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


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