War Council: Crisis in Crimea – Military Strategic Considerations

Image was part of slide presentation at War Council on March 7, 2014. Image was part of slide presentation at War Council on March 7, 2014.

**NOTE: What follows are remarks from the War Council panel on the “Crisis in Crimea” on March 7, 2014.

In 1939, Churchill quipped, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Winston wouldn’t – but I feel like I owe it to you and the Profession to try.  So here goes.

We should note at the outset, strategy is inherently adversarial – which makes it seem black/white or binary – reality is like a Rubik’s cube, multifaceted shifting mosaic.  With only seven minutes to speak I’ll necessarily have to present simplifications.

Policy/Strategy – what do they want and how will they get there?

Russia

-So far, Putin has stated that he does not intend on annexing Crimea (which may change in light of the local Crimean Parliament vote – and subject to domestic Russian politics). It seems that his policy objective there is at least designed to influence and intimidate the new government.  

-His strategy for doing so is to use the threat of military force – recent reporting puts his troop strength somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000.  He’s cleverly sunk one of his own ships to create a non-violent blockade of the local Ukrainian naval forces.

American/International Community

-Emerging policy is to “de escalate” the situation:  halt the flow of Russian military forces, stop the exercises as an incremental step to eventual removal from the peninsula.

-Strategy of international isolation.  Diplomatic: skip the G8 summit.  Economically: target the oligarchs.  On March 3 and 4, “the stock markets in Russia plummeted to the lowest in five years.”

Center of Gravity – what is the opponent’s hub, or focal point that we should target?

Russia

-Foreign Minister Lavrov has said that this is fro the protection of Russian “citizens and compatriots.” One month ago on Fareed Zakaria’s program, Henry Kissinger said that Putin likely sees Kiev as a “dress rehearsal” for what we’d like to do in Moscow.  These aren’t really helpful when looking at finding a Center of Gravity.

-It’s energy.  About 30% of Russia’s GDP comes from hydrocarbons – and, more importantly, half of the state budget is funded by energy.  80% of Russian gas to Europe travels through Ukraine. Oil is no good unless you have stable shipping routes to sell.

Russia needs to sell oil at high prices.  This is like air to the Russian government.

American/International Community

-If Putin’s people are doing what I’m doing – they know that Americans are not the opposition Center of Gravity – flash polling suggest that only 18% Americans believe we have a role in Ukraine.

-The real Center of Gravity here is a unified Europe – they’re the energy customers here – particularly Germany.  Berlin is divided on this, and Angela Merkel will be key in uniting (or not uniting) the continent.  The Baltics, Sweden, Poland are in favor of strong action while the Italians, it seems, could care less.  If Putin can keep them divided, there will be no leverage economically or diplomatically.

Next Step: Range of Military Options

-The Commander in Chief needs a range of military options – from our Profession – to support the isolation strategy and de-escalatory policy.

-Retired Brigadier General Kevin Ryan has recently said, “There is no military option for what’s going on in the Crimea.”

-I think there is space for a military support role in this strategy of isolation.  As a next step, we could expand the “technical assistance” Secretary Kerry has said we would provide to Ukraine.  We could use military platforms to ensure digital connectivity for all Ukrainians.  High bandwith, independent mobile networks.  Radio Free Europe 2.0 – Digital Free Crimea – or, what I’ll call the “Russell Network.”  Here’s the logic.

-Putin is employing landpower: which we define as ability to hold, control territory.  This is immensely hard to do.

-With troop strength at 20,000 – based on force to resident ratios, this puts him historically at about half of what the British had in N. Ireland and Malaya.

-We cannot contest him in the physical space – but we can enable others to do so in what the recent book The New Digial Age has called “the world’s largest ungoverned space” – on the Internet (Schmidt and Cohen, 3).

-Crimea is not entirely Russian – 42% are not.  Putin could deny this was an invasion, but he can’t avoid an occupation.  As this goes on, it will be more uncomfortable.

-International media is still reporting the discomfort: “We are scared, we cannot go outside and speak in Ukrainian.” One Ukrainian wrote that for Tatars, “The Internet remains their only lifeline to the free world.”

-That lifeline is threatened – we’re starting to see the edges of a digital Iron Curtain.  Ukrainian language television has been cut; all TV is Russian.  Buzzfeed carries selfies with Russian soldiers.

-We can deny Russian “virtual containment.”

-Thankfully, we have an old example of the power of information in warfare – from the Crimea.  The bearded gentleman you see in the slide is William Howard Russell.  He arrived in the Crimea almost exactly 160 years ago today (end Feb 1854).  His uncensored war reporting brought the war to Britain, forced a prime minister to step down and a change in government.  Witnessing this, allied leader Napoleon III said in 1855, “At the stage of civilization in which we are, the success of armies, however brilliant they may be, is only transitory. In reality it is public opinion that wins the last victory.” (See Orlando Figes, The Crimean War)

The “Russell Network” has three distinct advantages:

-One, it empowers every Crimean citizen; overnight there’ll be tens of thousands of “citizen journalists.”

-Two, there is a permanence of data – the internet is written in ink, not pencil – so there will be a documentary record of what happens there – for the world to see.

-Third, we must maintain communications with the Ukrainian military garrisons in Crimea – for those officers; this situation is well beyond “mission command,” and reminds one of Fort Sumter in 1861 – studying that situation leads one to assess the value of communicating with the surrounded.

-The “Russell Network” provides a peripheral good: world has been horrified by our digital surveillance – maybe they would see some good in these capabilities.

-Parting thought – consider that Putin spent over $50 billion on the Sochi Olympics.  His spokesperson said the Games were “to break stereotypes about old and cold Russia.” (Alexander Wolff, “Host-ilities,” Sports Illustrated, February 3, 2014) That effort was wasted and is now essentially a complete failure.

-To paraphrase an old expression: if Putin wants to dig his own grave – we should let him.  Better yet, we should find ways to put it on display for the world to see.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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