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21 September 2015

Who is afraid of the “little green men”?

And could they, as an element of hybrid war appear in other European countries? 

After the annexation of Crimea, preceded by its occupation by the Russian troops and special ops units under the guise of unmarked “little green men”, many in the West started talking about the significance of this phenomenon in the Russian “hybrid warfare”. Western military officials seriously considered the possibility of the “little green men” appearing in NATO member states such as Estonia or Latvia that host large Russia-speaking communities and endure Russia as a neighbour. A recent publication of the Polish Institute of International Affairs discusses this topic combined with the use of nuclear threat; the topic is also in the focus of recent discussions in relation to Finland.

How can one understand the phenomenon of “little green men”? Will Russia turn to the “little green men” again to pursue its agenda in Europe?

Russian “little green men” first appeared in Ukraine in a very specific situation with the aim of occupying the Autonomous Republic of Crimea that would later be annexed. It is therefore possible to use the Crimean case as an empirical source for defining “little green men” as Russian regular troops and/or special ops units who are employed in an extensive manner on enemy territory, disguised as native insurgents in order to present the Russian occupation of this territory as an indigenous political development. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin later acknowledged the fact that “little green men” were actually Russian citizens, rather than inhabitants of Crimea, but disowning them in the period before the actual annexation bought him time and delayed Western reaction.

To get more insights into the use of “little green men” and Moscow’s tactics in general, it may be useful to consider briefly the narratives behind three cases of Russian aggression in recent years: Georgia, Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine.

When Russia attacked Georgia and occupied South Ossetia (and then Abkhazia) in August 2008, it used the narrative of the Russian citizens allegedly endangered by the Georgian forces in South Ossetia. There were indeed many Russian citizens in South Ossetia; Moscow distributed Russian passports to South Ossetians for many years. The occupation forces were not “little green men”, but Russian “peace-keepers”, and the whole operation was presented by the Kremlin as “peace enforcement”. The primary aim of the occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was to prevent Georgia from joining NATO, because this alliance cannot grant membership to states with unresolved territorial disputes.

In Crimea, despite the persistent rumours, Moscow never practiced mass distribution of Russian passports, at least not on the scale comparable to that in South Ossetia. Taking into account the significant ethnic Russian community in Crimea, the Kremlin used the narrative of the “unification of the Russian world” (russkiy mir). The “little green men” posed as local self-defence units protecting ethnic Russians from the mythic threat of Ukrainian nationalists. However, Putin dropped the concept of the “unification of the Russian world” from his public speeches immediately after the annexation – partly because this conceptual tool was useful only in the specific Crimean situation, and partly to avoid tensions with the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan that have significant ethnic Russian minorities. Putin would still publicly talk about the “Russian world” but not of its unification.

With the Donbas region, yet another narrative was introduced, namely “New Russia” (Novorossiya). Ethnic Russians were a dominant community in Crimea, but this was not the case for Donbas. The identities to which Moscow appealed in Crimea and Donbas are very different. The “Russian world” is a purely ethnic concept; “Novorossiya” is a concept that combines an ethnic Russian element and presumed internationalism of the Soviet Union to which many inhabitants of the Donbas region still adhere. Hence the use of the concept “russkiy” (ethnic Russian) for Crimea and “-rossiya” (more internationalist) – for Donbas and Eastern Ukraine in general. The Kremlin hoped to occupy more Ukrainian regions by turning them into “Novorossiya”, but unlike Crimea, “Novorossiya” was never meant to be annexed by Russia. It would only be used as a distraction from the Crimean issue, and as an “open wound” in order to have leverage on Ukrainian politics, and exhaust Ukraine economically, politically and psychologically. This also helps explain why Moscow never used the concept of the “Russian world” in relation to the occupied regions in Eastern Ukraine: the official application of this term to the East Ukrainian regions would oblige Putin’s regime – following the internal logic of the “Russian world” narrative focusing on the unification of ethnic Russians – to annex them.

Besides, the annexation of “Novorossiya” made little sense, as Russia already blocked the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO because of Crimea. Furthermore, in recent months, Moscow has significantly decreased the use of the term “Novorossiya” in relation to the occupied regions of Donbas. Ukraine’s heroic resistance and Western sanctions dramatically increased the cost of Russia’s further military adventures in Ukraine. Moscow’s newest agenda is to push the occupied territories back into Ukraine on Moscow’s terms that imply control over the country’s foreign policy. The “little green men” appeared in Donbas too, but the Kremlin has been using them in a more covert form than in Crimea. Their goal since summer 2014 has been to prevent Ukraine from wining back the occupied territories, keep the Donbas wound open, and pressure the West into negotiating of “a New Yalta agreement”.

Can “little green men” appear somewhere else? Potentially, they can appear in Belarus and Kazakhstan if these countries suddenly opt for a Western direction of their development and Russia fails to keep hold of them through political and economic pressure and corruption. Yet the military operation involving “little green men” can only be Plan B or even Plan C, because of the wide range of other measures that the Kremlin can employ without direct military involvement. For example, in Belarus, it may be easier for Moscow to act through its agents in the top Belarusian military to organise an indigenous coup d’état against Aleksandr Lukashenka and mobilise peaceful pro-Russian protesters in support of the pro-Moscow coup.

However, it appears that Belarus and Kazakhstan are the only places where “little green men” can appear as the occupation force. Their phenomenon is linked not only to specific narratives that Russia employs in particular instances of covert aggression, but also to three major technical conditions.

The first condition is ethno-cultural. The region where the Russian-speaking “little green men” can be sent must be predominantly Russian-speaking, so they do not stand out as “aliens” and, thus, compromise the operation. The second condition is logistics – the ability to deliver the Russian forces easily as a necessary condition of the covert nature of the operation. This largely means that a region in focus has to be in Russia’s immediate neighbourhood. The third condition is the need for a deficit of state power in a region and poor control of the state border. Russia smuggled the troops and special operations forces into politically disoriented Crimea via the poorly controlled Kerch Strait; in Donbas, the Russians took control of the Ukrainian-Russian border. Furthermore, it should be stressed that Ukraine and Russia have a visa-free regime, which facilitated the smuggling of “little green men” into Crimea.

Can “little green men” appear in Estonia or Latvia? Both cases seem to meet two major technical conditions. The Ida-Viru County in Estonia is dominated by the ethnic Russian population, while a significant ethnic Russian community is present in Latvian Latgale. Both regions border Russia. However, satisfying the third technical condition remains highly problematic: Estonia and Latvia are stable democracies, are in the Schengen area, and are member-states of NATO – these statuses imply the high level of border control. All other factors being equal, the extensive smuggling of “little green men” into the Ida-Viru County and Latgale seems impossible.

One should remember that at least one major aim of the Russian occupation of Moldovan Transnistria in 1992 and Georgian South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, as well the annexation of Crimea in 2014, was to prevent these countries from joining NATO, while Estonia and Latvia are already members of the Alliance. This casts further doubt into the possibility of Russia’s use of “little green men” in Estonia and Latvia, let alone other states.

It does not mean that Russia will never attempt taking significantly aggressive measures against Western countries, whether NATO member states or not. However, these measures will unlikely involve “little green men”, while the history of the Soviet special operations in the West suggest that the destabilisation of European societies will take place – and are already taking place – by employing other means.

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