Crimea taught us a lesson, but not how the Russian military fights

May 19, 2014

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With the rapid operation that resulted in the annexation of Crimea earlier this year, the Russian military returned to the collective consciousness of the American public. Many commentators were impressed with the “little green men’s” professional demeanor and shiny new equipment. In some cases, this impression was undeservedly expanded to apply to the rest of the Russian military. In this context, it is important to discuss what the Crimean operation does and does not tell us about the capabilities of the Russian military.

The first clear lesson from the Crimean operation is that the Russian military understands how to carry out operations with a minimal use of force. This observation may initially seem banal or trivial, but we should keep in mind how Russian troops acted in previous operations in Chechnya and even to some extent in Georgia. Subtlety was not a strong suit in these operations, nor did it seem to be particularly encouraged by the political leadership. Instead, the goal seemed to be to use overwhelming force without much regard for civilian casualties. By contrast, the entire operation in Crimea was conducted with virtually no bloodshed or violence. There were three keys to this success:

Diversionary tactics

The Swedish analyst Johan Norberg was perhaps the first to highlight the significance of the major military exercise that was held on Ukraine’s eastern border in late February. While the Ukrainian government, as well as Western analysts and intelligence agencies, were distracted by the large-scale publicly announced mobilization in Russia’s Western military district, forces from the Southern military district and from airborne and Special Forces units located elsewhere in Russia were quietly transferred to Sevastopol.

Pre-emptive action

Russia’s intervention began while the world’s attention was still focused on the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, with orders being issued and troops transferred into Sevastopol before the closing ceremonies. The newly installed Ukrainian government was still trying to consolidate its power in Kyiv, while the international community was waiting to see what sorts of policies the new government would pursue and whether it would attempt to reconcile the pro-Russian and pro-EU segments of the population. The Russian government, on the other hand, determined that the overthrow of President Yanukovych posed a serious threat to its interests in Ukraine while at the same time providing an opportunity to resolve the position of the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea once and for all. Accordingly, it acted quickly to take control of the Crimean peninsula, using the political chaos in Ukraine as both a pretext and as cover for the intervention.

Rapid deployment

The Russian military used the element of surprise in combination with the prior presence of its troops at bases on Crimea to take control of the peninsula before the Ukrainian government and the international community had time to fully understand what was happening. The use of troops without insignia was an integral component of this action, as it allowed the Russian government to deny its complicity in the occupation of local government buildings and the blockading of Ukrainian military facilities. These denials created enough confusion to allow for the consolidation of Russian control over the region. Ukrainian troops were essentially confined to their bases before the government could provide them with orders to counter Russian activity.

Capable Special Forces

The next lesson learned from Russia’s operation in Crimea is that Russian Special Forces are well-trained and highly capable of carrying out special operations. The forces that were used in the operation represent some of the most elite units in the Russian military, including GRU (military intelligence) Special Forces, airborne units, and naval infantry. Of these, only the last is regularly based in Sevastopol. Based on their actions in Crimea, we saw that Russian Special Forces are equipped with far more modern equipment than what was quite recently considered standard issue for the Russian military. Individual soldiers were seen wearing new kit with better body armor, encrypted radios, and night vision equipment Advanced electronic warfare equipment was also used during the operation.  In addition, the forces were distinguished by their ability to act in a restrained and “polite” fashion in tense situations where a single instance of the indiscriminate use of deadly force could have quickly turned a tense but largely non-violent situation into a large-scale violent confrontation. Again, the Russian military has not heretofore been known for this type of activity.

The Crimean operation didn’t teach us much, however, about the fighting capabilities of any of these forces, since no actual fighting occurred. Analysts were left to speculate that encrypted radios mean that local commanders were now being given more leeway on how to conduct operations on the ground or that improvements in communications and organizational structure had improved coordination across services. But the actual operations in Crimea tell us nothing about the extent to which the well-equipped and seemingly well-trained forces are actually capable of conducting autonomous operations, or the extent to which the Russian military has increased its ability to conduct complex combined arms operations that involve ground, naval, and air units all working together against a capable enemy. What’s more, we haven’t learned anything about the capabilities of regular Russian military units, since these units were not involved in the Crimea operation except as decoys on Ukraine’s eastern borders.

