UKRAINE'S ORANGE BLUES - TIME FOR A HYBRID WAR AGAINST RUSSIA?

26.11.14


WORLD AFFAIRS.  Should Ukraine embark on a “hybrid war” against the Donbas enclave controlled by Russia and its proxies? One of Ukraine’s best military analysts, Yuri Butusov, the Russian-speaking editor of the Censor.net website, effectively argues that the answer is yes.

Hybrid war is the term analysts apply to what many believe is Russia’s new way of war-making in southeastern Ukraine, one that employs a variety of means—propaganda, subversion, outright aggression, support for proxies, and the like—while remaining undeclared or denied.

Butusov believes that the recent G-20 summit in Australia confronted Russia’s illegitimately elected president, Vladimir Putin, with a “new reality of world politics” and “an anti-Putin front.” Butusov is therefore “99 percent certain” that Russia will refrain from attacking Ukraine, because Putin now understands that “any further escalation” will result in “new packets of sanctions much more quickly. And Russia is already paralyzed by the drop in world prices for raw materials.”

Moreover, Ukraine’s current focus on an exclusively defensive strategy isn’t sustainable in the long run. “We cannot,” writes Butusov, “construct rows of trenches and fill them with soldiers along the whole line of the front.” As a result, the Russian militants are always able to take the initiative, strike unexpectedly wherever they want to, and inflict casualties on the Ukrainian army. Such attrition is both demoralizing and destabilizing.

Butusov therefore suggests that Kyiv change its tactics—from playing defense to playing offense, but with “a scalpel.” Ukraine needs a “new concept of military activities.” 

It is imperative that quick-response strike forces be created on the basis of existing formations and that systematic work be conducted toward liquidating the knots of resistance and the units of the adversary. Our defense should be proactive. The enemy should not remain in peace. We need a war of diversionary groups, howitzers and mortars, large armored units, and well-defended convoys.

In a word, Butusov is recommending that Ukraine adopt hit-and-run tactics against the Russian proxies, engage in surgical strikes against strategic targets, both on the front line and in the occupied Donbas, and thereby force the terrorists to dig in, anticipate, and lose the initiative. Ukraine’s offensive actions would therefore mirror Russia’s hybrid war. Ukrainian “little green men” and diversionary units would strike at vulnerable targets in the rear, while lightly armed commandoes enjoying the support of mobile artillery units would harass the Russians and their proxies along the whole length of the front. 

Here are the two key elements of Butusov’s plan:

  1. We can drive out the Russian Federation from the Donbas, but for that we need to conduct a genuine war—without flags, without PR, without advertising. Without any large attacks or maneuvers. Instead, locally, surgically, and fatally.
  2. There should be one goal of the war: to inflict maximal casualties on the armies of the occupiers.

First, Kyiv would neither discuss what it is up to nor admit to having a Ukrainian military presence behind enemy lines. Like Moscow, Kyiv would adamantly insist that the attacks are being launched by local resistance to the proxies. Second, the goal of the offensive would not be to win back territory—at least not immediately—but to impose unacceptable casualties on Putin’s forces.

Would Butusov’s plan work? It’s obviously premised on the inability or unwillingness of Putin to launch a full-scale attack on Ukraine. If he does not or cannot, Ukraine’s hands are free. If he does, hit-and-run tactics may still be useful, but Ukraine’s primary task would then be to defend its territory. As I’ve written many times, we have no idea what Putin will or will not do. In that case, either you may agree with Butusov or you may not.

But there would be two ancillary advantages to Butusov’s strategy. First, localized strikes would not offer Russia the option of claiming that it must launch a full-scale attack in response to a Ukrainian offensive. Since Ukraine would purposely eschew “large attacks or maneuvers,” Russia would be placed in the same position Ukraine has been in for much of 2014: continually facing small-scale attacks that, individually, never quite merited a massive response.

 

Second, thanks to Kyiv’s cut-off of government subsidies, social unrest in the Donbas enclave has noticeably increased, with locals demanding that the proxies provide them with money and goods. The unrest is sure to intensify as the temperatures drop in the months ahead. Butusov’s plan would both build on and contribute to such unrest. Seen in this light, disrupting separatist rule behind the lines could turn out to be the best way of weakening separatist forces on the front lines.

Alexander J Motyl



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