Print Save as PDF +A A -A
4 June 2015

Hybrid Warfare against Ukraine

Having attacked Ukraine, the Kremlin has trapped itself in a corner, from which there is no acceptable way to escape 

Russia is waging war in Ukraine. Two wars, to be precise.

Relying on past experience with such tactics, Russia has been waging two hybrid wars in Ukraine since February 2014. The first war was conducted with the goal of annexing Crimea. The second war is being fought in Donbas with the aim of creating the republic of “Novorossiya”.

Occupying and annexing Crimea was relatively simple - Russian troops were already stationed on the peninsula. Power was seized by supporting a minor political party, “Russian Unity” and using it as a proxy force. Weak, hollowed out by corruption, and with no real leadership, the Ukrainian army did not have the means to resist. In contrast to the Crimean occupation, a classic form of hybrid war is being waged in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Russia capitalized on the discontentment in the depressed region, fomented further discord and formed a proxy force of mostly local citizens. Advisors and military experts sent from Moscow operated under their cover.

The purpose of annexing Crimea and creating “Novorossiya” is twofold. The domestic goal is for Putin and his team to maintain power. The foreign policy goal is to keep Ukraine and the post-Soviet space within the zone of Russian influence, thereby enhancing Russia’s strength on the international stage. Moscow assumed the fighting in Donbas would force the international community to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Otherwise, by not recognizing the annexation, under the tension and instability of ongoing fighting, Ukraine would deteriorate into what is commonly known as a ‘failed state.’

The Errors in Planning and Inadequate Acceptance of Responsibility

The Kremlin’s assumption was based on an obvious miscalculation. The international community is unwilling to recognize Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Moreover, support for the “Novorossiya” project in Ukraine was not nearly as strong as the Kremlin had anticipated. Except for Donetsk and Luhansk, attempts to form proxy forces prepared to join ‘Novorossiya’ in regions such as Kharkiv and Odessa, failed. With insufficient support in other regions in East Ukraine, signs of break down in the Russian proxy forces and the tragedy of the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17, the situation was getting out of hand.

The Kremlin, however, was unprepared to shift the hybrid war in Ukraine to an official and open invasion. Instead, under the auspices of a humanitarian operation, in August 2014, Russia sent troops to the Donbas region unofficially, and with only one purpose — to maintain the artificial political entities with the separatists. Continued military support was provided to the crumbling proxy forces, and the failing leadership of the ‘People’s Republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk was replaced and reformed. The army units entering Ukraine had to maintain secrecy, staying illegally for several months before the next batch would arrive to replace them. Clearly, Moscow was attempting to prolong the hybrid war, but not win it.

What explains Russia’s lack of preparedness? First, in hybrid war, the aggressor disguises its actions as being consistent with rules of international behaviour by either relying on a loophole in international law, or by taking advantage of some circumstance within the political situation which allows it to interpret the rules in the aggressors favour. By the summer of 2014, Russia’s actions had not left it any loopholes; and there was nothing in the political situation to exploit - Ukraine had not become a failed state, nor had the international community turned a blind eye to the situation.

Second, the aggressor must always be ready to take responsibility for its actions and the resulting military and political consequences. In all previous hybrid wars, aggressors accepted such responsibility. But Moscow, in virtue of its character, was not ready to accept responsibility, initially even refusing to acknowledge its annexation of Crimea. Moreover, due to state of its own political system, Russia was unable to manage the consequences of its aggressive actions, lacking the institutions capable of tackling such issues.

A Trap for the Kremlin

The Minsk Agreement of September 2014 perfectly embodies Bolshevik, Leon Trotsky’s slogan of “neither war, nor peace.” On the one hand, it did not bring Russia closer to achieving its set goals; but on the other, it gave the country a break, allowing it to replenish the proxy forces in Donbas and postpone the end of its hybrid war. In December 2014, with Moscow still set on achieving its goals, the pro-Russian forces escalated the conflict.

The war was also significantly radicalized — civilians became targets for the separatists, and a wave of terrorist attacks took place in several Ukrainian cities. This marked an attempt by Russia to create circumstances under which an acceptable way out of the war would become possible. Not finding loopholes in international rules and with the increased attention of the West on the war, a bet was made on increasing chaos and demoralization within Ukraine itself.

It was a losing bet. Russia failed to demoralize the country. To finish the war, Russia would have to shift from undeclared to open and official war. But as in the summer, the Kremlin would not take this step. It did not suit Moscow’s political goals, and the desire and ability to take responsibility for the consequences of an official open invasion were lacking.

As a result, in February 2015, a second ceasefire agreement was signed in Minsk, trapping the Kremlin and condemning it to continue the hybrid war against Ukraine. Moscow had now twice avoided ending its hybrid war in Ukraine. However, Russia still had the options of officially deploying troops or admitting defeat.

The Kremlin’s Dilemma

As of June 2015, Russia’s undeclared, hybrid war against Ukraine continues, and Moscow’s key problems have not yet been resolved. The Kremlin’s proxy forces, the separatists, are continually degrading and the Russian troops, unofficially in Ukraine, cannot maintain sufficient combat capabilities and the necessary level of morale, even with a constant rotation of units.

At the same time, the serious question emerges of whether or not the goals of the war are achievable. Under the circumstances, the Russian government cannot abandon its goals, and therefore has no choice but to believe in their attainability.

There is no doubt that Ukraine has left Moscow’s sphere of influence. The annexation of Crimea will not be internationally recognized. Russia’s political capital and reputation in the post-Soviet space have severely declined. In this hybrid war we see something never seen before, namely a situation where the aggressor has lost the initial foreign policy goal of the conflict. If ended, the war in Donbas, a consequence of the annexation of Crimea, will exacerbate all the internal issues of the peninsula now under Russian control. And as Putin’s actual goal is to maintain power in Russia, any admission of defeat for the Kremlin would bring unpredictable domestic consequences.

The essence and history of hybrid warfare indicate that in this situation, Russia is very likely to escalate the conflict and use its army more openly. However, another phase of escalation must precede open conflict. If escalated, the conflict will bring the Kremlin new hope to negotiate new conditions of peace that will allow existing rulers in Russia maintain power.  

Photo by Anton Holoborodko/ Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

© Intersection - for republishing rights, please contact the editorial team at