Political Lessons of Crimea

The most important set of lessons that Russia’s annexation of Crimea has taught other countries may be political in nature, and apply especially to the other former Soviet states. First of all, having Russian bases on the territory of one’s state makes an invasion much easier to carry out. Russian naval bases in Crimea were used as a beachhead for covertly moving Russian forces into Ukraine. Since the number of troops actually based in Crimea was significantly lower than the maximum of 25,000 agreed to between Russia and Ukraine in the 1997 treaty that regulated the status of the Black Sea Fleet, Russia could even claim that the increase in the number of Russian troops in Crimea did not violate the relevant treaty.* This precedent should be a concern to Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and other states with Russian troops stationed on their territory.

Second, former Soviet states need to watch out for Russian agents and collaborators working in their security and military forces. One of the reasons for the ineffectiveness of Ukraine’s military and security response in Crimea and subsequent covert activities in the country’s east is that that Ukraine’s secure communications channels are almost certainly compromised by Russian agents. Most other former Soviet states most likely have similar problems, though perhaps not to the same extent.

Finally, perhaps the most dangerous of Vladimir Putin’s statements regarding the crisis is his claim that Russia will defend ethnic Russians living outside of the country’s current borders. This statement in effect creates a potential fifth column in several former Soviet states. Russia could use the pretext of discrimination against ethnic Russians to launch future interventions in Kazakhstan, Latvia, and Lithuania, even if the actual ethnic Russians living in these states are not interested in Russian assistance.

Until February, most analysts considered Russia a status quo state in the international arena. The annexation of Crimea and Putin’s subsequent statements show that Russian leaders are not happy with their country’s current boundaries and have the tools to destabilize neighboring states. The U.S. government and the leaders of other Western states must take into account the potential for further Russian aggression against neighboring states in developing their policy toward Russia and Eastern Europe.


*The treaty required Russia to notify Ukraine of significant troop movements, so the failure to observe that provision was in violation of the treaty even though the numbers remained within permitted levels.


Dmitry Gorenburg is a senior research scientist in the Strategic Studies division of CNA, a not-for-profit research and analysis organization. Dr. Gorenburg is also the editor of the journals Problems of Post-Communism and Russian Politics and Law and an associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He has previously taught in the Department of Government at Harvard University and served as Executive Director of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS). He holds a Ph.D in political science from Harvard University and a B.A. in international relations from Princeton University. He blogs on issues related to the Russian military at


Photo credit: Pavel Kazachkov

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7 thoughts on “Crimea taught us a lesson, but not how the Russian military fights

  1. Another important lesson is that regardless of NSA and it’s allied western agencies such as Swedish FRA and bittish GCHQ listens to all our internet traffic, it could not prevent or even give a heads up on the situation.

    Instead it was the Russian telecom spying that leaked information to the public about intercepted phone call of the Turkish prime minister Erdogan’s money movements.

    Is’s obvious the Russian government and military has found ways to communicate without leaking information that could give away such a large scale operation as a classic invasion, which is mind blowing.

    It must have been impossible for NSA NOT knowing something. Lots of Russian soldiers use smart phones and make YouTube videos and instagram all the time. Of course they are not allowed when on operations. But some of them must have emailed their girl friends or sent messages on social media while stationed as a “green man” in Crimea. If NSA would have leaked the identities of the “green men” and matched photos as proof even the most skeptical would have had a hard time denying that it was Russian forces.

    Now it was a matter for military specialists of recognizing special equipment. Most civilians don’t get that logic and also it does not prove their identities, just that the person has the hardware in possession it could have bought on the civilian market or loaned.

