Oliphant, Ukraine Peace Plan
Blow As Rebels Reject Donetsk and
Luhansk Autonomy Deal, Telegraph,
17 October 2014,
Zakharchenko observed on 18 October
that we can no longer live in one
state with Ukraine. Most likely, we
will stay unrecognized. One [sic] the
one hand, this seems bad. On the
other hand, it is very good for the
economy. Being unrecognized means
more money. This means no international obligations. Donetsk Peoples
Republic Likely to Remain Formally
Unrecognized: DPR Prime Minister,
RIA Novosti, 18 October 2014, http://
34 Donetsk Forces Plan to Retake
Slaviansk, Kramatorsk, Mariupol,
RIA Novosti, 23 October 2014, http://
35 This was confirmed by the OSCE,
which was supposedly charged
with monitoring the implementation of the Minsk agreement. (See
OSCE, So-called Elections Not In
Line With Minsk Protocol, Says
OSCE Chair, Calling for Enhanced
Efforts and Dialogue to Implement
all Commitments, 31 October 2014,
But the OSCE did not monitor the
elections. Under the aegis of something mischievously described as

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34 | Lawrence Freedman





the Association of Security and

Cooperation in Europe, a number of
extremist politicians (from right and
left) validated the election. Before they
took place, Russian Foreign Minister
Sergei Lavrov had declared the results
important for legitimizing the authority of the separatist governments, and
promised to recognize their results.
David M. Herszenhorn and Andrew
Roth, Russia Backs Plan by Ukraine
Separatists for an Early Election, New
York Times, 20 October 2014, http://
Ukraine Crisis: President
Poroshenkos Threat After Rebel
Polls, BBC, 4 November 2014,
Lizzy Davies, Vladimir Putin Under
Pressure to Denounce Rival Elections
in Ukraine, Guardian, 17 October
A poll carried out in September 2014
by the International Foundation for
Electoral Systems (IFES) showed that
Ukrainians remained evenly divided
on whether a military (40%) or a negotiated solution (41%) was preferable.
Ukraines Election: Springboard for
Change?, IISS Strategic Comments, 13
October 2014,
Joint Ministerial Statement on the
Implementation of the EUUkraine
AA/DCFTA, Brussels, 12 September






Peter Spiegel, Putin Demands
Reopening of EU Trade Pact
with Ukraine, Financial Times, 25
September 2014,
In 1787, when Empress Catherine II
visited Crimea after a devastating
war, the regions governor, Grigory
Potemkin, sought to create an erroneous impression of a vibrant settlement.
This was achieved by fabricating villages on the banks of the Dnieper,
populated by Potemkins men. These
would exist for only as long as it took
for the empresss barge to pass by;
they would then be dismantled to be
reconstructed further down the river.
While this story may well be apocryphal, its essence has been a feature of
Russian practice, even during the Cold
War, to hide weakness by seeking to
create an impression of strength.
Editorial: Russias New Tactics of War
Shouldnt Fool Anyone, Washington
Post, 27 August 2014, http://www.
Timothy Snyder, To Understand
Putin, Read Orwell, Politico Magazine,
3 September 2014, http://www.
As Peter Pomerantsev put it,
Nobody who lives in that part of
the world today ever thought of
themselves as living in Novorossiya
and bearing allegiance to it at least
until several months ago. Now,
Novorossiya is being imagined into

Ukraine and the Art of Limited War | 35

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being: Russian media are showing maps of its geography, while

Kremlin-backed politicians are
writing its history into school textbooks. Peter Pomerantsev, Russia
and the Menace of Unreality: How
Vladimir Putin is Revolutionizing
Information Warfare, Atlantic, 9
September 2014,
Max Seddon, Documents Show How
Russias Troll Army Hit America,
BuzzFeed News, 2 June 2014, http://
The defection of some of RTs reporters
to the West, and the absurd nature of
some of its claims, did little for its credibility (although it is important to note
that in some parts of Europe, Russian
media sources are widely used).
In response to the capture of Russian
soldiers in Ukraine, the official line
was that they were there by accident.
Captured Russian Troops in Ukraine
by Accident, BBC News, 26 August
Before the crash was announced,
separatist leader Igor Girkin claimed
we just downed a plane, an AN-26
We have issued warnings not
to fly in our airspace. Ukraine
Separatist Social Media Site Claims
Plane Downing, Radio Free Europe,
17 July 2014,
html. (A Ukrainian AN-26 transport
had been shot down by a Russian

surface-to-air missile on 26 July.)

Shortly afterwards, Ukrainian intelligence released a radio intercept of
conversations between separatists,
available at
com/watch?v=BbyZYgSXdyw. On
9 September 2014, the Dutch Safety
Board released its report on the downing of the airliner. The report ruled
out technical failure, and cited evidence that the aircraft was penetrated
by a large number of high-energy
objects which originated from
outside the fuselage. The report concluded that the aircraft broke up in
mid-air; before this happened, there
were no communications from the
pilot or crew to suggest that there
were any problems with the flight.
All this accorded with a sudden and
catastrophic event, consistent with the
jet being destroyed by an advanced
surface-to-air missile such as a BUK.
See Dutch Safety Board, Preliminary
Report: Crash Involving Malaysia
Airlines Boeing 777-200 Flight MH17,
Hrabove, Ukraine, 17 July 2014,
September 2014,
b3923acad0ceprem-rapport-mh-17-eninteractief.pdf. German intelligence
was said to have concluded that the
aircraft was shot down by separatists.
See Deadly Ukraine Crash: German
Intelligence Claims Pro-Russian
Separatists Downed MH17, Spiegel
Online International, 19 October 2014,

