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Understanding Russia’s proxy war in Eastern Ukraine

A soldier of the Russian occupation force in Ukraine
A soldier of the Russian occupation force in Ukraine
Understanding Russia’s proxy war in Eastern Ukraine

Since April 2014, Russia has been waging a proxy war in eastern Ukraine, through its increasingly escalating support of pro-Russian separatists in the ersatz Donetsk Peoples Republic and Luhansk Peoples Republic. Although Moscow has repeatedly denied supporting the pro-Russian separatists, it is clear that these rebel militias are not some rag-tag grassroots self-defence organizations, simply protecting the Russian speaking population in eastern Ukraine, but are actually well trained, well equipped, and seasoned fighters.

While no war has officially been declared by Moscow, Russia’s covert and increasingly overt support has been crucial in financing, equipping, providing personnel, and supplying intelligence to the pro-Russian separatists. However, it was not until rebels shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, with a Russian supplied BUK surface-to-air missile, that many in the Western media and policy circles began to wake-up to Moscow’s significant physical and material support for the pro-Russian separatists.

In terms of Russia’s role in providing personnel, most of the estimated 10,000 to 15,000 pro-Russian separatists are actually Russian citizens that have once served in or are currently serving in the Russian military, or are connected to the Russian military intelligence community. Social media posts in the form of pictures from soldiers in the Russian military, which appear to show their GPS location within the borders of eastern Ukraine, also gives increasing evidence that Russia is directly supplying pro-Russian separatists with personnel.

In regards to equipment, Moscow’s aid has moved beyond simply providing small arms, light weapons, and rations. Since June, it has involved an increasingly steady supply of heavy weaponry, including armored personnel carriers, tanks, artillery, Strela-2 shoulder-fired missiles, Grad rocket launchers, as well as the BUK surface-to-air missiles responsible for downing MH17. United States intelligence and Ukrainian government officials have also shown that Russian heavy artillery has repeatedly fired into Ukraine from within the Russian side of the border.

Pro-Russian separatists have certainly used terror to exert control over the population in areas occupied by the rebels, where the United Nations has estimated that more than 800 people have been abducted in eastern Ukraine alone since April. However, a significant proportion of the Russian-speaking populace of the occupied pro-Russian strongholds of eastern Ukraine have also offered tacit and even overt support for the pro-Russian separatists.

An important factor aiding in the development of civilian support for the rebels has been the effective information war that Russia is also waging in eastern Ukraine. A key problem here is Moscow’s increasingly firm control over the Russian media, which now largely promotes a stridently illiberal message that is anti-democratic, anti-capitalist, and anti-Western, to the extent of being openly adversarial to the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

In regards to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russian media repeatedly spreads blatant lies – that the Ukrainian government and military forces loyal to Kyiv are American-backed fascists, for example, or are committing near “genocide” against the Russian speakers of eastern Ukraine. Indeed, it is evident that such propaganda has had the effect that Moscow desired. Such messages are more readily accepted by large numbers of the pro-Russian population in eastern Ukraine, which already held political-cultural worldviews that tended to be more anti-Western, pro-Russian, and nostalgic towards the former Soviet Union.

While pro-Russian separatists have been consistently well armed and equipped by their Russian benefactors, Ukrainian forces have at times been burdened by irritants, such as a lack of food rations, water, and weapons to adequately supply its soldiers at the front. With its government financially strapped, Ukraine is in desperate need of increased financing and support from the West, especially if this conflict stretches out into the long-term. What is most interesting is the extent of their grass-roots support, where average Ukrainians have volunteered or given financial donations to help supply Ukrainian military forces fighting the pro-Russian separatists. In spite of significant adversity, Ukrainian forces have captured large amounts of ground previously held by the rebels, and are currently preparing for an assault on the separatist holdout in Donetsk.

However, in the past week, NATO sources have also reported that close to 20,000 Russian troops are stationed close to the Ukrainian border, which represents a significant increase from the 12,000 stationed two weeks ago. Crucial is how Russia’s proxy forces in Donetsk will fare against an expected major assault by Ukrainian forces. Indeed, their defeat may very well be used as an excuse for Moscow to invade and occupy eastern Ukraine, under the guise of a “peacekeeping” or “humanitarian” mission. Certainly, the Ukrainian assault on the pro-Russian stronghold of Donetsk, to say nothing of subsequent Russian invasion, has real potential of further increasing military and civilian casualties – beyond the over 1,300 killed and 4,000 wounded since hostilities commenced, according to the United Nations.

With this in mind, questions will continue this week as to the true intentions of the convoy of Russian trucks, which remains stalled along the Ukraine border: Is it delivering humanitarian aid, en route to provide support to the separatists, or perhaps something worse?

Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and de facto invasion of eastern Ukraine, via Moscow’s support for pro-Russian separatist proxies, illustrates that historical patterns of Russian imperialism never went away after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Russia’s tactics in Crimea and eastern Ukraine only serve to show the extent to which President Vladimir Putin and other officials in Moscow disregard the sovereignty of the states of the former Soviet Union, such as Ukraine. This is troublesome; many Russian elites continue to share a similar worldview as Putin, who yearns to restore Russia’s hegemonic position in the region. In this view, Moscow treats Ukraine as Russia’s natural and rightful sphere of influence.

What threatens Putin the most is not the relative military threat that NATO and the European Union pose, but the fact that the expansion of these clubs into the former Communist states of Eastern Europe has historically brought a general trend towards both democratization and economic liberalization. Such trends directly threaten the authoritarian order in Moscow under Putin.

So Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and current de facto invasion of eastern Ukraine should not come as a surprise. Moscow has during the past 80 years actually invaded foreign countries and planted the flag to claim territory. Indeed, Russia’s recent actions look strikingly similar not only to Moscow’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, but also to the past Soviet invasions of Poland, the Baltic States, and Finland at the beginning of the Second World War. It also mirrors Moscow’s crushing of anti-Soviet revolts in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Moscow’s failed attempt to forcefully quash pro-independence movements in Lithuania and Latvia in the final days of the USSR.

Moscow’s proxy war in Ukraine is a prime example of an increasingly resurgent and atavistic Russia flexing its muscles, and should not be taken lightly. It’s time for EU members and their Western allies in NATO to act together against the authoritarian, revanchist and imperialistic behavior of Putin, and send a message that such behavior is unacceptable. The EU and NATO nations must also speak loudly to send a message to all Ukrainians who yearn for democracy, human rights and individual freedoms – that the Western democracies stand in solidarity with them.


David J. Meadows holds a PhD in Political Science (Dalhousie), with expertise specializing in the politics of Eastern Europe, Russia and Eurasia, and is also a Research Fellow at the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University. You can follow him on Twitter @David_J_Meadows.

This piece was first published in the SSR Resource Centre’s The Hub, and is republished with permission from the Centre for Security Governance.

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