    If NSA spying only is working for trying to get Muslim terrorists, then it’s a waste of money. It would have been an excellent opportunity for NSA to prove to both the American citizens and also the angry Europeans that NSA can do good in times when the old Russian bear wakes up. But NO. Either it’s because they didn’t have any information or did a terribly bad analysis or worse, keeping the information secret because it would reveal their capability to the enemy, thus sacrificing Ukraine for it. As Russia clearly already have a good understanding of NSA capability.

    The the American and European response and counter measures have been nothing but a joke.

    On the same time Russia has had what to the civilian eye looks like democratic elections, winning ceremonies with artits and fireworks, handed out new custom made medals, sent in new equipment like brand new firetrucks, etc, issued new passports. While the EU and US had agreed to freeze 12 bank accounts.

    Wow! Impressive actions….NOT.
    EU could not even agree to stop selling military Equipment. Less do something about the big cash cow of Russia – Gas export.

  2. The author seems surprised that Russian troops are equipped similarly to other modern armies. Why is that even worth a mention?
    Separately, Wesstern media and governments have frequently accused the Russian military of using “indiscriminate force” in Chachnya and Georgia.
    But the US did the exact same in Iraq, when it encountered strong opposition in urban combat as in Fallujah, which they proceded to flatten.
    In Georgia, in contrast, the Russians used minimal force and withdrew within days of dismantling the Georgian army without ever going further and occupying the country or overthrowing its government.

  3. This article overlooks the most important factor in the Russian military’s success: the seizure of Crimea was supported by an overwhelming majority of the local population. While the 75% ethnic Russian population of the peninsula had long wanted to rejoin Russia, the Kremlin orchestrated a very effective info campaign after Yanukovich was ousted. This narrative impressed upon the pro-Russian audience in Crimea the danger that the “pro-Western, quasi-Nazi, Bandera-like junta” would have for ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. As a result, the “polite” Russian forces were viewed as true liberators among most Russians in Crimea.

    1. Ray, you write like a Russian troll. Crimean people did not greet Russian troops as liberators and only 4% of the Crimean residents wanted to join Russia – this is the result that Aksyonov’s pro-Russian party ‘Russian Unity’ received in 2010 in Crimean parliamentary elections.

      Even Putin’s own Human Rights Council, in its report “Problems of Crimean Residents,” about the March 16 referendum in Crimea acknowledged that: “In Crimea, according to various indicators, 50-60% voted for unification with Russia with a voter turnout of 30-50%.” So in total between 15%- 30% of Crimea population voted for the annexation. This confirms the UN report that the Crimean referendum was neither legal nor legitimate and the true preferences of the majority of the Crimean population were blatantly falsified, including those of the Tatar population.

      1. “Even Putin’s own Human Rights Council, in its report “Problems of Crimean Residents,” about the March 16 referendum in Crimea acknowledged that: “In Crimea, according to various indicators, 50-60% voted for unification with Russia with a voter turnout of 30-50%.” So in total between 15%- 30% of Crimea population voted for the annexation.”

        Oh dear, so we should not bring up US elections then.
        By that standard, the US is an ‘outlaw nation and bombing will begin in five minutes’ as Reagan would say

  4. What amazes me is that how author speak with confidence about what other countries should do. “Annexation of Crimea”? How come you forgot to note that more than 90% of local population voted for joining Russia in a referendum?

    “Destabilize neighboring states”? Am I missing something here? Remind me how the situation in Georgia and Ukraine started.. Didn’t it started with involvement of US and EU in those countries? I am not even going to mention middle east and Libya. US and EU shouldn’t even dare to accuse anyone of “destabilization of region”.

    On top of everything, our dear friends from the west always like to stick their noses where they don’t belong. Everyone is an expert on the subject of post-soviet populace opinions all of the sudden. “They should be afraid! They need to beware! Even if the Russians do not support! They must do this! They must do that!” And, as usual, no one gives a damn about the actual people who live in those countries. The truth is: Cultures in the entire post-soviet area are so blended together, that 9 of 10 families will have relatives in the neighboring countries. People lived together for centuries. Leave them alone and deal with your own local problems.