36 | Lawrence Freedman

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Thomas Sherlock, Putins Public

Opinion Challenge, National Interest,
21 August 2014, http://nationalinterest.
org/feature/putins-public-opinionchallenge-11113. Polls showed high
support for Putin at 87%, but also
wariness about a prolonged conflict in
Ukraine and concern about economic
prospects. His approval rating rose to
86 percent in September from 65 percent in January, according to pollster
Levada Center, which surveyed 1,600
people across Russia over four days.
Judah, Putins Coup.
Jeffrey Michaels, Shock and Flawed: The
Discourse Trap from the War on Terror to
the Surge (London: Palgrave, 2013).
Tom Parfitt, Ukraine Crisis: Putins
Nuclear Threats are a Struggle
for Pride and Status, Telegraph,
29 August 2014,
Alexander Goltis, Russias Nuclear
Euphoria Ignores Reality, Moscow
Times, 6 October 2014, http://www.
One issue was whether the new
doctrine would discuss pre-emptive
nuclear strikes. Matthew Bodner,
Russia Hardens Military Thinking as
NATO Fizzes Over Ukraine, Moscow
Times, 7 September 2014, http://www.
Mark Galeotti, Estonian Kidnap Is
Russias Latest Provocation, Moscow
Times, 11 September 2014, http://www.
opinion/Estonian-Kidnap-Is-Russias-Latest-Provocation/. See also
Ott Ummelas and Bryan Bradley,
Lithuania Says Russia Seized Ship
as Baltic Tensions Grow, Bloomberg,
19 September 2014, http://www.
lithuania-says-russia-seized-shipas-baltic-tensions-grow.html; Nato
Reports Rise in Russia Military Flights
Over Europe, BBC, 29 October 2014, NATO reported that
it had intercepted Russian aircraft
more than 100 times so far this year
three times more than it did last year.
56 Elizabeth Pond, The End of
Deterrence? Ukraine Is At the Mercy
of Moscow Now, the West is Watching
Helplessly, IP Journal, 23 September
57 John J. Mearsheimer, Why the Ukraine
Crisis Is the Wests Fault: The Liberal
Delusions That Provoked Putin,
Foreign Affairs, SeptemberOctober
why-the-ukraine-crisis-is-the-westsfault. See replies by Michael McFaul
and Stephen Sestanovich in the
NovemberDecember issue (Faulty
Powers: Who Started the Ukraine
58 According to Sergey Karaganov,
Western strategy misunderstood
the extent to which the struggle was
about stopping others expanding
their sphere of control into territories

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Ukraine and the Art of Limited War | 37

they believe are vital to Russias survival, and also the extent to which
Russia is far stronger, and the west
far weaker, than many imagine.
Western Delusions Triggered This
Conflict and Russians Will Not Yield,
Financial Times, 14 September 2014,
59 On May 21, Mr Putin suddenly
reversed a decade of resistance and
caved in to Chinese demands for a
lower gas price, accepting $350 per
thousand cubic metres. That is 42
per cent less than the price Lithuania
pays so low that it risks depressing
natural gas prices throughout the Far
East, including for future Russian
sales to Japan. MatthewBryza, Call
Putins Bluff He Will Not Cut off
Europes Gas, Financial Times, 1
September 2014,
On Chinese caution when it comes
to doing deals with Russia, see Jack
Farchy and Kathrin Hille, Chinese
Lenders Grow Wary of Russian
Embrace, Financial Times, 13 October
2014. The $25 billion prepayment for
gas agreed in May was still said by
Gazprom to be hanging in the balance as of mid-October.
60 Russia Says Relations with US Need
New Reset, Hurriyet Daily News,
28 September 2014, http://www.
61 Speaking in Estonia on 3 September,
President Obama said: Since ultimately theres no military solution to

this crisis, we will continue to support President Poroshenkos efforts

to achieve peace because, like all
independent nations, Ukraine must
be free to decide its own destiny.
Remarks by President Obama to the
People of Estonia, Tallinn, Estonia, 3
September 2014,
remarks-president-obama-peopleestonia. While supporting sanctions,
German Chancellor Angela Merkel
said Germany will certainly not
deliver weapons, as this would
give the impression that this is a
conflict that can be solved militarily. Andrew Higgins and Neil
MacFarquhar, Ukraine President
Says Europes Security Depends on
Stopping Russia, New York Times, 30
August 2014, http://www.nytimes.
62 Philip Shishkin and Jeffrey Sparshott,
Ukraine to Get More U.S. Aid, but
Not Weapons, Wall Street Journal, 18
September 2014,
63 Mark Galeotti, Crime and Crimea:
Criminals As Allies and Agents, RFE/
RL, 3 November 2014, http://www.
64 An example here is the paramilitary
Azov Battalion, which is linked to
the Right Sector in Ukraine and was
involved in the defence of Mariupol.
Alec Luhn, Preparing for War
with Ukraines Fascist Defenders
of Freedom, Foreign Policy, 30
August 2014, Http://www.foreign-

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38 | Lawrence Freedman
65 Speech by President Vladimir Putin,
Meeting of the Valdai International
Discussion Club, 24 October 2014,
On economic sanctions he stated: We
know how these decisions were taken
and who was applying the pressure.
But let me stress that Russia is not going
to get all worked up, get offended or
come begging at anyones door.
66 On the importance of strengthening
Ukraine, including with further
cash injections, see George Soros,

Wake Up, Europe, New York Review

of Books, 20 November 2014, http://
archives/2014/nov/20/wake-upeurope/. See also Steven Mufson,
Ukraines Economy Choking Under
Russian Pressure but Western Help is
Scarce, Washington Post, 15 October
2014, http://www.washingtonpost.