Russian operations in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine show that the Russian military has learned some tactical and perhaps even operational lessons from Fourth Generation fighters. An article in the April 22 New York Times, “New Prowess for Russians,” states that Western experts
see a military disparaged for its decline since the fall of the Soviet Union skillfully employing 21st century tactics that combine cyberwarfare, an energetic information campaign, and the use of highly trained special operations troops to seize the initiative from the West…
Military experts say that the sort of strategy the Kremlin has employed in Ukraine is likely to work best in areas in which there are pockets of Russians to provide local support.
By using small numbers of highly trained men whose uniforms have no national insignia, the Russian military is showing its understanding of the advantages 4GW elements gain from not being state armed forces. As John Boyd argued, ambiguity works as well as deception, and the ambiguity of the “green men” allows Russia a wide variety of options, military and diplomatic. Critically, it allows its forces to avoid the delegitimizing designation of “foreign invaders,” a designation the American armed forces suffered from heavily in Iraq and Afghanistan. If an operation fails, Russian prestige is not on the line, because it can deny ownership. If it succeeds, Russia can give the credit to the locals, strengthening the legitimacy of the elements it supports.
As the Times noted, the current Russian approach depends on a supportive ethnically Russian population. Here Russia has drawn on another aspect of 4GW, namely the fact that ethnic loyalty increasingly trumps national loyalty. By leveraging loyalty to “Mother Russia” among ethnically Russian citizens of Ukraine, Russia has been able to maintain a light footprint, reducing the diplomatic and economic price of her actions.
This, however, is a double-edged sword for Russia. The Russian Federation includes many peoples who are ethnically non-Russian. Others can use them as the Kremlin has used ethnic Russians.
Here we begin to see a lesson from 4GW which Russia has not yet learned: once the disintegration of a state is set in motion, it is very difficult to halt or reverse. Russian actions are destroying an already fragile state in Ukraine. The Kremlin appears to believe it can spur or reign in state disintegration in eastern Ukraine, pushing it far enough to prevent Ukraine from joining the West but halting before the east becomes anarchic. That may be optimistic.
While the West assumes events in eastern Ukraine are driven by Moscow, just as Moscow says events in Kiev are driven by the West, there is increasing evidence that, green men or no, local Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine are not taking orders from anyone. Local struggles for power and loot are becoming more influential than any outside actors. A “Brinton thesis” cascade of small coups, leading ever toward the greatest extreme, may already be underway. If so, chaos will spread, deepen, and defy all efforts at control, regardless of who is behind them. Moscow needs to remember that it can no more order the tide to retreat than can Washington.
For states, playing with 4GW is playing with fire. Some tactics and techniques may be drawn from it and used effectively by states. But states need to remember that those tactics and techniques work best in a weakening state and also contribute to a state’s dissolution. The emergence of new stateless regions is in no state’s interest. However clever its tactics, if Russia finds itself facing prolonged stateless disorder in eastern Ukraine, it will have failed strategically. A higher level of war trumps a lower. Stavka should know that, and so inform President Putin.